More On ‘Talking Black.’

The linguist/conservative pundit John McWhorter and playwright/actress/mimic Sarah Jones did a great segment last year on Studio 360 called ‘Sounding Black’ that dealt with Barack Obama’s strategically deployed ‘blaccent’ — and what it suggested about our perceptions of race and class.

JONES: Just like Barack Obama, I am a person of mixed-race heritage.  But, I am identified, and am clearly identifiable as African-American, or black.  That is, at least, if you look at me.  But what if you are listening to me? Do I sound black? Do I have a ‘blaccent?’

MCWHORTER: Blaccent is interesting because it is a very hazy concept in people’s minds.  So if you say that there is such a thing as Black English, what most people think of immediately is teen hip-hop slang.  The sad thing is that for many people, the blaccent connotes lack of intelligence.  And I think we know historical reasons for that.

And on the other hand, there is an ambiguous relationship to it because especially when the blaccent comes from an older person it connotes a certain warmth.  And so we have gotten to the point where Morgan Freeman, or that Morgan Freeman voice is now considered a wonderful voice for a narrator in a movie or in a TV commercial.

Also, the black female voice, as long as she is middle aged, that kind of nice, leathery sound, that is something that is considered warm and authoritative.

You can give the whole conversation a listen here.

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14 thoughts on “More On ‘Talking Black.’

  1. thinking of a name March 26, 2009 at 3:34 pm Reply

    How funny! I am now listening to this conversation and Sarah Jones had the exact same experience that I did with a phone interview lol. Anyway, I always thought that Obama sounded like a cross between Martin Luther King and JFK when he was giving his speeches and it seemed to me different enough from his debating voice for it not to be intentional.

    • G.D. March 26, 2009 at 11:13 pm Reply

      yeah, i’m sure a lot of people have had experiences like that.

      Also, Sarah Jones is sort of unreal. Some of those voices sound like they shouldn’t come out of her.

  2. Winslowalrob March 26, 2009 at 11:39 pm Reply

    John McWhorter is my dude

    • G.D. March 26, 2009 at 11:42 pm Reply

      Really? that’s the first time i’ve ever heard him talk about anything and didn’t immediately want to set myself on fire.

      • Winslowalrob March 27, 2009 at 12:21 am Reply

        Haha, I have a soft spot for polyglots, people who can read music, and mathematicians (they all involve learning new languages which is opens up the individual to learn a heckuva lot about life. Also, I have not completely read any of his books, but the small stuff I read from All about the Beat, Authentically Black, and Doing Our Own Thing.

        I have a secret confession to make: I like a lot of black conservative intellectuals (not Juan ‘da Don’ Williams, please give me a little credit, he is not even a real intellectual). I dunno, I feel they always get a bad rap, and the attempts to align black conservatism and progressivism with Washington and DuBois (who I both find brilliant and prescient in their own ways) has screwed up a lot of stuff in terms current intellectual debates. Combined with my general loathing of the black academic left (West, Dyson, Neal, Hill, etc), I do not really have that many options… Yeah McWhorter can get into bourgie classism, but I like a lot of his stuff. Please do not ban me.

        • mute March 27, 2009 at 5:17 am Reply

          what do you loathe about the black academic left?

          • Winslowalrob March 27, 2009 at 11:55 am Reply

            That is a long-ass post mute, a long-ass post. I do not disagree with their overarching goals, just a lot of other stuff. Besides, it is my birthright as a socialist to be hyper-critical of other leftists, right?

            • G.D. March 27, 2009 at 11:58 am Reply

              we got time, homie.

              • Winslowalrob March 27, 2009 at 12:34 pm Reply

                Not THAT much time my man

                • mute March 27, 2009 at 1:22 pm Reply


                • ladyfresshh March 27, 2009 at 2:38 pm Reply

                  im curious as well
                  we may just have to do a different post…

                  but in terms of this post
                  i’m sure there is some way you can relate accents and black left intellectuals to this topic
                  can you start there?

                  • Winslowalrob March 28, 2009 at 12:11 pm Reply

                    In the immortal words of Barry White (from the Simpsons):

                    Anything… for a lady

                    I personally think that GD’s previous stuff on language and talking white was a better exploration of the issue than anything I could offer (Dyson talking ‘proper’ but certainly not ‘white’). Still, I can give it a shot:

                    The role of the blaccent (love that word) is of fundamental importance in defining blackness for a lot of people. Yes there is the skin color, but in terms of the constructed ‘image’ of blackness (hair, dress, etc) which is predicated on its dichotomous relationship with whiteness, there has to be a permanent separation of both identies (oh jeez I have been listening to academics too much). Not only is their a blaccent, there is also a whaccent (I was going to go with whiccent, but I prefer the connocations to wack that whaccent allows 🙂 ) and anyone that fails to hew to their particular racial accent is somehow less trustworthy in their respective communities(wiggers catch flack too, for example). The way McWhorter and Jones talk about the different sorts of blaccents is helpful in showing how complicated the idea really is, but what is interesting to me is that the black academic left is pretty standard in terms the blaccents they employ: either grandeloquent black-church sermons (which is unsurprising considering the training and background of a lot of the people involved) or hyper-intellectualized speech with an everyday Northern twang (Skip Gates talks country every now and then, but I do not quite put him in the black academic left)… I have a very limited experience with the speakers, so I might be missing a bunch.

                    So, basically the idea of talking black is part of the ongoing project of ‘making race’ (a project that is hard to date, but for aguments sake lets just say 1619). I am more concerned with unmaking race so meh, not my cup of tea.

                    That might be crappy but I gave it a shot.

  3. thinking of a name March 27, 2009 at 12:31 pm Reply

    Here, I will start. I do not enjoy Dyson. I will be the first to admit that I have not read his work, however, when ever I read or see him in an interview I agree with almost nothing he says. He presents this image that issues of black poverty and under achievement are due to institutional racism, which is a valid argument, but I don’t see where he offers any alternatives to combat the situation. I don’t see him addressing the issues of black on black crime. I saw an interview in which he said that he was given preference over his brother because he was light skinned, which could possibly be true, but now that you see the problem please offer a solution that I can put into action. Basically, I see the complaining, but where is the attempt at fixing? I am all about ideas and solutions and I am wondering where are his.

    Now, all of you wonderfully intelligent folks please educate me on Dyson :).

    • Winslowalrob March 27, 2009 at 1:34 pm Reply

      Ha, you sound like Jam Donaldson (DC represent!)

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