Friday, February 19, 2016

President Obama's "We Know It's Black History Month When... Heey Michelle!" Banter (video & comments about African American Vernacular English)

Edited by Azizi Powell

On February 18, 2016 President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama hosted a reception at the White House for Black History Month. In a video that is making the rounds on the internet, prior to his beginning remarks, Michelle Obama is shown waving at someone in the audience. Here's my transcription of that video:

A woman yells "Heeey, Michelle!"

President Obama departs from his prepared remarks and imitates the woman saying “Heeey!

[Someone in the audience says something like “Woo!]

President Obama then says: "We know it is Black History Month"...

[Someone says “Yeah”]

Pres. Obama continues: " when you hear someone say "Heeey Michelle! Girl, you look so good."

[Some attendees laugh and say something indecipherable while President Obama continues to talk.]

After President Obama says the above, Michelle Obama then says "He's alright. You look good too, baby".

The video ends with President Obama beginning his prepared remarks.

Here's one of those videos: Obama Jokes: "Heeey Girl You Look Good!"

Reflect, Published on Feb 18, 2016

President Obama impersonates a woman attending the White House's Black History Month reception after she calls out to Michelle, "Heey! You look good!"

Hat tip moviemeister76 for writing about this video in this dailykos diary: by sideboth, February 19, 2016. That political diary is written by a Black woman who says she would rather that people who ignore Black people except for elections continue to do so rather than patronizingly presume to tell Black people which candidate would be in their best interest to vote for.

Here's the exchange from that diary about the "You Know It's Black History Month When..."/"Heey Michelle!" light hearted banter:

moviemeister76 Feb 19 · 03:06:33 PM
"So ready for this primary to be over.

That picture is from one of my favorite moments of the Obamas in the White House. Michelle Obama is so amazing and I will certainly miss her."
"That picture" refers to a photograph in that diary of Michelle Obama rolling her eyes at (then) House Speaker John Boehner during President Obama's second inaugural luncheon (January 21, 2013) Here's a link to a video of that incident

sideboth to moviemeister76
Feb 19 · 03:09:28 PM
"I adore Michelle Obama! She really is such a role model and a picture of grace in some of the ugliest racist attacks on her family."

moviemeister76 tosideboth
Feb 19 · 03:12:33 PM
"Did you see that clip making the rounds today of the Obamas at a press conference, with the president talking about “you know it’s Black History month when...”

sideboth tomoviemeister76
Feb 19 · 03:14:04 PM
" to go google. Thanks!"

sideboth tomoviemeister76
Feb 19 · 03:16:06 PM
"OMG...I just love both of them!!! LOL!"

moviemeister76 to sideboth
Feb 19 · 03:18:03 PM
"RIght? LOL I’ve watched that at least five times today. They are both adorable."

moviemeister76 to sideboth
Feb 19 · 03:18:03 PM
"RIght? LOL I’ve watched that at least five times today. They are both adorable."

CaliSista to moviemeister76
Feb 19 · 03:43:08 PM
"What is Michelle saying at the end? I couldn’t make it out."

geordie to moviemeister76
Feb 19 · 03:34:50 PM
"I love that clip so much, and at the same time it makes me sad because I am going to miss them both so much when they leave the White House. Not that either of the Obamas will exactly fade from public view completely, but while I want them both to have whatever normal lives they desire again, I still will miss seeing them and their charming daughters (and the dogs!) at the White House."

moviemeister76 to geordie
Feb 19 · 03:37:01 PM
"I really am not ready for them to go. I know we still got 11 months, but I also know it will fly by quick."
-end of quotes-

Here's an article about President Obama's "You Know It's Black History Month When..." teasing comments: Obama On Jokes: “We Know It Is Black History Month When…” Written By NewsOne Staff [February 18, 2016]
"We’re really going to miss this guy.

While hosting a reception for Black History Month in the East Room of the White House Thursday, President Barack Obama greeted the crowd with First Lady Michelle Obama by his side, and of course, he brought the jokes.

"We know it is black history month when we hear someone say 'heeey, Michelle! Girl. You Look so good!"

Addressing the crowd, FLOTUS kept it going, quipping,“he’s alright. You look good too, baby.”
As an African American community folklorist who loves thinking and writing about linguistics I can't help but analyze President Barack Obama's and First Lady Michelle Obama's banter.

Here are my thoughts about that:
I wrote a transcript of that banter (found at the beginning of this post) that includes comments from the audience because I believe those audience exchanges in call & response patterns are an important part of how "We know it's Black History Month" [at reception at the White House.]

Furthermore, that exchange demonstrates how linguistic informality and familiarity are two characteristics of African American culture. At least one of the attendees at that formal White House reception put aside standard formal etiquette to greet First Lady Michelle Obama as if she were at much more informal event. Michelle Obama was greeted as though she was family or a friend. Some people (including some African Americans) might find that informality and familiarity insulting to the office of President. However, other people (including some African Americans) would see it as the attendee being "real" (for real) and the Obamas not being stiff and siddity (high society/ snobbish), but treating that attendee and others as though they were family or friends.

The call and response aspect of that occurrence occurs when President Obama says "We can tell its Black history month" and at least one attendee says "Yeah". Some of the attendees continue to respond to what President Obama says while he expands on the joke. That "talking with" aspect is also a part of African American linguistic culture. This reminds me of some Black Baptist and Black Pentecostal church services and other Black public speaking (and singing) events. Black speakers and singers want to hear from their audiences. If people don't respond or "show them some love" by commenting during the speaker's/singer's performance, then that speaker/singer suspects that he or she has lost that audience.

It also occurs to me that the way that words are spoken is an important aspect of African American Vernacular English". For example, President Obama elongated the word "Hey" (Heeey). And it seems to me that he clipped the word "good" in "You look so good" instead of also elongating that as it is usually spoken in AAVE. (But maybe that's just me being a Virgoan nit picker - since that's my astrologer ascendent and natal Mars placement).

Nevertheless, the attendees at President Obama's reception probably were less vocally responsive when he finally got to his prepared remarks. I'm sure that they were noteworthy. But I'm glad that President Obama gave us that less formal piece of history - his "You Know It's Black History Month When..."/"Heey Michelle!" banter.

The content of this post is presented for sociocultural and linguistic purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to President Obama and First Lady Obama for their postibe role modeling. Thanks also to the "Heey, Michelle!" woman, and thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.

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  1. This post should not be taken as minimizing that dailykos diary which alerted me to the video of President Obama's "We know it's Black History month when...Heey Michelle" banter.

    I'm focusing here on the informality and familiarity aspects of that White House banter, but I recognize that the topics raised in that political diary are quite important.

  2. This is somewhat off topic , but I just learned about #ObamaAndKids trend on Twitter:

    That site has some really cute photos.