Things I Meant To Post Last Week

This is a pretty interesting piece by John McWhorter comparing how Obama and Steele use the cadence and jargon of black English. Shockingly, I have only one minor quibble:

The black English cadence is an accent (just as the mainstream English cadence is). Yet Obama did not grow up with it. At 16 and 17 he was in Hawaii; before that he had been in Indonesia. Surely he didn't pick up the cadences of Oakland in either locale. (Maybe today, with the reign of hiphop, he might have, since "Ebonics" is increasingly a youth "dialecta franca." But in the mid-70s hiphop's worldwide breakout was years away.) 

Obama himself does not describe "learning to speak like a black American"--it was likely an unconscious process, part of coming to feel part of the culture in his late twenties as he settled in Chicago. Thus there is no claim here that Obama is a phony: people generally do not take on accents deliberately. Many of us have friends who moved to England as adults and have lived there for several years. They wind up with halfway English accents--but not on purpose.

McWhorter goes on to call Obama a "gifted mimic." I'm not convinced that Obama wasn't exposed to black English until he got to Chicago. It's true that there aren't a lot of blacks in Hawaii, at Occidental or Harvard. But we shouldn't confuse a minority black environment with one where there are no blacks.

Many of my current friends are black people who grew up in lily white neighborhoods--but that doesn't mean they didn't have any contact with black culture. My B-More brogue may be a little thick, but on the basics of Ebonics, I've got nothing on them. Moreover (if I'm remembering right)  Obama actually describes, in his memoir, going to black parties, as well as his black friends in Hawaii. Also, again if I'm remembering right, his mother made an effort to expose him to black culture. 

Maybe, I've got this wrong. I'm betting that I've got more than a few readers who grew up like Obama who can weigh in.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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