It took me a minute to put my finger on exactly why Cornell West’s comments about President Obama disturbed me so much; but I think I’ve figured it out. It’s not so much what West said or even that he said it. It’s HOW he said it-- carelessly and cavalierly flouts black speech codes.
We know the history of and the necessity for encoded black speech. Early one we knew that to survive we had to “wear the mask,” Early on we knew that to survive we had to possess a “double consciousness. “ And early on we knew that to survive we had to construct, perfect, and deploy coded speech to communicate within, over, under, around, and through an ever-pervasive and destructive whiteness.
Black coded speech, signifying speech, served a double purpose: direct discourse to deceive whiteness, and indirect discourse – a black linguistic dog whistle, if you will, to convey the actual intent. Black speech codes covered the gamut from Negro Spirituals to acts of Uncle Tom-ing; yet, however seemingly disparate the tactic, the goal was the same, to prevent whiteness from invading black linguistic space, a space necessary for self-preservation and racial advancement.
Thus, to ensure that such a goal would come about, black speech never let its guard down in the presence of Whiteness, because it knew that not only would its linguistic space be violated, but that its codes would be broken and appropriated , morphed into
something unrecognizable and unable to be reclaimed.
Which is why I find West’s comments so puzzling. West’s proffers a presidential critique, which is all well and good. But, it’s a critique that has as its subject a black speaker and as its object, a black man, so one would think that black speaker would employ black speech codes because black speaker understands how his words regarding black object might be misappropriated. But black speaker does no such thing. Instead black speaker puts forth commentary unaided by no protective black speech codes and a dog whistle that Whiteness hears, amplifies, and utilizes for its own agenda.
These naked, unadorned comments indicate that West buys the fallacy of post-racial communication, a post-racial
linguistic world where form and content exist independent of one another, and where audiences receive communication in a vacuum, unencumbered by the now non-existent constraints of race, sex, and class.
It is within this supposed neutral zone that West constructs his critique of the president, and it is within this supposed neutral zone that West expects black folks to join him and lay down those burdensome speech codes and celebrate the new era of post-racial communication and the ultimate
negation of black linguistic space.
But critiquing the president in a neutral zone and without the protective covering of black speech codes has drawbacks. Since West occupies
rarified Ivy League linguistic space, it is easy to understand his abandoning the
speech codes. He fancies himself a free
black man who can operate outside black linguistic space. His critique suggests that seeking the protection of black speech codes to protect the integrity of black internal and external communication may be all well and good for the common black man, the bell hop, if you will, but not for one as erudite as he.
He himself, this black linguistic superman, can pontificate freely, openly, indeed, with impunity, comforted in the knowledge that his words will be received on their
merit alone, judged fairly and impartially. “Whiteness loves me; therefore, they will understand me, and black folk, especially the common ones, love me; therefore, they will give me a pass.”
“Yes,” Brother West surmises, “no need for black speech codes here.”
Or is there? Is there still the need, in this “post-racial” age for black speech codes? I for one say now more than ever, because Whiteness will never cease being what it is – an ideology that seeks to negate every and all things black. Whiteness has already appropriated West’s comments
and is using it to launch a primary challenge to the president (see Jane Hamsher’s latest political concoction).
So that Whiteness cannot gain entry into black linguistic space to use it for its own ends, West should study Al
Sharpton’s use of the black speech codes. Sharpton has criticized the
president’s policies but never does
Sharpton, at least within hearing shot of Whiteness, criticize the man.
Moreover, he has criticized the president’s policies in a manner that does not allow Whiteness entry to twist, malign, or subvert. Sharpton uses black speech codes as a shield and only puts forth a critique once that shield is firmly set in place. He then thrust and parries with Whiteness through the speech codes’ shield.
He is never so naïve as to do battle without it. He then confidently uses direct discourse with Whiteness to throw them off balance, and he uses the
dog whistle of indirect discourse with black folks who clearly hear and “get” what Sharpton really means to say. Sharpton’s utilizing the black speech codes as he engages Whiteness when offering presidential critiques may be the reason why he is seldom criticized by black folks for doing so and why Whiteness cannot really use his critiques as a means to its own ends.
And black folks’ reception of West’s critique? The vast majority detected the insincerity behind the entreaty to “Brother Barack,” sensing that such an address was just a mere rhetorical ploy that implies an intimacy that does not exist to ostensibly mitigate the viciousness of the attack to follow.
Because of the critique’s undercurrent
of insincerity, many black folks inferred that West was “showboatin’” on the president and that he was more interested not in what he was saying but in how he was saying it, his “black
delivery” mixed in with so much Ivy League razzle-dazzle that black folks were not surprised that West’s dog whistle was aimed not at them, but at Whiteness.
Black folks knew that West had signified on the president so that he could gain entry into linguistic white space, a space devoid of any blackness, and a space where he, West, believed he could seek refuge. But because they are not ahistorical in the sense that West is, many black folks understood that that was too high of a price to pay for entry into a non-existent linguistic space.
West must know that he will never gain entry into white space, no matte how high up the Ivy vine he may be. He will never be a “free black man” in that
respect. He will always be “bound” by blackness, and in his prideful signifiyin’
on the president, West is like Icarus flying too close to the sun…..
These are treacherous times in our history. The election of a black president does not imply the manner in which we communicate our thoughts, fears, hopes, and dreams has to be abandoned. As long as Whiteness exists, we will always be aware of
our double consciousness, here in America, and we will always communicate as we wear the mask.
The trick is to “talk white and think black,” using the black speech codes like the North Star, to navigate through Whiteness. “Brother West” “showboatin’” on the president, imagining that he is a “linguistically-free” black man able to communicate outside the protective black speech codes, and naïve as to how Whiteness appropriates unprotected black speech, may just have to regroup, redirect and maybe get some learnin’ from the common black folks; you know, the ones that everyday navigate in, over,under, and around Whiteness in ways that “Brother West” somehow forgot; common black folks like a bell hop perhaps.
Thank you, coop.