From preachers in Birmingham to rap stars in the Bronx, it has long been the
case that many of America’s greatest rhetoricians have been black. In the Democratic
primaries, the manner in which Al Sharpton effortlessly showed up his opponents
was, frankly, embarrassing. On the pop charts, Public Enemy and their successors
changed forever the way in which popular musicians can speak to a mass audience.
And over at National Public Radio, the fastest-growing program for the past
few years – indeed, the fastest-growing radio show in NPR history –
has been that of Tavis Smiley, a black radio host whose racially-charged programming
found an audience of 900,000 listeners a week, most of them white.
Smiley has now decided to leave
NPR, claiming that the network has "has simply failed to meaningfully reach
out to a broad spectrum of Americans". In a short interview
about his decision in Time magazine, Smiley essentially says that he didn’t
want to be the token black at NPR, and he saw precious little evidence that
the rest of the network was taking its stated commitment to a more diverse audience
What interests me, however, is Smiley’s choice of words when he’s asked what
the new Nas album: he says he felt "stupid" and "humbled".
Far be it from me to lecture any African American on the subject of humility,
but are these really the mots juste? "when a rapper drops my name
in a song and says something positive, I’m humbled," says Smiley: why should
that be? The reaction of most of us, I’m sure, would be quite the opposite.
My suspicion is that "humbled" has a second meaning, which is almost
the opposite of its primary
meaning. Look at George Galloway (another great public speaker, as it happens),
after winning his libel case in the UK high court, saying
that "I am glad and somewhat humbled to discover that there is at least
one corner of the English field which remains uncorrupted and independent and
that corner is in this courtroom." Galloway isn’t using "humbled"
literally here. He hasn’t been humiliated by the court: in fact, the court agreed
with him entirely. What he means is that he feels that he’s managed to find
an entity greater than himself, one to whom he can happily cede authority.
Smiley’s use of "humbled", I think, is similar. It’s become something
of a cliché for politicians to claim
humility upon their election or appointment to senior posts: it’s just another
iteration of the "you’re not working for me, I’m working for you"
speech. Just as Galloway was placing himself below the high court, so do these
people place themselves below those who elected them. In Smiley’s case, maybe
he’s simply saying that being namechecked by Nas only serves to remind him that
there are greater black communicators out there, Nas being one of them.
Even so, I think maybe Smiley goes a little bit far when he says that Nas’s
song made him feel "stupid". This is not irony, nor is it even antiphrasis,
really. It’s probably closer to false modesty, but even that’s not quite right:
no matter how undistinguished or mediocre a person you are, being namechecked
by Nas does not make you feel stupid. If Smiley considered himself a nonentity
in relation to Nas, then his natural reaction to hearing the song would probably
be closer to pride.
Still, it’s interesting to examine the literal implication of Smiley’s words.
What sort of a person would genuinely feel stupid upon hearing the song, and
would literally feel humbled by it? The answer is someone who considered himself
superior to Nas in every way: such a person would think it stupid that a mere
rapper would presume to compliment him in a song, and would feel, perhaps, dragged
down to the rapper’s level in the process.
Now I’m not for a minute suggesting that Smiley feels that way. But I do wonder
if we’re not seeing a new rhetorical device here: call it false hubris. The
idea, I suppose, might be that if you implausibly claims emotions only a raving
egomaniac would actually feel, then you’re not a raving egomaniac, and in fact
you’re probably just a cool, regular guy.
Of course, I’m almost certainly taking a throwaway five-minute conversation
with a newsmagazine journalist far too seriously. Most likely, Smiley was simply
trying to say something along the lines of "I don’t consider myself worthy
of this honour", without sounding pompous and, well, stupid. It’s just
interesting to see how someone hailed as one of the great communicators of our
day actually went about doing so.