Paul Frank paulfrank at POST.HARVARD.EDU
Mon Nov 8 05:31:51 UTC 2010

Hi Wilson,

I realize that I know much less about America and probably about most
other things under the sun than you do, but I'm perhaps a little more
acquainted with society in the United States than you might think,
because I've lived, studied, and worked in Michigan, Louisiana,
Washington D.C., Boston, and New York, traveled all over the country,
and spent my entire life speaking with Americans. Most importantly,
I've spent decades reading about the place. (Permit me to make a
reference to another thread: the ability to learn things, to get to
know people and places through reading, should not be underestimated,
which is something that the historical Confucius as opposed to the
fortune-cookie Confucius had a lot to say about. For example, I've
personally learned more about China outside China than in the six
years I spent living there.) Of course Obama felt black before he went
to Chicago. For one thing, he was born looking blacker than, say Colin
Powell, and you don't have to look very black at all in the U.S. to be
considered black (compared with, for example, Brazil, a country I have
also lived in and whose language I also read and speak). But as Obama
himself makes clear in his autobiography, as a young man he made a
conscious effort to identify more strongly with the black side of his
background. And remember that when Obama started his presidential
campaign, many accused him of having a relationship with the
"African-American experience" that was "as much learned as intuitive"
(or experienced). In Audacity, Obama wrote, "my own upbringing hardly
typifies the African-American experience." Obama had eyes to see and
ears to hear and he was a quick learner. I still think that as a young
man, he chose to assert and to strengthen his African background and
to become more African-American than he had been as a boy and
teenager. And that probably also included his speech and accent.

When I was living in Northern England I never thought of myself as
white (not least because I lived in a neighborhood where most whites
thought I was a "Paki," and "Paki-bashing" was a pastime for some; I'm
fairly dark by Yorkshire standards). In my first day in grad school in
the U.S. (I had already lived in the U.S. as a teenager), I was
reminded that I was white, by whites and blacks and Asians. And I
spent years trying to learn more about American society. I'm still
learning, which is why I subscribed to this list and why I always
appreciate your posts.


Paul Frank
Chinese, German, French, Italian > English
Espace de l'Europe 16
Neuch√Ętel, Switzerland
paulfrank at
paulfrank at

On Mon, Nov 8, 2010 at 3:28 AM, Wilson Gray <hwgray at> wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> Sender: Â  Â  Â  American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster: Â  Â  Â  Wilson Gray <hwgray at GMAIL.COM>
> Subject: Â  Â  Â Re: shellacking
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> On Sun, Nov 7, 2010 at 1:19 AM, Paul Frank <paulfrank at> wrote:
>> identity as a black American
> I don't think the you're sufficiently acquainted with society in the
> United States, Paul. No one here has to *assert* black identity. All
> that one has to do is to claim it. Besides, Obama's phenotype falls so
> far within the bounds of what is considered
> "colored/Negro/black/African-American" in this country that he would
> have had a serious problem trying to *avoid* being painted with the
> tarbrush.
> I don't have any idea what you look like, Paul, but, on any form that
> called for the specification of "race," if you checked "Black" or its
> bureaucratic equivalent, you'd be black. You could never hope to carry
> on a conversation with a native accent in any dialect of American
> English? Not a problem. Indeed, that's even better. Just say this,
> "My father was a [European national or ethnic-group adjective]. After
> my mother died giving birth to me, he went back to [somewhere in
> Europe] and took me with him. However, since he had always hoped that,
> someday, I could return to my own people, he saw to it that I learned
> English."
> There you are. In like Flynn.
> --
> -Wilson

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