Putting the G back into Obama

Sam Smith – You can tell when America isn’t anywhere close to dealing seriously with its ethnic problems because, during such times, the language we use becomes more important than actually solving the problems under discussion. So at a moment when there is extraordinary black poverty, glaring discrimination in who gets locked up on drug charges, and a lack of blacks in the US Senate, we turn instead to the question of whether reporters should have dropped the “g’s” in describing a speech in which President Obama dropped the “g’s” in order to seem like he was back in the ‘hood (or ‘neighborhood’ if you don’t want to seem racist to some observers).

As a hapless AP reporter quoted the president:

“Take off your bedroom slippers. Put on your marching shoes,” he said, his voice rising as applause and cheers mounted. “Shake it off. Stop complainin’. Stop grumblin’. Stop cryin’. We are going to press on. We have work to do.”

At MSNBC, which often thinks the difference between left and right is a matter of textual deconstruction, black author Karen Hunter called the report “inherently racist.”

And the debate has flourished.

What’s curious about this is that Americans used to be proud of slang. It, among other things, was a reminder of our immense cultural variety. The science fiction writer Norman Sprinrad once said, “I write in American slang.” Carl Sandburg noted that “slang is a language that rolls up its sleeves, spits on its hands and goes to work.” And the Brit, GK Chesterton, rightfully observed that “All slang is metaphor, and all metaphor is poetry.”

Slang is part of my dictionary. I don’t make a big deal of it, but there are lots of times when speaking colloquially gets the point across better than a pristine phrase. Recently, for example, I borrowed from a Maine joke to say to a friend that “my day’s been one long fizzle from beginnin’ to end.”

So why the rise of verbal prissiness? I suspect it has a lot to do with verbal propriety being used as a means to avoid dealing with class and its innumerable discriminations. If everyone talks nice, then we don’t have to really get to the bottom of things.

Thus we found the feminist movement speaking constantly about glass ceilings instead of getting through the door in the first place. Which is why labor unions – like those for nurses – get so little credit for what they have done for women.

Ironically less than forty percent of Americans have a college degree, so to use a literary rather than a colloquial standard of speech is in itself discriminatory.

As a writer, I love both. How I use them isn’t the business of the AP or of some author on MSNBC. It is, as with music, a matter of ear.

If I were reporting a local citizen who had dropped her “g’s” I’d probably put them back in as it was her point and not her language that mattered. But when you have a president who went to Harvard Law School, has a hard time to talking to anyone without two teleprompters, and then gives a speech in which he tries to sound like a good old boy, well that, baby (or “dear reader” if you prefer) is news and that’s how I would report it.

Many years ago, I was surprised when David Carr –  now with the New York Times but then with Washington’s City Paper – blew up at me when I told him that having moved from covering national affairs to editing a community paper I had to learn how to be more gentle with the folks I covered., He called me condescending and shortly hung up. But I still believe it. You write about ordinary folks different(ly) than you write about presidents. But in the end, writing is still a craft and not a profession, so you don’t need anyone’s permission to make the choice.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.