Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Audacity Of Authenticity.

If you're non-black, or a black person who grew up too deep in the burbs, some of the vernacular employed on this website may occasionally throw you for a loop. This is hardly intentional. I just happen to speak a certain way when I'm around "family". I obviously speak a different way when I'm around "company". It's really a seamless process of continual tightrope walking that most black folks who have a decent job are intimately familiar with. Some genius coined the phrase "code switching" to categorize this odd, largely black phenomenon. Most black folks just call it "keepin' it real".

While Barack Obama's ascent to the Number One Spot was largely seen as "post-racial" by much of the mainstream media, Obama got a pass from black folks because even though he carried himself with the intelligence of a Harvard law grad, his authenticity was something seldom questioned. We've all met black folks in our professional lives who seemed a wee bit "fake". Obama wasn't one of those dudes, mainly because he still comported himself like that guy who used to sit at the A-Phi-A table at your Negro College HBCU. In short, he was The Man, but he was still "down".

In a bizarre example of what happens when the MSM uses a black writer to describe a black phenomenon that whites are largely oblivious to, Politico's Nia-Malika Henderson recently went in on this covert duplicity.
On his pre-inaugural visit to Ben’s Chili Bowl, a landmark for Washington’s African-American community, President Barack Obama was asked by a cashier if he wanted his change back.

“Nah, we straight,” Obama replied.

The phrase was so subtle some listeners missed it. The reporter on pool duty quoted Obama as saying, “No, we’re straight.”

But many other listeners did not miss it. A video of the exchange became an Internet hit, and there was a clear moment of recognition among many blacks, who got a kick out of their Harvard-educated president sounding, as one commenter wrote on a hip-hop site, “mad cool.”

On matters of racial identity, many observers in the African-American community say he benefits from what's known as “dog-whistle politics." His language, mannerisms and symbols resonate deeply with his black supporters, even as the references largely sail over the heads of white audiences.

In January remarks about the economy, Obama made a reference to “American dreams that are being deferred,” a phrase black audiences understood without a citation as black poet Langston Hughes’. First lady Michelle Obama often cites her upbringing in the “South Side of Chicago.” On Election Night, the winner promised that “we as a people will get there,” an echo of Martin Luther King Jr. made more powerful by not expressly invoking King’s name.

Or a year ago in South Carolina, when he tried to swat down the persistent rumors that he is Muslim. “They try to bamboozle you, hoodwink you,” Obama said that night, in what many listeners heard as an unmistakable reference to activist Malcolm X, as portrayed in Spike Lee’s movie.

“All of us knew that he was referencing Malcolm X, and when he said it, the reaction was instantaneous,” said William Jelani Cobb, a professor at Spelman College who specializes in black history and politics.

As for Obama, an aide declined to talk about whether it was a matter of strategy.

Beyond speech, blacks have picked up certain pieces of Obama’s mannerisms, particularly his walk, that signal authenticity. Bush had his cowboy strut, and Obama has a swagger - a rhythmic lope that says cool and confident and undeniably black. It was most noticeable on his first post-election trip to the White House, some said.
Among the things I liked most about this article (available in full context at the link below) is that the author didn't make Obama's "dog whistle politricks" seem like some undercover conspiracy, nor some contrived act to appear "down". It's simply who he is, and black folks who've observed him can pick up on this. At various points in time, I've kept track of these incidents here. There was the subtle "brush ya' shoulders off" in my home state. The flatfooted three pointers in Kuwait. The "hoodwinked and bamboozled" Malcolm X reference. The "where the food at?" quote also from Ben's Chili Bowl. The "terrorist fist jab". The Earth Wind and Fire stannery. The Which Way Is Up?-style strut to the podium for press conferences.[1] None of this seemed contrived, it just looked like an ordinary black man in an extraordinary position.

If you need any explanation of why Obama eventually walloped Hillary with black voters after having trailed her for months, there you have it. Once black people understood their stances were identical, and had the opportunity to finally see Obama in action and observe the nuances, it was a wrap. That's also why the GOP, with fugazis like Michael Steele, and vitriolic a-holes like Ken Blackwell, have no shot at getting the black vote back for another generation at best.

Before someone calls this foolish identity politricks, fall back. Sarah Palin's subliminal nods to working middle-class moms are the same hokum. Ditto for Bush's under the table connection to evangelicals. This authenticity is what helps people relate to, and in many cases, blindly follow politicians even when they're clearly wrong (Kwame Kilpatrick, anyone?). The lack of authenticity can banish an otherwise competent politician to a permanent life in state politics. Mitt Romney anyone? Michael Dukakis? John Kerry? Bobby Jindal?

Kudos to Nia-Malika Henderson for capturing this peculiar cultural nuance with the levity it deserves.

Question: Assuming a person is qualified and shares your views, how much does "authenticity" matter when choosing who you vote for?

Blacks, Whites Hear Obama Differently [Politico]

[1] To see the direct inverse of "swagger", just peep the way Bobby Jindal stepped to the mic last week. Hilarious.

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