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KW-SmithThe following is based on Zadie Smith’s essay “Speaking in Tongues” (2009):

Zadie Smith is a writer. She speaks in a posh British accent. But when she was growing up in the  Willesden section of London, the daughter of a white Englishman and a black Jamaican woman, she had a different accent.

For a while she could speak in both accents as the circumstances required, but then bit by bit her childhood accent went away. All she had left was just her posh accent.

She spoke that way not because she hated where she was from, but because she thought the way people spoke at Cambridge University where she went was the way lettered people spoke. And she wanted to be a lettered person.

Now looking back she sees it as a loss. Most people have just one voice, even if it changes over time. But a fortunate few can speak in more than one voice. Two that come to mind are Shakespeare and, yes, Barack Obama.

Authors often have to be able to speak in many voices. It makes their stories more believable. Shakespeare was a master at it. He was so good that even though he was a Protestant people still wonder 400 years later whether he was a secret Catholic.

And it is partly why some wonder if Obama is a secret Muslim. Like Shakespeare he can speak in many voices. He changes how he speaks depending on his audience.  He says “we” instead of “I”. He can say things like this:

We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states.

Taking “awesome God” from the churches of Georgia and “poking around” from the kitchen tables of Indiana.

Shakespeare could do it because he grew up between Catholic and Protestant worlds. Obama can do it because he grew up between the black and white American worlds. And so he can see them as worlds. Instead of being stuck between them, like a tragic mulatto, he moves between them.

Some might see that as underhanded but Zadie Smith sees it as having a broader view of the world, seeing it more as it is. Most presidents, like most people, stick to their own kind and so have a narrow view of the world. Not Obama.

On the night that Obama won she was at a party of white New York liberals when she got a call from a German friend to come uptown to a Harlem reggae bar. She looked at her dress and thought about her posh British accent and did not want to go. But then she saw that as:

A hesitation in the face of difference, which leads to caution before difference and ends in fear of it. Before long, the only voice you recognize, the only life you can empathize with, is your own.

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