On Race and Voice (HUM425)

Is it diction? Elocution and inflection? Rhythm? The timbre or grain of the voice? Do voices have races or can a race have a voice? I’ve been thinking about this for days, in part because the race/voice connection brings together visual and aural registers, but also because to claim that a voice “sounds [insert racial marker here]” is to automatically gesture at the fact that our senses are not simply natural but culturally constructed. I hear what I have been taught to be able to hear just as I see what my education tells me is visible. Roaming the net, I came across this interview with the authors of Articulate While Black: Barack Obama, Language, and Race in the US:


In sum, Barack’s styles of speaking clinched his victory because he put most Americans at ease. Here was a Black candidate for president whom Black folks could trust because “he sounds White, but not too White” and White folks could trust because “he sounds Black, but not too Black.” Of course, it would be too simple to leave it there. The reality is that Whites, too, were happy with a Black man who “sounded White, but not too White.” His familiarly Black style Americanized and Christianized him, helping them get over their irrational fears of a “foreign Muslim” or a “socialist African” boogie man. Blacks, too, were likely happy with a Black man who “sounds Black, but not too Black.” Quiet as it’s kept, because of Black Language’s marginalized status in broader American society, some Black folks suffer a linguistic shame that hypercriticizes any speech that sounds “too Black.” The stories of people “cringing” every time they hear Magic Johnson speak, for example, are all too common. In a similar way that Barack Obama’s familiarly Black style helped some White folks get over irrational fears of a “foreign/Black Muslim” or a “socialist African,” his familiarly White style helped some Black folks get beyond irrational insecurities that “the whole race” would be deemed “ignorant” because of one Black person’s speech.

Caught between discriminatory discourses of language, citizenship, religion, and race, Barack Obama’s language use hit that ever-so-small “sweet spot” that appealed to the majority of Americans. It didn’t matter how many times he repeated that he wasn’t a Muslim or how many times he presented his birth certificate; what mattered more to most Americans, even if subconsciously, was not what he said but how he said it. More than any other cultural symbol, Barack Obama’s multifaceted language use allowed Americans to create linguistic links between him and famous African American male historical figures. These links served to simultaneously “Whiten,” “Blacken,” “Americanize,” and “Christianize” Barack in the eyes and ears of both Black and White Americans.


I’d be interested to know what people think of these claims.

Also of note, I suppose, is the fact that googling “sound black” returns these search suggestions:

2 thoughts on “On Race and Voice (HUM425)

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