Recently, there was a big to-do about visits to Selma, Alabama—the symbolic origin of the Civil Rights Movement—of 2008 presidential candidates Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. It seems that the two decided to put on rather southern/black accents for the occasion.
Does that bother me? A little bit of ‘yes’ and a little bit of ‘no.’ ‘No’ because I have done such myself; additionally, I know that others do the same also.
The first time I had ever met black people from the Caribbean Islands was when I joined the USAF in 1981. I noticed that they spoke one language for me and another one for those of their countrymen—one which I could not understand. After I took note of this several times, I asked one of the Caribbean Islanders—a good friend—what language she was speaking when she spoke to her countrymen. Her answer (with an amused smile): “English.”
My parents (my mother and my step-father) speak very proper English—that is to say, neither is prone to speaking what has become to be known as “Ebonics.” Additionally, my mother has a tone that isn’t “black” (Mom is somewhat of a military brat). Now, don’t have a cow; you know what that tone is. My sisters and I, having grown up hearing our mother's tone day in and day out, know how to mimic that tone when we’re trying to get what we want (like a job).
The tone of my mother is, most of the time, my natural speaking voice. However, I did go to elementary and secondary school among black people, so I am schooled in and do use that *other* tone when it’s appropriate.
Back when I was first in the military, someone informed me that I used one tone to talk to black people and another one to talk to white (and other non-black) people. Initially, I was disturbed by this accurate observation.
However, over the many years since that observation was made, I have found it necessary to mix up my two ways of speaking: the way I was taught at home (proper English) and the way I learned at school (“black” English). Both have ways of getting a particular point across.
On the occasions when I have felt the need to use “black” English—simply because a particular phrase got a point across better than standard English—I have, sometimes, been derided for using such phrasing. However, I read similar phrasing all the time in missives written by admittedly non-black people: “back in the day,” “no he/she didn’t,” “______, please,” and so on. If a phrasing works best towards getting a point across to one’s audience, there should be no problem with using it.
Clinton and Obama knew their audience and knew what would work in getting their points across: sounding like them. Clinton knew that stating that she “didn’t feel in no ways tired” would resonate among certain segments of the black South and Obama knew that he’d have to mix up his lingo (as I’ve discovered over the years as well) in order to have his half-white, half-black African self heeded by those who may believe that the senator has nothing in common with other same-race Americans (85% of which have some European heritage, in more or less amount that Obama does.)
Clinton and Obama were simply being good politicians--something which we all do every day of our lives if we're intelligent.
More later about the Tom Mboya/Kennedy Airlift—on which Senator Obama’s father came to America.