Monday, February 05, 2007


Last week, Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE) launched his presidential campaign and got off to a bumbling start. Seems he referred to Senator Barack Obama (D-IL), a fellow contender for the Democratic nomination, as an “articulate and bright and clean and a nice looking guy.” This, of course, means Biden won’t be the Democratic nominee for president in 2008. I’m not a Biden fan, so I’m not trying to defend him here. Mr. Obama, to whom Mr. Biden later apologized, mostly shrugged it off—at least the articulate part. And so should the media—again, at least the articulate part. (Without question, saying a black man is “clean” is a very, very poor choice of words. For that, I say the media should be all over Biden like flies on doo-doo.)

Okay, I know, I know. Telling an African-American they’re articulate is considered a put down by many within their community. Sort of a backhanded compliment. And yet, isn’t it time to stop parsing compliments like this and instead graciously accept them for what they might be: a genuine note of praise? And even if they aren’t genuine, sometimes the best way to shut up a bigoted, racist, sexist, misogynist prat (or, as CreoleInDC would say, “stoopit” people) is to simply say, “Thank you.” It’s disarming and, for the person who’s been the bigoted fool, it’s the ultimate put down. You’re calling their bluff. You’re defying them to say otherwise that you’re really not articulate or smart or pretty or whatever.

I am told quite often that I’m articulate. Should I raise my feminist hackles and think of it as a backhanded compliment meant to subtly send a message that keeps me in my place—in this case, barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen? Or, should I simply take it as a compliment regarding my ability to express myself well both in written and spoken word? When I’m complimented that way, is the conveyor of the compliment saying, “Gee, she doesn’t sound female at all?” implying that the litmus test for being articulate is the bastion of males only?

I hope you’ll pardon me for saying this, but given the degradation and misuse of language by many people, regardless of race, color, creed, or nationality, it’s incredibly refreshing to meet someone who is articulate and able to express themselves well, both in writing and verbally. That’s not to say there isn’t room for dialects and unique turns-of-phrase. There can be an articulateness and eloquence—if not outright poetry—to dialectical language and prose that should be celebrated. Zora Neale Hurston’s book wouldn’t be what it is without its rich, Shakespearian-like language (Shakespearian here meaning, easier to comprehend and better read out loud than read silently, which is really the only way to read Shakespeare. Or Hurston.) But dialects (or Ebonics or gangsta rap or whatever variation you want to call it) isn’t the problem.

What is bothersome are the people—especially young people—who abuse language in ways that make them look stupid and uneducated and, dare I say it, inarticulate. And don’t even get me started on the potty mouths out there. An occasional swear word is fine. A string of invective laced between “likes” and “you knows” is empty, meaningless, and unattractive. Using epithets that are degrading and demeaning to others—whether it’s the N-word or fag or fatty or whore or whatever—is unnecessary and distasteful, not to mention outright racist, homophobic, sexist, and Neanderthal. The use of such words only serves to make the user look facile and foolish. Frankly, I’d rather see someone smoke a cigarette than hear some of the verbiage that comes out of some peoples’ mouths these days.

Mr. Obama is an articulate, eloquent man who might one day be president. I hope we can see past the surface of adjectives and appreciate their depth and the fact that when some of us—perhaps even Mr. Biden (though I doubt it)—pay a compliment, we genuinely mean it as exactly what we’ve said.

Bottom line is, the ability to speak well is a sign of pride and a desire to constantly do better, regardless of one’s station in life. Being articulate shouldn’t be a put down and it ought not to be seen as a "sell out" to the white man. The next time someone pays you a seemingly backhanded compliment, call their bluff, be gracious and say, “Thank you. I appreciate that.” Believe me, you’ll have the last laugh! At the very least, if it is a genuine compliment, you’ll have been appreciative and that always looks good.

My ramblings aside, here are two pieces worth reading—one from Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post and one from Stuart Taylor Jr. of the National Journal.

An Inarticulate Kickoff

The Great Black-White Hope

Which one do you agree with?


CreoleInDC said...

I am one of the most liberal minded people you will probably ever meet regarding racial issues. I don't like ANYBODY. ROFL!

That said...if you called me clean and articulate for a black person...I would have MAJOR beef with you.

Why? Because every black person I willingly associate with is JUST.LIKE.ME. and anyone who tries to sterotype us needs to figure that out. Quickly.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, I just can't get past the mental image of you barefoot and pregnant!

Biden appeared on The Daily Show, and Jon Stewart let him have it, and he was suitably sheepish. Helped win back a little of my good will (though I'll almost surely not vote for him--his hair is just too weird).

Swizzies said...

I've never taken articulate as a back-handed compliment, that's new information for me.

Also, I think you mean "epithets" not "epitaphs" (hopefully). :-)

In conclusion, I love swearing. Sue me.

Honest said...

I think Creole touched on it a bit for me. When someone says oh wow "she's articulate" I wonder, how else am I supposed to be?

I've received compliments from white and black people in a professional setting and I usually hear "she's great, she can do anything she puts her mind to, she's a great problem solver"

When I read your entry I kept saying to myself, wow this blogger is such a great writer. Sure you've "articulated" your message well but that goes without saying if you're a great writer.

Gunfighter said...

When people tell me how articulate I am, I have a hard time squelching the urge to ask them what they expected?

As far as the second article is concerned, I agree with most of it, but unlike the author, my feet are planted firmly on the ground.

rozlips said...

I've been called 'articulate' so many times it boggles the mind. My personal favorite was from a professor in undergrad who advised that I 'spoke well for a black girl.' And therein lies the problem with this particular 'compliment.' The assumption that blacks wouldn't speak well. I remember being similarly annoyed when Colin Powell was praised in similar fashion. The man was a multi-starred general, why wouldn't he be 'articulate?'

JMK said...

CreoleInDC: We've already chatted, so you know where I'm at on this. Getting closer to "getting it..."

JA: It's an odd mental image, isn't it? If I ever had kids, I'd adopt. I've never had any desire to be pregnant, ever. I've often been barefoot in the kitchen, but that's of my own free will and choice, as they say. Glad to hear Jon Stewart gave Biden the what for.

Swizzies: You learn something new every day, huh? Thanks also for correcting my grammar. I've fixed that. Darn those words that look and sound so similar. They always trip me up. It's a miracle I made it through my thesis without fouling that up... effect/affect. Ugh.

Honest: Thanks for the compliment! Your comment got me thinking about the first time someone paid me the "articulate" compliment. I think I was a teenager. I remember looking at them and thinking, "What's that suppose to mean?" In my mind, it wasn't much of a compliment because I just figured all teenagers talked like I did. At least, all of the teenagers I hung out with did. Since then, though, I've just taken at face value and sort of shrugged it off, because I don't know any other way to be but the way I am. And I guess that's the point, right?

GF: I think the next time someone pays you that particular 'compliment,' you should ask them just that. I'd be curious to hear what their response is. I know I may well ask the next time someone says it to me.

Rozlips: Welcome! What your professor said is appalling, inappropriate, and racist. I'm sorry he said that to you. It's folks like that that ruin the ability for folks who are sincere to pay genuine compliments.

DJ Black Adam said...

I am inclined to agree with the overall assessment here.

I get called “articulate” or “Well spoken” a lot, it irritates me because in the same setting I never hear anyone call the White folks there “articulate” or “Well Spoken”.