The Problem With Palin’s “Shuck and Jive”

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Oct. 25 2012 11:36 AM

The Problem With Palin’s “Shuck and Jive”

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Sarah Palin

Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Yesterday, Sarah Palin posted the following to her Facebook wall:

Katy Waldman Katy Waldman

Katy Waldman is Slate’s words correspondent. 

Why the dissembling about the cause of the murder of our ambassador on the anniversary of the worst terrorist attacks on American soil? We deserve answers to this. President Obama’s shuck and jive shtick with these Benghazi lies must end.
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A quick primer on the phrase shuck and jive. Erik Wemple at the Washington Post helpfully directs us to the etymological origins of the verb shuck: Since 1819, it has meant to husk corn, and more broadly to engage in “the capers associated with husking frolics,” such as “fooling” and “deceiving.” And who were the ones originally carrying out antics while shucking corn? Those would be black slaves. According to the Dictionary of American Slang,

slaves sang and shouted gleefully during corn-shucking season, and this behavior, along with lying and teasing, became a part of the protective and evasive behavior normally adopted towards white people.

In 1884, Harper’s Magazine published a lyric by S.C. Cromwell that was part of a whole subgenre of “corn-shucking songs” written by white poets. The first few lines will give you the flavor:

Shuck erlong, niggers, shuck dis c’on!
      Dar’s menny er bar’l in dis ya pile.
Dar’s menny er rashin, sho’s yo bo’n.
     Ter feed all de han’s wid arter wile.

Other examples of this unfortunate form tie shucking to deviousness more explicitly—as in this 1896 entry in which the speaker imagines unwrapping a “crooked ear fer stealin’” and a “smutty ear fer trouble.”  

Juba to Jive, a dictionary of African-American slang cited by CNN commentator Roland Martin in his own 2008 excavation of the trope, traces shuck and jive back at least to the 1870s. And starting around 1930, jive began doing its own racially-charged double duty—as a verb meaning “to deceive playfully” and a noun describing “New York City African American slang.” By the 1920s, the phrase was widely used to denote cagey comportment.

Palin surely was unaware of all this history. But we often pick up racially coded language without being entirely conscious of it. Her Facebook post is not the first time shuck and jive has surfaced in direct connection to Barack Obama: Back in 2008, Hilary Clinton supporter Andrew Cuomo appeared to wrist-slap candidate Obama by noting, “You can’t shuck and jive at a press conference.” (He later apologized, adding that “Barack Obama is a beautiful symbol” and that he meant to employ the phrase as a synonym for “bob and weave.”) In 2011, the Washington Post writer Patrick Pexton denounced emails he was receiving that used “mocking shuck-and-jive language to portray Obama as lazy, evasive and sexually insatiable.”

Last night, Palin reentered the fray with a second, defensive Facebook post, citing the use of the phrase by Cuomo—and Chris Matthews and Jay Carney—in her defense. Given the phrase’s history, it’s fair to wonder whether she truly would use it when discussing a white politician, as she claims in that response. In any case, Palin ought to avoid it in the future, even if she’s just being corny. (Sorry.)