Thursday, November 6, 2008

Mahalia Jackson and Dr. Ann: Barack Obama's Rhetorical Mothers

To whom does Barack Obama owe his rhetorical abilities?  After his "Yes We Can" presidential acceptance speech, some are speculating without looking first to his mothers
  • Is his cadence the "cadence of the Bible"?  
  • Must we "[f]inally. . . give credit to the sermon style of the Black Church (which in Obama’s case, largely means that of Jeremiah Wright’s church)"?
  • Might it be Wright himself, as the Rev. Jim Wallis argues to Rolling Stone as early as the '04 DNC, asserting: "If you want to understand where Barack gets his feeling and rhetoric from just look at Jeremiah Wright"?
  • Could our next president be an imitator of Malcolm X for racist ends, as talk-show host Taylor Marsh has suggested?
  • Isn't it that "[h]e either deliberately or subconsiously, imitates the speaking style of Dr. Martin Luther King, whose style was grounded in the A-A church"?
Let's consider, initially instead, the womanly, rhetorical influences on King himself that are the same for Barack Obama.   Like King, Obama was greatly and deeply influenced by his own mother.  And both men are influenced by Mahalia Jackson.

King's mother was Alberta Williams King.  Biographer Keith Miller notes:
Not only was she an able parent and dedicated Christian, she also served as a church organist who communicated her love of music to her children, making sure that King, Jr., took piano lessons as a child. Years later King often spoke following performances by such stellar gospel singers as Mahalia Jackson and Cleo Kennedy. he encouraged group singing during protest rallies and called songs "the soul of the movement." Like folk preachers before him, including his father, he incorporated the lyrics of spirituals, hymns, gospel songs, and patriotic standards into his discourse. Plainly him mother encouraged his affinity for music and, along with her husband, helped foster the close relationship between they rhythms and content of King's oratory and the cadences and lyrics of religious songs. The metrical, rolling lines that make King's oratory memorable (e.g., "I have a dream," "Let freedom ring," "How long?") exemplify the forms of parallelism abounding in folk sermons. They also reflect the repeated refrains of spirituals, gospel standards, and hymns. The musical qualities of King's phrases are unmistakable. 
(Voice of Deliverance: The Language of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Its Sources, page 64)
On the 45th Anniversary of King's "I Had A Dream Speech," we were reminded by witness Roger Witkins and biographer Taylor Branch of the direct influence of Mahalia Jackon on King's famous speech.

Now, let's consider Barack Obama and his rhetorical mothers.  Amanda Ripley, in Time magazine, tells "The Story of Barack Obama's Mother" whose name is Stanley Ann Dunham (Obama) (Soetoro), Ph.D.:
Ironically, the person who mattered most in Obama's life is the one we know the least about—maybe because being partly African in America is still seen as being simply black and color is still a preoccupation above almost all else. There is not enough room in the conversation for the rest of a man's story.

But Obama is his mother's son. In his wide-open rhetoric about what can be instead of what was, you see a hint of his mother's credulity. When Obama gets donations from people who have never believed in politics before, they're responding to his ability—passed down from his mother—to make a powerful argument (that happens to be very liberal) without using a trace of ideology. On a good day, when he figures out how to move a crowd of thousands of people very different from himself, it has something to do with having had a parent who gazed at different cultures the way other people study gems.
Obama himself supplies some of the details. Ripley quotes him:
"My mother, whose parents were nonpracticing Baptists and Methodists, was one of the most spiritual souls I ever knew," Obama said in a 2007 speech. "But she had a healthy skepticism of religion as an institution. And as a consequence, so did I."

In her own way, Ann tried to compensate for the absence of black people in her son's life. At night, she came home from work with books on the civil rights movement and recordings of Mahalia Jackson. Her aspirations for racial harmony were simplistic. "She was very much of the early Dr. [Martin Luther] King era," Obama says. "She believed that people were all basically the same under their skin, that bigotry of any sort was wrong and that the goal was then to treat everybody as unique individuals." 
Clearly, Barack Obama's mother Dr. Ann Dunham and Mahalia Jackson are his rhetorical mothers.  If you now have been moved by him, you have been moved by them.

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