Music: Public Image Ltd.: compact disc (1985)
Well, it’s been one of those weeks in which writing is excruciating. To be an academic is to have writer’s block. What’s always frustrating for me is this: I am never wanting for something to say—it’s just some days I have no desire to say it. For me, writer’s block is often a response to the nagging question in the back of my head: who cares? isn’t this obvious? why bother?
I’m to have a paper drafted about the rhetoric of Jeremiah Wright; I’ve already made the argument I’m presenting in this space, so I have it all outlined. I just cannot seem to pull it together today (or yesterday). I keep seeing things around the house that need to be picked up or cleaned.
So, I made a deal with myself: write the introduction and you can clean house, Josh. So, I wrote it. Now I’m going to, you know, go clean the house.
Dissin’ the Black Vernacular, or, the Plight of Reverend Wright in Sound Clip Culture
University of Texas at Austin
Almost a week before the release of John Heilemann and Mark Halperian’s juicy political tell-all Game Change, senator Harry Reid’s observations inside it were already making headlines. Two days before the book landed Reid admitted to describing presidential hopeful Barak Obama’s assets as twofold: his light skin and his lack of a “Negro dialect.” A number of prominent Republican leaders were quick to call for Reid’s resignation, presumably because of a deep-seated and heretofore hidden racism. Yet Reid’s presumed racism is perhaps better described as a soul-deep cultural bias in a political world of whiteness (methinks, in other words, Liz Cheney doth protest too much). As linguist Geoff Nunberg argues, QUOTE: “you couldn’t fault the actual content of [Reid’s] remark: that an African American presidential candidate has a better chance of being elected if he doesn’t look or sound ‘too black.’ That may be a deplorable reality, but it’s not a controversial thing to say.”
It is definitely, nevertheless, a deplorable reality because “sounding black” produces victims in the mainstream political media. It is a deplorable reality because it doesn’t have to be a reality in the first place. It is a deplorable reality because of the missed opportunities, especially in the most recent election cycle, to discuss the norms and history of the black vernacular rhetorical tradition on national television. My remarks today are about how Obama’s campaign rhetoric regarding his former controversial pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, should not only be read as a political divorce from a controversial person-however necessary-but more disturbingly as a rejection of a uniquely African American rhetorical tradition. In other words, I will argue that Obama didn’t just throw Rev. Wright “under the bus,” as they say, but also knowingly and deceptively denied an understanding of black vernacular practice.
To this end I will first briefly rehearse the history of the controversy over Rev. Wright, culminating in Obama’s stern separation on April 29th, 2008. Second, after describing Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s theory of black vernacular rhetoric, or “signifyin[g],” I reexamine Wright’s fateful address at the National Press Club to underscore Wright’s skillful navigation of an emerging, racist scene embodied by the moderator. Finally, I conclude by suggesting that a more nuanced understanding of Wright’s rhetoric helps to restore a sense of complex personhood that is, increasingly, untenable in the contemporary regime of publicity.
 John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime (New York: Harper, 2010).
 Philip Elliot, “Reid Apologizes for ‘no Negro dialect’ Comment” (9 Jan. 2010); available http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20100109/ap_on_el_se/us_obama_reid accessed 30 Jan. 2010.
 George Stephanopoulos, “Georges Bottom Line” (10 Jan. 2010), abcnews.com; available http://blogs.abcnews.com/george/2010/01/will-not-a-scintilla-of-racism-in-reid-race-remarks.html accessed 31 Jan. 2010.
 Geoff Nunberg, “A Sensitive Subject: Harry Reid’s Language on Race.” Fresh Air (National Public Radio; 21 Jan. 2010); available http://www.npr.org accessed 30 Jan. 2010.