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Speaking American: Obama and the National Sublime

What is Barack Obama's appeal all about? This essay argues that Obama speaks to most Americans because he speaks American and has trained himself in the oratorial traditions of the "national sublime", the language of mainstream American politics silenced during the Bush era.



Speaking American: Obama and the National Sublime

Tani Barlow

What is Barack Obama’s appeal all about? This essay argues that Obama speaks to most Americans because he speaks American and has trained himself in the oratorial traditions of the “national sublime”, the language of mainstream American politics silenced during the Bush era.

A historian of modern China, Tani Barlow ( is at the Chao Center for Asian Studies at Rice University in Houston, Texas, United States.

ast year Barack Obama told a reporter that his favourite television show was The Wire. He said his favourite character was Omar, the gangsta who robs local drug gangs and redistributes the take in the Baltimore Maryland neighbourhood where the story is set. Obama gave this interview during the campaign, and since then much has been made of Obama’s fondness for the gay hoodlum Omar (http://featuresblogs. tv/2008/01/barack-obama-on.html). But I tend to think that Obama may love the drama because of its longing for redemption and its loving satire of a national belief that raw energy and brutal talent can be harnessed and may be regulated into a form that can deliver abundance to all of god’s children. Decadence in the street and justice on the mountain top is what Omar speaks in his virtually incomprehensible Baltimore street patois. (I am surely not the only middle class viewer who puts the DVD subtitles on from time to time.) But the point is that Obama does not speak Omar’s dialect: Barack speaks the national sublime.

Omar lives in a zero sum game but is not part of it, because his whole point is to get some justice done. Eerily, the game the players play in The Wire is the US finance capital bubble that burst last October. It is eerie because the show ended before the bubble burst. But the five-year HBO TV saga looked at the bubble economy from the perspective of the drug trade and its

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corruption of every civic body in the metaphoric town of Baltimore. Like everywhere in the US, “Baltimore” is a place where the economy makes nothing but still manages to make money. It does so by extracting profits out of the zombie-like fiends who trade in dope and fuel the brutal world

where revenue streams come because “everyone’s got their hand in the other guy’s pocket”. Corruption and betrayal are the norm, just like the Clinton capitalism of The Sopranos or The Godfather from the Nixon era. As in the earlier versions, The Wire shows how the social logic of the drug gangs infects civic life as much as the government. The docks and the bars of a now out-sourced and vacated space that once sheltered the white ethnic working class are prime real estate for upper middle class “work live lofts” and boutiques. A gay and murderous thug, Omar lives the latest nationalist parable where the gangstas morph a new version of the game around the best efforts of the imperfect “po-leece” to stop them. But it does not work. Time after time gangsters overdosing on cash fail to stabilise their markets. Shit is always happening, and things are always falling apart as the phosphoric blaze of drug money lights up the landscape in yet another brutal collapse.

National Parable

The Wire is great for many reasons but an important one is that it is a good American story that could also be good for the rest of the planet to hear. Sure, it is a national parable and so it is nationalist. And yes, this longing for redemption goes with the long-standing infatuation of the American mass media with law and order. But The Wire is American in a way that matters to me and I think it matters in the same way to Obama. Which is why Zadie Smith’s “Speaking in Tongues” (originally a Decem ber

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2008 speech, published in The New York Review of Books, 29 February 2009) annoyed me, because it gets the parable all wrong. She says we are a version of Britain and its colo nial colour politics. She says Barack Obama is a Macaulay figure, lost like Eliza Doolittle in the ether world of the person who passes, who gives up her m other tongue.

But that is not our drama. It has not been since white middle class matrons discovered that Oprah Winfrey not only spoke two dialects of English – white middle class and black working class – but could also be relied on to get a large range of mid-level differences spot-on perfect. Because she pioneered confessional TV in Chicago, grew up in the American South and has a great ear, Oprah speaks it all. She is forever mixing a faux, joshing black middle class dialect with a formal college English straight out of the media flattened general population. Her facility with languages is such that you are no longer sure which one is more central to her persona. Certainly it is not the “black” she speaks on TV because she came out of a family so poor and so country that her first dialect would have sounded a lot more like Sethe (in the 1998 movie-version of Toni Morrison’s Beloved) than urban jive. Oprah, like Obama, does not subordinate any one dialect of our English to another.

