Write What He Meant 

I submit Cate Plys's review of the City Council meeting (City Council Follies, April 21) as an example of subliminal racism. It seems she wanted to poke fun at some of the aldermen and curiously, she chose members who are African-American.

I was in attendance covering the meeting for another publication. It is this kind of reporting which encourages readers to imagine African-American politicians as buffoons who cannot speak proper English and who are given to inflammatory rhetoric.

Plys draws too much attention to patterns of speech and the tone in which she believed the words were spoken. Here's a bit of news for her: Everybody uses contractions, not just African-Americans. But in Plys's article, all her quotations credit Alderman Dexter Watson and Alderman William Beavers with this terrible flaw.

Watson wished to express his opinion on the subject of the airport authority as did all the other aldermen present. His speech was impassioned but no more so than the aldermen who favored Daley's plan. "I was before any of those," Plys quotes Watson saying to Alderman Lorraine Dixon, who was presiding as council chair in Mayor Daley's absence. "Je-sus Christ, this is my last meetin' . . . and they still wanna disrespect me."

Dixon "droned in the bored monotone she uses for a public speaking voice" when responding to Watson's attack. In this reporter's opinion, Dixon conducted herself professionally given the number of council members who wanted to speak that day on the airport and the pay raise.

Plys then recounts Beavers's attack on Illinois Senate President James Philip when it was really directed at Illinois House Majority Leader Robert Churchill (R-Lake Villa) who introduced a plan for a regional airport authority.

"But today he's gon' get a message. That he's a farmer, he's always gon' be a farmer, and that's all he's gon' be," Plys quotes Beavers. Was the reporter quoting Beavers or Uncle Remus?

Philip, being from Wood Dale, is not exactly in the midst of farm country if the reporter bothered to think about it so the comments would not have made sense. Beavers made his comments in the context of Churchill's residing in a distant suburb, Lake Villa. No matter, Plys need not be entirely accurate. Instead she offers her own speech analysis: Beavers's voice in her estimation is "deep enough to really be God's."

Why didn't Plys use "going to be" instead of the contraction? It is difficult for a reporter to reproduce speech on a page, but the reporter's job is to "clean it up," not make public officials sound like idiots. Do the same rules apply to Daley or Alderman Edward Burke or Alderman Burt Natarus? I don't recollect Beavers's presentation being as sloppy as Plys suggested.

Perhaps Plys could trade her tin ear for the works of author Charles Chesnutt. Chesnutt lampooned the stereotyped speech patterns of African-Americans and the tendency to present them as authentic.

Michael Laff

Chicago

Cate Plys replies:

I don't find anything curious about choosing Alderman Dexter Watson to poke fun at--his was easily the most entertaining speech of the meeting in question. However, Mr. Laff's contention that Watson's speech "was impassioned but no more so" than the other aldermen is very curious indeed. Watson was screaming so loud spectators could rightfully worry that he might suffer a seizure. None of the other aldermen appeared in danger of causing themselves physical harm with the intensity of their speech.

As for Alderman Beavers's speech, I included his description of Pate Philip as a farmer not to poke fun at Beavers, but because I thought Beavers did such a fine job of poking fun at Philip. Incidentally, he was talking about Philip. I verified it with him.

I entirely reject the charge of "subliminal racism." If Mr. Laff has read City Council Follies more than once, he will know that I quote the garbled speech and misstatements of all aldermen and the mayor, without regard to race. Why does the April 21 Council Follies quote contractions only in the speeches of two African-American aldermen? Because they are the only two aldermen quoted, period. If a white alderman had made a more interesting speech that day, he or she would have leapt quickly to the head of the line. If Mr. Laff considers contractions--a ubiquitous human speech pattern--to be a "terrible flaw," that is his value judgment, not mine.

More specifically, Mr. Laff wonders why I didn't use "going to be" rather than its contraction while quoting Alderman Beavers. Simple: He didn't say "going to be." While the mainstream press often does clean up politicians' speech, it is their prerogative, not their job. Otherwise we would never have heard that famous quote from Earl Bush, the first Mayor Daley's press secretary, who said, "Don't write what he said, write what he meant." In any case, does Mr. Laff seriously believe that everyone who contracts the phrase "going to be" sounds like Uncle Remus? Beavers's speech didn't sound sloppy to me, and I didn't have to rely on a "tin ear" to reproduce it. I have a tape recorder.

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