My interest in President Obama’s eulogy for Clementa Pinckney was sparked by a conversation between Glenn Loury, an economist at Brown University, and John McWhorter, a linguist at Columbia University. That conversation raised issues of authenticity and artifice: Is the practiced nature of (Obama’s) performance compatible with sincerity? It’s a deep issue.
But I’m not going to discuss it in this post. Rather, my purpose here is to lay the question before in the form of three discussions, which I have transcribed:
• Loury and McWhorter on Obama• Marc Maron and Barack Obama on performance• Ike Turner and Sam Phillips on Elvis Presley
I’ll comment on those discussions, and the issue in general, in my next post. My first post: Obama’s Eulogy for Clementa Pinckney 1: The Circle of Grace.
Glenn Loury and John McWhorter
Loury and McWhorter have their discussion on Blogging Heads TV, June 29, 2015. They’ve had many discussions there, and so are familiar with one another’s interests, attitudes, and moves. The discussion starts at roughly 46:14, after they’d discussed the eulogy itself.
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JM: You have to wonder how authentic the President’s rootedness in this kind of thing is.
GL: Oooo! Oooo! You raised a deep question.
JM: I mean this is a tough one. We’ll never know. We don’t know him. He wasn’t raised in this, at all. In terms of his history we know that even by the time he was in his early twenties, he was not that. He was kind of an interesting mutt. Even the black speech patterns, (as) I think about it, he didn’t grow up with those, he learned them later. And after the age when most people are good at learning new ways to talk. And the black church, he had to be told, he had to be told when he was being a black politician in Chicago that if you’re really gonna’ make you way in the black community, you have to belong to a church. He didn’t belong to one already; he didn’t join one as soon as he hit the city. He had to be told. And now here he is, and he seems to be a man in full as far as this goes.
GL: Oh, John...
JM: But it’s interesting, he’s a, he’s a very, I don’t wanna’ call him fake, but he’s a very . good . performer. I don’t know if I’ve ever known any body
GL: Ah, John...
JM: who came into this sort of thing so late, and does it so convincingly.
GL: That’s so, that’s so interesting, what you’re saying. I do know, I know what you’re saying. [Explains that McWhorter is a man who worries about his presentation and how some people will receive him as too ‘white’ and who thus] understands the problem that a Barack Obama, having been raised in Hawaii and Indonesia by white people, by white people, would face when he has to make a transition at a certain point in his life, he’s written about this in Dreams from My Father, but it’s artifice. We have to assume it’s all artifice. I don’t mean
JM: In the technical sense of the term
GL: Exactly. I don’t mean insincerity. I’m not going to the heart of the man. I’m saying, exactly. A mask, a face has to be made. A way of being has to be fashioned. It’s gotta be practiced. You could see him standing in front of the mirror. John, we should write the novel John. […]
It just resonates in my mind so deeply. Because what does it mean for a people, I speak now of black Americans 30-40 million, to have the embodiment of their generational hopes, personified by a person who must adopt artifice, and manufacture, in order to present himself as being of them. What does it say of such a people.
No no no. I think this is historic profound. Excuse me if I, you know, I mean I’m just saying, here we are. Because think about it, think about it, OK, the stigma of race, slavery, OK, Orlando Patterson just brilliantly analyzes this, I think. Slavery has to be, you’re putting the slave down. The slave must be a dishonored person. OK so honor, honor becomes central to the whole quest for equality.
And having the Chief Executive of State, be of you, or at the very least, be a person who when in a position of choice, chose to be of you, is countering the dishonor in a very deep way. But perhaps the only way that the state’s symbolic power could be married to your quest for honor is through the President of someone who wasn’t quite fully of you. Your stigma still resonates even in the workings of history, that are intended to elevate you.
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Marc Maron and Barack Obama
Comedian Marc Maron has a regular podcast. His discussion with Obama took place on Friday June 19, 2015, and was broadcast on Monday June 22, 2015. Their conversation opens with Obama’s college years, when he was trying various identities, figuring out who he was. This, of course, is directly germane to matters discussed by Loury and McWhorter. But that’s not what I’ve transcribed.
What I’ve transcribed comes at the end of their conversation they get around to talking about the craft of performance. Obama’s remarks make it quite clear that he is a student of performance. We’re at roughly 1:02:20 in the conversation.
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MM: How do you do this, you know. I saw you in Manassas the day after your grandmother passed, the day before the election, and you just turned it on. You were just doing gigs, last night you’re going to Tyler Perry’s... You’re touring, doin’ that part of the job...The night you knew they were gonna shoot Bin Laden you were doing comedy.
BO: I was pretty funny too.
MM: Yeah. Is there some trick that you can share with us all of you just focus in on that. Is everything that immediate to you that you can compartmentalize that quickly? Or you just know that you have to show up and do the job.
