(artlessly stolen whole cloth)
Dear Glenn and John, if I may,
I’ve been thinking about your most interesting conversation about Obama’s eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney and it led me to thinking about Duke Ellington who, in a sense, figured out how to perform blackness during a four-year gig at the Cotton Club. That, of course, is a very different kind of performance undertaken in very different circumstances and for a very different reason. But it was every bit a steeped in artifice as Obama’s eulogy/sermon and every bit as ‘authentic’ – an all but useless word.
In thinking about this I watched Obama’s eulogy for Beau Biden, which of course, was quite different, though delivered within weeks of the Pinckney eulogy. The mood and content were different, as was the style. That funeral was essentially a private event that was in the public eye because of the people involved. That sermon did not draw on the traditions of black vernacular sermonizing that were so very prominent in the Pinckney eulogy.
I also looked at bits and pieces of his 2004 keynote at the Democratic Convention. That was a very pubic kind of speech, in the way the Biden eulogy was not. It was also a real stem-winder. But was not in the black sermonizing tradition.
Those were both superb performances. Performance at that level is necessarily artifice. You aren’t born to it. You learn it through deliberate practice. I have no idea whether or not Obama practiced either of those speeches. He might have. But if not, well, there was surely a time in the past when he did practice public speaking – perhaps he talks about in his autobiography, which I’ve not read.
So, if it’s artifice and practice we’re talking about, how’s the Pinckney eulogy special? Well, as you discussed, he wasn’t born to that oratorical tradition. Not in the way that, say, MLK was. I’m sure he practiced as well, probably had some coaching in seminary. But he was practicing an art that he experienced in church from whenever in his life he started going to church.
As you say, Obama didn’t have that background. He had to acquire that oratorical tradition as an adult. He certainly would have heard many sermons in Chicago and, I assume, elsewhere. So he had live examples to work from. But, as you’ve discussed, he also had to practice.
I have little sense of the range of his speechifying. If this was the first time he spoke that way in public, I wouldn’t be at all surprised. Nor would I be particularly surprised to learn that he’d spoken this way on some other occasion. Either way, though, he would have had to practice the style in order to get the delivery down.
Three things struck me about the eulogy. In the first place, it really was a sermon, complete with an opening bit of scripture from which to evolve the subsequent commentary. Second, as such, he had to talk of God. And third, he concluded by singing “Amazing Grace.”
There was real risk in that last. It could have fallen flat. Not so much because Obama is only a good, but by no means a superb, singer. But rather, if people hadn’t joined in he’d have been hanging there – like the cartoon character who’s walked off a cliff and hasn’t yet looked down. But of course people did join it, because that’s how things work in church and Obama knew it. And the response he got during his preaching, including the organ punctuations here and there, told him he’d get a response at the end.
As for the talk of God. Obviously you can’t preach a sermon without it. And that’s what was so extraordinary. I have no idea about Obama’s religious belief, but his political life has imposed at least the appearance of belief on him. But how many other recent (God-fearing) Presidents have referenced God so often in a speech as Obama did in that one? Any of them? I don’t think so. Well, maybe Jimmy Carter, but does anyone remember him?
The country is founded on the separation of church and state, and that makes Presidential religion a tricky business. It’s one thing to receive Bill Graham in the Whitehouse. It’s quite something else entirely to preach a sermon.
But there was a time not so long ago when rulers were regarded as divinely mandated. And it seems to me that Obama was stepping into that aura, if you will, for this occasion. That’s a very bold move to take. And, as you remarked on, Glenn, he did by assuming the mantle of a black preacher. But in a way it seems to me that that was something he could do as President that he could not do as a private individual. The Presidency has a ceremonial dimension to it that gives the occupant a certain license, and license that not much used (but think of the WH Correspondent’s dinner), but that is real. That’s what he was calling on. And that’s what gives his explicit adoption of black vernacular style real symbolic force.
I bet any Martian anthropologists who were watching this had lots to report home about.
And then there’s Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club. He was born to black middle-class parents in Washington DC. He started his band while still in DC but it wasn’t until he got the Cotton Club gig that he came into his style. The thing about the Cotton Club, though, is that the audience was exclusively white. This was a common arrangement in those days, black performers, white audience.
