Letters from our readers.
Oct. 30 1998 3:30 AM

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A Complaint From Your Hick Readers

In the Oct. 23 "Today's Papers," Scott Shuger writes of a Washington Post piece referring to the "Bubba vote" and notes that "this is a perfect illustration of the truism that there's still one group in this country that 'respectable' people, even (especially?) sophisticated newspaper people, are allowed to slander--Southern white males. Hey, Posties, time to rework that style-sheet."

Having recently read (with some annoyance) Michael Lewis' Day 3 "Dispatch" from the Microsoft trial, I had to wonder whether Slate's style sheet had anything to say about this subject. Lewis described Microsoft's John Warden as having an "overripe drawl" and being "Southern"--but yet notes he is from Indiana. Through the rest we get Lewis' sensitive transcriptions of "a booming hick drawl," culminating in a contrast to Jim Barksdale, who, we are told, has escaped hickdom--he "retains only enough of the piney woods patter to offer a passing imitation of a good ol' boy when he needs to." (As an aside, I wonder how many times the word "hick" recurred in that short piece?)

Lewis is most exposed in his transcriptions. At the end of a string of them, he quotes Warden as pronouncing modems "mode ums." Maybe I'm just another piney woods hick, but don't we all pronounce it like that? I guess I'll close by quoting a comment by Lawrence W. Levine (in Black Culture and Black Consciousness) on transcriptions of 19th century black speech made by whites:


Even when the pronunciation of a given word was precisely the same as that of the collectors, their desire to indicate the exotic qualities of black speech led them to utilize such misleading and superfluous spellings as wen for "when," fo'k or fokes for "folks."

--Tom FreelandOxford, Miss.

I Love Lewis

I just wanted to send a clap on the shoulder to Michael Lewis for his Day 3 Dispatch from the Microsoft trial. It had me in stitches. What wonderful caricatures he drew of the people involved; he brought to life the dynamics of the barely sheathed claws of the interactions in the courtroom. It was refreshing to have coverage that pointed out, so humorously, the boys' foolishness and one-upmanship that characterize this case.


Thanks for a great read.

--Heidi HoustenBellevue, Wash.

Slate Fouled Up

This morning my "Morning Delivery" e-mail included the Day 3 Dispatch from the Microsoft trial. The end of the article features a prominent "F**k you." I have filters that keep me from being subjected to that sort of language in my e-mail. I expect more from your publication than the language used by spammers looking to sell me porn.


Foul language is a sign of low intelligence. Your writer went for a cheap, shocking joke instead of thinking of a clever analogy. You can do better. 

--Ann PorterLubbock, Texas

The Inescapable George (H.) W. Bush (Jr.)

Surely I'm not the first to inform Slate that the governor of Texas is George W. Bush, not George W. Bush Jr. (See the Oct. 16 "Chatterbox" and "Black Like Whom?" by Brent Staples.) The former president is George H.W. Bush. Thus Ann Richards' jibe: "He's missing his H."


--Dick LavineAustin, Texas

Editors' note: Thanks for the reminder. We've now corrected our error.

Black Clinton Myths

I normally do not write to the editors of magazines to voice my opinion, because I don't think it will do any general good, but at this point I can't see what good being silent does. I am a black American and have found it strange that the media have concentrated so much on how African-Americans feel about Clinton. It has been my experience that our community is only brought into the discussion after every other angle has been covered and, people are being pressured into the "right" opinion. I am tired of reading that Clinton is somehow black or at least as black as any of our other public officials.

As I read Brent Staples' "Black Like Whom?" I saw at least several assumptions run through his commentary on my community and public sentiment about us. One assumption is that at least 91 percent of African-Americans feel the same way about Clinton for the same reasons: He is black, he is great because he comes from a single parent home, or he has a similar background, so we can understand him better.

We are not a single-minded community that values or devalues Clinton's private adulterous conduct. Whatever our general feeling is about Clinton's behavior, why are we being used at the tail end of the blitz of political inquiry as a rallying tool to bring more people out to vote, to produce more negative opinion against Clinton, and to reaffirm the idea that we somehow don't know what is really going on?

The second assumption that comes out is that we don't understand what is happening when a political candidate courts our community on one issue and then targets us on another issue. Staples runs through a litany of economic gains that have brought African-Americans closer to some kind of economic stability (what stability that is or what marker he uses to measure that stability is unclear), which African-Americans credit Clinton for providing.

Staples appears to contrast the middle-class black community from the lower-class community when it appears to fit his framework but to ignore it when it does not fit within his argument. It is hard for me to believe that he would ignore the education or criminal justice facts--or that African-Americans would ignore the dropping numbers of students in college and graduate school programs, the rising level of blacks incarcerated, or increasing number of jails. The failure to include the holistic view seems even more astonishing given our position in this society, when the author reviews what is being said and who is asked.

I realize that we tend to be held up for our nonmainstream views on issues such as the Los Angeles riots, O.J., Willie Horton, and a million others. We normally will turn the tide against whomever we advocate for or in defense of, but when it comes to the job approval rating for the president of United States, it seems like the media attention focused on us is misplaced. If our opinion were valued throughout this process, I think the media would have noticed a marked difference in how we feel about this president, this administration, and the process he has gone through in order to reach this phase in the impeachment inquiry. On this issue, I doubt that our approval rating is going to bear on the ultimate question of whether the entire public will rally around the Republicans as they move to try Clinton in the Senate. The negative perception surrounding our community was invoked too late in the game for it to do Clinton's opponents any good.

I end my e-mail as I began it, by asking if the author truly believes that a few chicken wings given to black preachers, a few honorable mentions and awards to a couple of black poets, or visits and speeches to commemorate historic memorials and visionaries within the black community are enough to lead blacks to rally behind a president who has allowed our community to lose whatever gains were given to us by a browbeaten Congress of the war-torn 1960s. And if he does, does he think we are gullible enough to buy it as a true understanding by a president of our collective blackness?

--Genevieve Banks

Odenton, Md.

True Grits

It was quite a surprise to read Brent Staples, the self-appointed expert on what it means to be black in America, say in "Black Like Whom?" that "all African-Americans have Southern roots." He'd better brush up on history as well as geography.

--Helen HoppsSan Miguel, El Salvador

Brent Staples responds: Genevieve Banks claims to have read my essay "Black Like Whom?" but seems to have missed its central arguments. She accuses me of assuming that African-Americans like Clinton because he is "black." But I argue from the beginning that black affection for Clinton stems from: 1) a widespread sense among blacks that the economy is doing better by them than ever before; 2) a deliberate Clinton program to court black churchgoers who make up the heart of the black middle class; and 3) Clinton's intuitive understanding that the black middle class is basically conservative on the issues of crime, unwed motherhood, and welfare. Ms. Banks further accuses me of ignoring black school dropout and incarceration rates. To this, I plead guilty. Those factors are irrelevant to black approval ratings with respect to Clinton's presidency.

Helen Hopps has me dead to rights, however. I did not intend to say that all African-Americans have Southern roots. But most do. It may surprise you, Ms. Hopps, but the majority of black people--about 55 percent--still live in the American South. As late as 1940, nearly 80 percent did. Not much before that, the ratio exceeded nine in 10.

Address your e-mail to the editors to letters@slate.com. You must include your address and daytime phone number (for confirmation only).