Why it worked: A rhetorical analysis of Obama's speech on race
The National Conference of Teachers of English (NCTE) has declared today a National Day on Writing. I celebrate such a day. The introduction of my book "Writing Tools" imagines what America might look like and sound like if we declared ourselves a “nation of writers.” After all, what good is freedom of expression if we lack the means to express ourselves?
To mark this day – and to honor language arts teachers everywhere – Poynter is republishing an essay I wrote almost a decade ago. Remember? It was the spring of 2008 and Barack Obama was running for president. Many of us wondered if America was ready to elect an African-American president (a man with the middle name Hussein).
To dispel the fears of some white Americans and to advance his chances for election, Obama delivered a major address on race in America, a speech that was praised even by some of his adversaries. Obama had/has a gift for language. He is a skilled orator. To neutralize that advantage, his opponents – including Hillary Clinton at one point – would characterize Obama’s words as empty “rhetoric” – an elaborate trick of language.
The Spring of 2008 seems like such a long time ago. A time just before the Great Recession. A time just before the ascendancy of social networks and the trolls who try to poison them. A time before black lives were said to matter in a more assertive way. A time before fake news was anything more dangerous that a piece of satire in the Onion. A time before Colin Kaepernick took a knee — except when he was tired. A time before torch-bearing white supremacists marched through the night in Charlottesville, Virginia.
It feels like the perfect time for a restart on a conversation about race. To prepare us, let’s take another look at the words of Barack Obama before he was president. Let’s review what he said, and, more important, how and why he said it. My X-ray analysis of that speech is meant not as a final word on that historical moment, but as an invitation, a doorway to a room where we can all reflect on American history and the American language.
Have a great National Day on Writing.
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More than a century ago, scholar and journalist W.E.B. DuBois wrote a single paragraph about how race is experienced in America. I have learned more from those 112 words than from most book-length studies of the subject:
After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, -- an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."
Much has been said about the power and brilliance of Barack Obama's March 18 speech on race, even by some of his detractors. The focus has been on the orator's willingness to say things in public about race that are rarely spoken at all, even in private, and his expressed desire to move the country to a new and better place. There has also been attention to the immediate purpose of the speech, which was to reassure white voters that they had nothing to fear from the congregant of a fiery African-American pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Amid all the commentary, I have yet to see an X-Ray reading of the text that would make visible the rhetorical strategies that the orator and authors used so effectively. When received in the ear, these effects breeze through us like a harmonious song. When inspected with the eye, these moves become more apparent, like reading a piece of sheet music for a difficult song and finally recognizing the chord changes.
Such analysis, while interesting in itself, might be little more than a scholarly curiosity if we were not so concerned with the language issues of political discourse. The popular opinion is that our current president, though plain spoken, is clumsy with language. Fair or not, this perception has produced a hope that our next president will be a more powerful communicator, a Kennedy or Reagan, perhaps, who can use language less as a way to signal ideology and more as a means to bring the disparate parts of the nation together. Journalists need to pay closer attention to political language than ever before.
Like most memorable pieces of oratory, Obama's speech sounds better than it reads. We have no way of knowing if that was true of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, but it is certainly true of Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech. If you doubt this assertion, test it out. Read the speech and then experience it in its original setting recited by his soulful voice.
The effectiveness of Obama's speech rests upon four related rhetorical strategies:
1. The power of allusion and its patriotic associations.
2. The oratorical resonance of parallel constructions.
3. The "two-ness" of the texture, to use DuBois's useful term.
4. His ability to include himself as a character in a narrative about race.
Part of what made Dr. King's speech resonate, not just for black people, but for some whites, was its framing of racial equality in familiar patriotic terms: "This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning, 'My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.'" What follows, of course, is King's great litany of iconic topography that carries listeners across the American landscape: "Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!..."
In this tradition, Obama begins with "We the people, in order to form a more perfect union," a quote from the Constitution that becomes a recurring refrain linking the parts of the speech. What comes next is "Two hundred and twenty one years ago," an opening that places him in the tradition of Lincoln at Gettysburg and Dr. King at the Lincoln Memorial: "Five score years ago."