So Ellington’s ‘authentic’ black style, his so-called ‘jungle style’, was created to please the tastes of wealthy white folks who had a taste for the sepia style. How could the music born of such a situation, one that had Ellington providing music for ridiculous jungle-bunny stage shows that appealed to the prurient tastes of the audience, possibly be ‘authentic’? Yet it was.
Ellington was playing HIS music the way HE wanted to play it and rich white folks were paying for it.
As for Ellington himself, he was smooth as glass. I only every heard his band once, and what I remember was a magnificent tenor solo by Paul Gonsalves. But I’ve seen plenty of clips of his band from way back and, of course, have listened to a lot of the music.
More to my present purpose, I’ve read his autobiography. he wrote it and, stylistically, it’s slick slick slick. Not a peep at the private man anywhere. Very different from the self-penned autobiographies Louis Armstrong produced. There’s nothing particularly black about that prose. It’s more like advertising copy and autobiography.
But the thing is, Ellington at the Cotton Club paved the way for Obama in the White House. I mean that in the sense that I do not regard African-American music as an epiphenomenal gloss on the social and political life of this country. It has had a causal force in events. What does it mean that at every juncture that music has moved upstanding white people to protest and oppose its existence? There have been record burnings in the past.
And so for and so on. I could go on and on about this as it is of central interest to me. But I’ll stop here.
Thanks for your attention. I’ve transcribed a bit of your discussion and I’ve appended that below my signature.
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(from mcwhorter & loury)
JM: You have to wonder how authentic the President’s rootedness in this kind of thing is.
GL: Oooo! Oooo! You raised a deep question.
JM: I mean this is a tough one. We’ll never know. We don’t know him. He wasn’t raised in this, at all. In terms of his history we know that even by the time he was in his early twenties, he was not that. He was kind of an interesting mutt. Even the black speech patterns, (as) I think about it, he didn’t grow up with those, he learned them later. And after the age when most people are good at learning new ways to talk. And the black church, he had to be told, he had to be told when he was being a black politician in Chicago that if you’re really gonna’ make you way in the black community, you have to belong to a church. He didn’t belong to one already; he didn’t join one as soon as he hit the city. He had to be told. And now here he is, and he seems to be a man in full as far as this goes.
GL: Oh, John...
JM: But it’s interesting, he’s a, he’s a very, I don’t wanna’ call him fake, but he’s a very . good . performer. I don’t know if I’ve ever known any body
GL: Ah, John...
JM: who came into this sort of thing so late, and does it so convincingly.
GL: That’s so, that’s so interesting, what you’re saying. I do know, I know what you’re saying. [Explains that McWhorter is a man who worries about his presentation and how some people will receive him as too ‘white’ and who thus] understands the problem that a Barack Obama, having been raised in Hawaii and Indonesia by white people, by white people, would face when he has to make a transition at a certain point in his life, he’s written about this in Dreams from My Father, but it’s artifice. We have to assume it’s all artifice. I don’t mean
JM: In the technical sense of the term
GL: Exactly. I don’t mean insincerity. I’m not going to the heart of the man. I’m saying, exactly. A mask, a face has to be made. A way of being has to be fashioned. It’s gotta be practiced. You could see him standing in front of the mirror. John, we should write the novel John. […]
48:34 It just resonates in my mind so deeply. Because what does it mean for a people, I speak now of black Americans 30-40 million, to have the embodiment of their generational hopes, personified by a person who must adopt artifice, and manufacture, in order to present himself as being of them. What does it say of such a people.
No no no. I think this is historic profound. Excuse me if I, you know, I mean I’m just saying, here we are. Because think about it, think about it, OK, the stigma of race, slavery, OK, Orlando Patterson just brilliantly analyzes this, I think. Slavery has to be, you’re putting the slave down. The slave must be a dishonored person. OK so honor, honor becomes central to the whole quest for equality.
And having the Chief Executive of State, be of you, or at the very least, be a person who when in a position of choice, chose to be of you, is countering the dishonor in a very deep way. But perhaps the only way that the state’s symbolic power could be married to your quest for honor is through the President of someone who wasn’t quite fully of you. Your stigma still resonates even in the workings of history, that are intended to elevate you.