Sorry, Zadie, the metaphor is all wrong. Barack Obama is not “what Macaulay called ‘the philosophic historian’” in the infamous Minute on India Education. He is not a representative of an interpreter class standing half way between the Indians and the English, “Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste”, and so on. Obama is not using his voice “to refine the vernacular dialects of the country”. He is not really using a voice at all because what he is “speaking” is our national sublime, which is a wiry and terse form of written English. That is what lies behind the Right’s accusation that Obama cannot speak without a teleprompter. It is consistent with former slave Frederick Douglass’s belief that the written language is as powerful as the spoken. Maybe Douglass thought so because he was breaking the law when he learned how to read, but the last of his axiomatic three keys to success was to use the written and the spoken language for

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l iberation. Even as literary metaphor, Barack Obama’s voice – a flat twang with some Chicago and some Cambridge but no Hawaii – is not the issue.

The man writes his speeches in long hand. He drafts them in the prose of Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Malcolm X and John Kennedy. The president is not a native of the “republic of imagination”, Zadie Smith’s second problematic assertion about Obama. For Smith, this is a republic peopled by those whose blinding singularity is the effect of their inclination toward poetic expression, “unburdened by dogma and personal bias, thus flooded with empathy” (Smith: 44). But Barack Obama’s great insight is that communicable experience is multiple. He is not trying to speak white or speak black, nor is he attempting to “pass” between these archetypal American polarities. And it is not that he equivocates on the colour line, unless it is the equivocation of the politician who must speak to the gap where future manoeuvres may have to happen.

“I chose to run for the presidency at this

moment in history”, he wrote: because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together... I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton’s Army during second world war and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. …I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible. This is his nationalist message.

The Peoples’ Projection

Partly because he is photogenic and so telegenic, even more than Tiger Woods or John Kennedy, you tend to focus on his body and forget that teleprompter with all those written, lawyerly words. In my childhood there were men who looked like him. They were the “Black Muslims” who had close cropped hair and no extra flesh, because they did not drink alcohol and did not eat pork or packaged foods. But no one projected desire onto them then in the way we do now, though the self-discipline that Obama has used to

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produce this version of himself is no doubt similar. How disciplined his photomessage is: pure self with no extras that can be identified – unless you count the expensive, beautifully designed suit, hair, skin, whitened teeth, cosmetics, etc. But these are superficial compared to the power of the desires transferred onto this man. We want a caring leader who is masculine and intelligent, even omnisciently intelligent, and untainted by those political thieves, the Bush people. The voters loved Bush when they thought this was their ticket to world dominance; but now they find him shameful, never themselves.

People are frightened here. Few have ever faced hardships on this scale. They seek the warmth of disciplined compassion, which is what they are projecting onto the calm, tight, skinny, smart man. In fear Americans turn to political oratory.

“The world has not escaped from the darkness”, Kennedy’s speech writers wrote in his address before the 18th G eneral Assembly of the United Nations on 20 September 1963,

The long shadows of conflict and crisis envelop us still. But we meet today in an atmosphere of rising hope, and at a moment of comparative calm. My presence here today is not a sign of crisis, but of confidence. I am not here to report on a new threat to the peace or new signs of war. I have come to salute the United Nations and to show the support of the American people for your daily deliberations. For the value of this body’s work is not dependent on the existence of emergencies – nor can the winning of peace consist only of dramatic victories. Peace is a daily, a weekly, a monthly process, gradually changing opinions, slowly eroding old barriers, quietly building new structures. And however undramatic the pursuit of peace, that pursuit must go on.

We are an aural people in the end, wherever we originate. My people came from the dirt farms and bars and janitors closets of the mid-western, white, lower class centre of America, and from New York City’s Russian Jewish slums. We were all “white” but typically riven by ethnic, class, and regional differences. And even then I grew up listening to scratchy recordings of Paul Robeson and Marion Anderson. Our majoritarian roots are sunk deep in preachers and pulpits, psalms and hymns, work songs, praise songs, recited poems and the constant presence of


r ecorded mass music. So Obama’s speeches are familiar and moving, because we are all from Africa when it comes to listening to the language of state, and Obama is a reassuring orator. This is true not because Obama is particularly versed in black language but because African American is a regionalism, spoken to some degree by all our Southern presidents from Lyndon Johnson to William Clinton, and inte grated into the language of state through the oratory of Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X and Jesse Jackson (among other African Americans). And yes, Barack Obama also speaks the Harvard of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, but that is not a diffe rent language. What Americans seem to have forgotten about JFK is how African his inflection was and how full of sentiment, a trademark of the oddly intimate political language of this country’s presidency.

