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The Perpetual Failure to Understand Obama's Double Consciousness

The recent uproar over President Obama’s 2007 speech to black pastors is yet another example of how white people—or at least some of them—don't get it about black people.

A strange note for me to strike, I know, but the fact is that there’s nothing at all surprising in the fact that the President talks, worships, and even thinks in different ways depending on who he’s around. It would appear either that W.E.B. DuBois’ classic formulation about black people having a “double consciousness” hasn’t gotten around as much as it should or that certain people think it ceased to apply sometime around 1965. It didn’t.

DuBois mentioned black people feeling a “two-ness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings.” Yet when I was little, not having read that yet and not yet in a position to glean it from experience, it would sometimes irritate me when my parents would start speaking more “blackly” when we had black friends over, or when they were with their relatives. They didn’t talk that way around me and my sister. It struck me as phony that they would suddenly break out in a different way of expressing themselves.

What I didn’t know was that most black Americans have two ways of talking: around black people, what linguists call Black English, and standard English around others. The two bleed into one another to an extent: most black people have a dusting of “blaccent” when speaking standard, and few even in their most unbuttoned moments speak purely Black English. However, the oscillation between the poles is constant.

This is what Obama, as a black American man, does. It is largely subconscious, which is why most black people as well as white have been rather perplexed as linguists identify a “language” or “dialect” called Ebonics. However, it’s very much there and scientifically identifiable. I have been thrown several times by many whites’ feeling that Obama is faking it when he sounds blacker talking to the NAACP—until I recall my initial feeling about my parents. This time, conservative pundits watching the 2007 tape are even venturing that Obama’s Ebonic cadence is his “real” self and that the standard English he uses in public is the put-on.

But both are him. Americans easily miss something most people in the world find ordinary: that one often speaks quite differently in different situations. Arabs, whose colloquial Arabic is practically a different language from Modern Standard Arabic, would readily understand Obama’s speech repertoire, for example, as would Swiss Germans, most Italians, etc.

It is the linguistic reflection of that double consciousness. The video also reanimates the perplexity among many that the cerebral, mixed-heritage Obama, who seemed so much “past race,” could turn out to have been a member of a church led by a flaming leftist, anti-white pastor like Jeremiah Wright. This, however, was no more of a surprise from a black person of Obama’s generation than the bipolar speaking repertoire.

To be both successful in mainstream America and black-identified is a delicate business. Commonly, the way people wangle the equipoise is to maintain a visceral kind of allegiance to in-group folkways and concerns while building most of one’s life around a more mainstream essence. Peggy Noonan once got this just right, describing Obama’s Wright phase as typifying a “barbaric yawp,” to use Walt Whitman’s term, of opposition that one may maintain in response to your people’s past oppression even while you are moving forward in what you actually do with most of your waking moments.

This is not, as the right would like to have it about Obama, phony. It is a bedrock of being human to harbor contradictory impulses: religious belief in the face of science, intuition versus intellection. Such contradictions are staples of any respectable, much less engaging, biographical portrait, for example.

And it means that brown-skinned superstars of a certain age these days will regularly have their Jeremiah Wright moments. Michelle Obama’s was the “This is the first time I’m really proud of my country” gaffe, surely more of a salute from the heart to the black struggle than a reasoned take on America’s entire history during her lifetime. Then there was Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s “wise Latina” line, designed to appeal to a particular demographic rather than the nation as a whole.

As such, why would anyone be surprised that Obama, when speaking to a black audience and not as carefully self-monitored as he soon would be when his candidacy truly took fire, might venture that the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina was hindered at least in part by racism? It is crude to suppose that this is the “real” Obama and that the law professor weighing all sides of an issue, and the current cerebral President, is a pose. For better or for worse, parsing Katrina as a story of racism is a staple of black discourse, as is viewing inner cities as on some level a matter of racist neglect. Obama, with a certain crowd, will certainly dip into such views.

This is his double consciousness in action, just like the black-inflected speech patterns and the comfort hearing sermons by a black preacher who never got the news that the sixties ended. “Two warring ideals ideals in one dark body” indeed—except that the ideals are not exactly at war in people like Obama. Rather, Obama’s “black” side is a seasoning.

More to the point, Obama’s having a black side that comes out more with black people is ordinary. Anyone seriously worried that it means he is some kind of stealth candidate or poseur is backing themselves into the corner of seeing roughly 19 out of 20 black Americans in the same light.