Barack Obama is widely considered one of the most powerful and charismatic speakers of our age. Without missing a beat, he often moves between Washington insider talk and culturally “Black” ways of speaking. But what does it mean to speak as a racialized subject in contemporary America? What does it mean to “sound presidential” in the New America? And what are the cultural, political, and educational implications of these shifting politics of language andrace?

In this talk, I address language and racial politics in the U.S. through a critical examination of President Barack Obama’s language use – and America’s response to it. I will analyze several racially loaded, cultural-linguistic controversies involving the President – from his use of Black Language and his “articulateness” to his “Race Speech,” the so-called “fist-bump,” and his relationship to Hip Hop Culture. Using this analysis of Barack Obama as a point of departure, I reveal how major debates about language, race, and educational inequality erupt into moments of racial crisis in America. In particular, I show how Barack Obama’s highly contested use of language represents a transformational shift in the racialized, classed, gendered politics of American English – and why we should all take notice.

H. Samy Alim is Associate Professor of Education, Anthropology and Linguistics at Stanford University, where he directs the Center for Race, Ethnicity, and Language (CREAL) and the Institute for Diversity in the Arts (IDA) ,as well as African & African American Studies (AAAS). His most recent book is (with Geneva Smitherman; foreword by Michael Eric Dyson, Oxford 2012). Some of his other books include and He has also written for various mediaoutlets,including (Cairo),and among others.

Event type: Seminar
Date of event: Friday, March 14, 2014
Venue: Centre for African Studies Gallery, Upper Campus, UCT