»  National Review Online

December 5th, 2003

  One Cheer for Rev'm Al


I got pulled over and ticketed by the PC police twice last month for mocking the way Al Sharpton speaks. On the first occasion I had Sharpton saying "ax" for "ask"; on the second I put "I's" for "I'm" into his mouth. The PC cops claimed, of course, that I was making fun of black people at large. I supplied, via The Corner, a long list of black people who would no more utter "ax" or "I's" than I would: Bill Cosby, Jesse Jackson, Condoleeza Rice, Paul Robeson, Tom Sowell, etc. Nothing daunted, the enforcers of Goodthink tried to stick me with a lesser charge: that Rev'm Al doesn't actually speak like that.

Well, does he or doesn't he? I have been living in New York for 18 years, and watching Al Sharpton on local TV news programs for most of those years. I swear he does speak like that, or did until very recently — until just about until the launching of his presidential campaign, I suspect. Trawling around for supporting evidence, I found myself listening to this. It's Sharpton giving a sermon last February. (And it's a bit long — over an hour. And you need to have RealPlayer installed to hear it. In what follows, I have located extracts from this sound clip by minutes and seconds into it, in parentheses after each quote.)

I don't know that the sermon proves anything one way or the other about Sharpton's characteristic locutions. There are, I admit, no instances of "ax" or "I's" on it. In fact, he seems to make a deliberate effort to avoid saying "ask," I suppose out of self-consciousness. The word only occurs twice, which is way below normal frequency. (You try talking for an hour without saying "ask" more than twice.) On the first occurrence he slurs, seeming to cover himself — it comes out something like "asst" (22:50). On the second he says a clear plain "ask" (27:10), though he is reading from the Bible here. My guess is, he's cleaned up his diction for this presidential run.

There are, as I said, no instances of "I's." I did, however, tally the following, which are pretty much equivalent.

The main thing to be said here is that nobody has to speak like that, certainly nobody of Sharpton's intelligence. Don't tell me it's his background and he can't help it. I myself started out in life speaking mid-Northamptonshire dialect, an odd blend of Cockney (dropped h's and glottal stops) and East Anglian. Main features of the latter are: total confusion of the verbs "to have" and "to be" in auxiliary usages, so that "have you been?" becomes "are yer bin?"; weird vowel transpositions (the long "i" becomes short "o," so that "I'm" comes out as "om," and the short "a" becomes short "e," so that "have" is pronounced "hev," etc. etc.); and some eccentric verb participles, e.g. "boughten" as the perfect tense of "buy." Along with all this mangled phonetics and grammar, we had a raft of dialect words that no-one else used: an alley was a "jitty," a pond was a "wair," a ditch was a "sike," ill-tempered was "mardy," etc.

Parents and schoolteachers impressed on me that to get ahead in the world, I should speak standard English, so I trained myself to do so. (Though I might still be heard occasionally addressing Mrs. Derb as "me duck.") I don't remember it being particularly difficult. You just keep your ears open and mind your tongue. Millions of people, including millions of black Americans, go through the same transition. I think the number is less than it used to be. Certainly this is true in England. In my childhood, everyone on the radio and TV spoke RSP (Received Southern Pronunciation, i.e. "BBC English"). Nowadays it seems that some kind of local accent is de rigeur for British TV presenters. Ghetto American hasn't moved as far towards respectability, but it is not the stigma it once was. This is the Age of Authenticity, and we are supposed to "celebrate" our origins, not advance beyond them. Perhaps I should go back to saying "are yer bin?"

I am not even sure that there is anything wrong with one group of us making fun of another group's speech habits. If we Americans were at ease with each other, in the way the PC propagandists like to pretend we are, but which of course we are mostly not, we would do this without embarrassment, for the sheer harmless fun of it. In mainland China, at least fifty percent of TV humor consists of Chinese people mocking each other's regional dialects, but it would never occur to anyone that there is any "hate crime" involved. Even we Americans do this to some degree inside our own racial groups — the Boston accent is a particular object of mirth (remember Cliff Clavin in Cheers?), and when that movie Fargo came out, everyone was mimicking the North Dakota drone for a while — but of course as soon as you cross the racial boundary, all the sphincters in the room snap shut.

I feel sure, in any case, that Al Sharpton speaks the way he does because he wants to speak that way. It's part of his public persona, his shtick. If he's doing some improvement around the edges, that is just a toning-down for the benefit of nationwide TV audiences, like a country music group dropping their gospel numbers to get national air time.

Leaving all that aside, the thing that struck me after listening with attention to an hour of Al Sharpton was what a very good speaker he is. This remains true even if you mentally subtract out the preaching component. As a preacher, he is simply tremendous. Towards the end of that sermon (around 48:00) he has got up a real head of steam and he soars off into the sky, chanting and alliterating with a fluency and passion that make the bristles stand up on the back of your neck. He is simply a terrific, terrific preacher. But even when just laying out a case, his oratory has an energy and conviction that is all too rare in our public discourse.

I am referring here strictly to form, not content. Sharpton's politics is, to be blunt about it, garbage — the most frivolous kind of adolescent socialism. He believes that "the government" should give stuff to poor people: houses, schools, money. He is on board with every wacky fad and victimological scam the Left has come up with this twenty years past — abortion on demand, gay marriage, reparations for slavery, the whole bucket of chum. On foreign affairs he is a near-perfect vacuum; I doubt he could point to China on a map. He is not even consistent, criticizing defense spending at one point, then apparently calling for an attack on North Korea at another. (He probably sees the latter nation in terms of those Korean greengrocers who make a living in black neighborhoods, "exploitin' our people." Yeah, let's go to war against them!)

To be fair to Sharpton, it's not all bad. There is in that sermon, jumbled in illogically with all the self-pity and victimology, a powerful message of self-help, of not making excuses, of responsibility. Listen:

So far as I have ever heard, Sharpton's own personal life is impeccable. I won't be voting for the guy, though. Like my colleague JayNordlinger, I'd like to see some redemption through repentance before I'll take seriously anything Sharpton has to say. I can't help wishing, though, that the rhetorical mastery he exhibits in that sound clip were a bit more widely distributed, especially on my side of the political line.

For, let's face it, the current standard of political oratory in the U.S.A. is dismal. I am very glad to have George W. Bush as my president, and believe him to be a capable and sincere man; but watching him fumble and stumble his way through a speech with his face and neck muscles all locked rigid like that is almost physically painful. Other members of the administration are not quite so bad. Rumsfeld and Cheney can both orate decently well, though I would not, in their behalf, follow the example of the young Abraham Lincoln, who once walked 34 miles for the pleasure "of hearing a lawyer make a speech." The Democrats are pitiful — other than Rev'm Al, not one of them has any clue how to use emphasis, rhythm, alliteration, assonance, or any of the classical rhetorical forms. I could listen to Sharpton talk his damn fool gibberish all night long; with Dean or Kerry, even on the rare occasions they are saying something I agree with, ten seconds has me reaching for the remote.

The depressing thing here is that the nation's most gifted public speaker (a) feels he should affect the grammatical competence of Stepin Fetchit's dumber brother, and (b) professes a political creed that mixes all the worst and silliest of the Lifestyle Left with gimme-stuff socialism — Hollywood meets Norman Thomas. Why does it have to be this way? Or, as William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, once asked: "Why should the Devil have all the best tunes?"