Sorry Bubba. Even though poet Toni Morrison declared Bill Clinton the nation’s “first black president,” there’s finally scholarly work that President Obama, sneered at by some as not being black enough, has the political traits of the greatest African-American orators.
“President Obama’s delivery is distinctly different from Clinton and any other president,” says Sheena Howard, an instructor at Shippensburg University and author of a study of Obama’s “Afrocentricity” in the upcoming July Journal of Black Studies. The difference: Obama has “nommo,” an African cultural speaking trait characterized by a unique cadence, vocabulary, and style. “This,” she tells Whispers, “is an aspect of the black tradition which is seen in other black leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.” Not to take anything away from Clinton, though, she adds: “This is not to say that a white man cannot grow up in the black church and perhaps share in the concept of nommo. How authentic would that then feel to the American people, though?” [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on Obama.]
In her study, Howard looked at two 2007 speeches Obama gave, one before a white crowd in New Hampshire and the other to an African-American group at Washington’s Howard University. What she found was that Obama was able to speak authentically to both in their style and language, though clearly differently with each.
Consider the “nommo” trait of repetition in black speech. “Barack Obama has generally advocated civil rights, justice, and the ability for the American people to take risks throughout the Democratic [primary] race. These ideas and images were artistically used to relate to both audiences,” Howard writes. “However, there is a notable increase in the frequency of these words used during Obama’s speech at Howard University.” To the Howard audience, for example, he referenced injustice 25 times, versus none to the white crowd.
Obama is also a pro with “call and response,” eliciting verbal responses from black crowds with ease.
Bottom line: Obama is the nation’s first black and white president. Howard concludes that her study of Obama “illuminated his connection to ancestral Africa by showing how he facilitates ‘nommo’ within an African-American rhetorical space, yet harbors the ability to consciously or subconsciously deviate from the oratorical elements of nommo when communicating outside of a predominately African-American rhetorical space.”