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Anna Deavere Smith, the award-winning playwright and actor, has spent a lifetime listening—really listening—to the people around her. As a child in the segregated Baltimore of the early 1960s, Smith absorbed the words of her parents, teachers, neighbors—even train conductors—and realized that there was something more being communicated than the actual words:

The conductor's voice had a mild kind of grandeur that was a cousin to the vocal tones I had heard at funerals—"Ashes-to-ashes"—and at christenings and weddings. These are words that have been said many times, but the person who speaks them understands that each time it must be said as if it matters, because it does matter. We never know what lies ahead, and we never know what just happened, and all words must house respect of those two unknowns.

In Talk to Me, Smith looks back at a singular career as a seeker and interpreter of language in America, revealing the methodology behind her extraordinary search for the truth and nuances of verbal communication. For thirty years, the defining thesis of Smith's work has been that how we speak is just as important in communicating truth and identity as what we say. Everything from individual vocal tone to grammar, Smith demonstrates, can be as identifiable and revealing as a fingerprint. Her journey has taken her from the rarefied bastions of academia to riot-torn streets; she has conducted hundreds of interviews with subjects ranging from women prisoners to presidents of the United States. In 1995, her ongoing investigation led her to Washington, D.C. After all, what better place to wage an inquiry into the power of language and the language of power than in the city where "message" is a manufactured product? What happens when we as citizens accept—which we seem to be doing more and more—our chosen leaders' failure to tell the truth? And how can we know that we are hearing what Washington really has to say when everything we receive is filtered through the media?

Armed with a blazing intellect and a tape recorder, Smith tackled these questions head-on, conducting more than four hundred interviews with people both inside and outside the power structure of Washington. She recorded these sessions in her trademark verbatim transcripts, which include every tic and verbal utterance of her subjects. More than thirty of these remarkable documents appear in this book, including interviews with Bill Clinton, Anita Hill, Studs Terkel, George Bush, Mike McCurry, and Helen Thomas. After five years of searing investigation into the world of the politicians, spin doctors, and power brokers who are steering the course of our country from inside the beltway, Smith has come away with a revelatory assessment—by turns devastating and hopeful—of the lexicon of power and politics in America. Talk to Me is a landmark contribution from a woman whose pioneering insights into language speak volumes.




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