On the first page, Obama mentions the words democracy, Declaration of Independence, Philadelphia convention, 1787, the colonies, the founders, the Constitution, liberty, justice, citizenship under the law, parchment, equal, free, prosperous, and the presidency. It is not as well known as it should be that many black leaders, including Dr. King, use two different modes of discourse when addressing white vs. black audiences, an ignorance that has led to some of the hysteria over some of Rev. Wright's comments.
Obama's patriotic lexicon is meant to comfort white ears and soothe white fears. What keeps the speech from falling into a pandering sea of slogans is language that reveals, not the ideals, but the failures of the American experiment: "It was stained by this nation's original sin of slavery, a question that divided the colonies and brought the convention to a stalemate until the founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least twenty more years, and to leave any final resolution to future generations." And "what would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part ... to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time."
Lest a dark vision of America disillusion potential voters, Obama returns to familiar evocations of national history, ideals, and language:
— "Out of many, we are truly one."
— "survived a Depression."
— "a man who served his country"
— "on a path of a more perfect union"
— "a full measure of justice"
— "the immigrant trying to feed his family"
— "where our union grows stronger"
— "a band of patriots signed that document."
At the risk of calling to mind the worst memories of grammar class, I invoke the wisdom that parallel constructions help authors and orators make meaning memorable. To remember how parallelism works, think of equal terms to express equal ideas. So Dr. King dreamed that one day his four children "will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." (By the content of their character is parallel to by the color of their skin.)
Back to Obama: "This was one of the tasks we set forth at the beginning of this campaign -- to continue the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America." If you are counting, that's five parallel phrases among 43 words.
And there are many more:
I could argue that Obama's speech is a meditation upon DuBois' theory of a dual experience of race in America. There is no mention of DuBois or two-ness, but it is all there in the texture. In fact, once you begin the search, it is remarkable how many examples of two-ness shine through:
— "through protests and struggles"
— "on the streets and in the courts"
— "through civil war and civil disobedience"
— "I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas."
— "white and black"
— "black and brown"
— "best schools ... poorest nations"
— "too black or not black enough"
— "the doctor and the welfare mom"
— "the model student and the former gang-banger ..."
— "raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor"
— "political correctness or reverse racism"
— "your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams"
Such language manages to create both tension and balance and, without being excessively messianic, permits Obama to present himself as the bridge builder, the reconciler of America's racial divide.
There is an obnoxious tendency among political candidates to frame their life story as a struggle against poverty or hard circumstances. As satirist Stephen Colbert once noted of presidential candidates, it is not enough to be an average millionaire. To appeal to populist instincts it becomes de rigueur to be descended from "goat turd farmers" in France.
Without dwelling on it, Obama reminds us that his father was black and his mother white, that he came from Kenya, but she came from Kansas: "I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slave and slave owners -- an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. 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."
The word "story" is revealing one, for it is always the candidate's job (as both responsibility and ploy) to describe himself or herself as a character in a story of his or her own making. In speeches, as in homilies, stories almost always carry the weight of parable, with moral lessons to be drawn.
Most memorable, of course, is the story at the end of the speech -- which is why it appears at the end. It is the story of Ashley Baia, a young, white, Obama volunteer from South Carolina, whose family was so poor she convinced her mother that her favorite meal was a mustard and relish sandwich.
"Anyway, Ashley finishes her story and then goes around the room and asks everyone else why they're supporting the campaign. They all have different stories and reasons. Many bring up a specific issue. And finally they come to this elderly black man who's been sitting there quietly the entire time. ... He simply says to everyone in the room, 'I am here because of Ashley.'"
During most of the 20th century, demagogues, especially in the South, gained political traction by pitting working class whites and blacks against each other. How fitting, then, that Obama's story points in the opposite direction through an old black man who feels a young white woman's pain.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post incorrectly attributed the phrase, "We the people, in order to form a more perfect union" to the Declaration of Independence.