Barack Obama sounds more like Malcolm X whose close, clipped declarative speech has nothing of the street in it.

You and I were born at this turning point on history; we are witnessing the fulfilment of prophecy. Our present generation is witnessing the end of colonialism, Europeanism, Westernism, or “White-ism”...the end of white supremacy, the end of the evil white man’s unjust rule.

That is Malcolm X. When Malcolm X put aside religious sectarianism, he turned to the same civic force that politicians in this country have always turned to for salvation – capitalism.

So our people not only have to be re-educated to the importance of supporting black business, but the black man himself has to be made aware of the importance of going into business. And once you and I go into business, we own and operate at least the businesses in our community. What we will be doing is developing a situation wherein we will actually be able to create employment for the people in the community. And once you can create some – some employment in the community where you live it will eliminate the necessity of you and me having to act ignorantly and disgracefully, boycotting and picketing some “cracker” some place else trying to beg him for a job.

This 1964 speech, “The Ballot or the Bullet”, is ranked seventh in the list of the best 100 political speeches in American English, right there with President Lyndon Johnson’s 15 March 1965 speech, “We Shall Overcome”. Both are speeches Barack Obama could have delivered, so carefully did Johnson and Malcolm X edit out of their presentations any southern folk cadence, and so carefully did J ohnson’s speech writers monitor his sentence length, the declarative verbs, the sliver of the national sublime.

The Johnson speech reads:

In our time we have come to live with the moments of great crisis. Our lives have been marked with debate about great issues – issues of war and peace, issues of prosperity and depression. But rarely in any time does an issue lay bare the secret heart of America itself. Rarely are we met with a challenge, not to our growth or abundance, or our welfare or our security, but rather to the values, and the purposes, and the meaning of our beloved nation. The issue of equal rights for American Negroes is such an issue. And should we defeat every enemy, and should we double our wealth and conquer the stars, and still be unequal to this issue, then we will have failed as a people and as a nation. …There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem. And we are met here tonight as Americans – not as Democrats or Republicans. We are met here as Americans to solve that problem.

The revulsion Obama feels against the epoch that has inflicted US profligacy on global finance markets is reflected in our public language use. It is not just that the derivatives and the leveraged commo dities had drifted so far away from pro perty that they no longer had a connection to the capitalist game, to real value. It is that the language of the last eight years has mirrored the economic deregulatory fiasco.


In one of the episodes of The Wire, a couple of (black) middle managers from the local Barksdale drug cartel are looking out of a window at two or three “wiggars” (or white niggers, whites trying to pass as street-cool blacks) perform African American street rituals, the elaborate pat-down handshakes and embraces, aerobic hand gestures, exchange of gang-English expostulations about “we niggers” and “aawwrya” and “right dat” and so on. After watching for a while, one black gangster says to another with a grimace, “Ain’t nothing they don’t steal from us”. The major achievement of The Wire is to remind us that, however racially incongruous it may seem, most of America identifies with

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smart upward bound drug lords and the Robin Hood figures that bedevil them, and that it regards the Bush-ies and their super-rich, super-conservative fringe as the upstart wiggars on the street. In essence, the Obama presidency is a product of our realisation that the wiggars stole our language.

In October 2002, Barack Obama gave a speech called “Speech against the Iraq War”. In it there is a little piece of rhetoric that would never have caught my eye except for the current conjuncture, which finds Obama in the presidency after everything he cautioned against in this early Senate speech has come to pass. “What I am opposed to”, he wrote then “is the a ttempt by political hacks like Karl Rove to distract us from a rise in the uninsured, a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in the median income, to distract us from corporate scandals and a stock market that has just gone through the worst month since the Great Depression.” We know how that distraction worked, and how the great debates over what words “really” mean were conducted in the pages of the New York Times Magazine (by that other right wing hack, William Saphire, former speechwriter for Richard Nixon) and led by the Cato Institute and other think tanks on political rhetoric.

Political hacks like Karl Rove and George W Bush spoke an alien language. Not the finely honed, mid-western (Malcom X was born in Omaha, Nebraska) or eastern accents of an edited Africanmainstream-US political speech. It has been eight years since we heard the national sublime, that intimate and familiar language that all American presidents from all regions of the country (and now of several races) use to talk to us. The Bush order spoke from the frat house. They were debaters. By contrast, Obama is in the mainline tradition – he is an orator.

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