BO: Yeah, look, because you’re a performer you know is true. You’re friends with a lot of comics.
MM: You like comedy?
BO: I love comedy.
MM: Who’re your guys?
BO: Pryor was an early one. Dick Gregory when he was really on the edge. Seinfield’s a whole other different type. Louis I know is a buddy of yours, I love, I think Louis’ terrific.
MM: Ah yeah, you just made his life.
BO: He’s wonderful in such a self-deprecating but edgy kinda’ way. And basically good-hearted even when he’s saying that’s pretty
BO: wrong. [They both laugh.] But there’s a goodness about him that comes through. But, look, I think at the end what all those guys understand is the more you do something, the more you practice it, it becomes second nature. And what I’ve always been impressed when I listen to comics talk about comedy, is how much of it is a craft, right, and they’re thinkin’ it through and they have a sense of when it works and when it doesn’t. And then longer you do it, the better your instincts are.
MM: Same with Presidents.
BO: Yeah, same with Presidents. And also I guess the last thing is you loose fear.
MM: That’s right.
BO: I was talking to somebody the other day about why I actually think I’m a better President and would be a better candidate if I were running again than I ever have been. And it’s sorta’ like an athlete. You might slow down a little bit. You might not jump as high you used to. But, I know what I’m doin’ and I’m fearless. [Emphasis mine, BB]
MM: For real. You’re not pretending.
BO: You’re not pretending to be fearless. And when you get to that point
BO: Then, you know, and also, part of that fearlessness is ‘cause you’ve screwed up enough times, that you know that
MM: It’s all happened
BO: It’s all happened. I’ve been through this, I’ve been in the barrel tumbling down Niagara Falls, and I emerged and I lived. And that’s always, that’s such a liberating feeling. That’s one of the benefits of age. It almost compensates for the fact that I can’t play basketball anymore.
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Ike Turner and Sam Phillips
This last conversation is a bit older and is about a white man, Elvis Presley, know for performing black. It takes place between Sam Phillips, the man who first recorded Presley, and Ike Turner, one of the pioneers of rock and roll and who was also recorded by Phillips. It takes place in the context of a documentary about the blues, The Road to Memphis, which was one in a series produced by Martin Scorsese and broadcast in 2003. I’ve discussed this particular conversation in a blog post, Is Chinua Achebe to Joseph Conrad as Ike Turner is to Sam Phillips?
The two men greet one another warmly and begin talking. They’re seated and facing one another, Turner at the piano bench and Phillips in a chair beside the piano.
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PHILLIPS: And somehow or another God blessed me with the ability to work day and night and hope that I’d be given enough time to stay in business . . . to prove that it absolutely would have to be that some white folks would have to start some things — not trying to copy or anything [muddled] do it with some feeling. I knew that Southern white people like Elvis Presley, ain’t no black person been poorer than him.
TURNER: All this stuff was black style . . .
TURNER: Yeah, yeah, and so
PHILLIPS: There was a lot of Southern
TURNER: No, no, but just then you said that they didn’t copy the black style. They dead on it. And even today they dead on it.
PHILLIPS: What I mean now, the copying, what I meant was trying to imitate. They took the feel because they were exposed to so many of the same things, not to the extent that black people were. But, oh, they didn’t copy. What they did was, they borrowed heavily from . . .
TURNER: Yes, they sure did . . .
PHILLIPS: Now, wait a minute now . . .
Turner laughs and grabs Phillips, then lets go and leans back.
PHILLIPS: No, hell, that ain’t right!
TURNER: What you mean?
PHILLIPS: Is that not a compliment?
TURNER: No no hey!
PHILLIPS: That’s what it took to make what you all were doing absolutely accepted.
TURNER: I understand. But all the other black people that was recordin’, they couldn’t get their records on the white radio stations. You could, you did. Yeah.
PHILLIPS: Do ya love me, or ?
TURNER: Yes, you know I love you
PHILLIPS: you fallin’ out of love with me
TURNER: Look, ain’t goin’ never change
PHILLIPS: That’s right. [Looks toward the camera.] Look at Ike, makin’ fun of me. Do you believe that?
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Ike gets up, chuckles, says “I have to go pee” and leans over Phillips and kisses him on the head and walks off camera while Phillips remains seated and somewhat discomfited. When Ike’s off camera Phillips starts singing an Elvis Presley tune: “Well that’s all right mama, that’s all right with me. That’s all right mama, anything you do. That’s all right.” Phillips is now standing up and Turner is back on camera standing next to him and pointing at him: “That’s the first time I ever heard him sing in my life.”
I rather doubt that these two men could have arrived at a mutually satisfactory statement of how matters stand in the very complicated business of black music in white America. But they can and do interact beyond the boundaries of language.