Thursday, February 07, 2008


Somehwere in Stafford, Virginia, lives Suzette Gomez Zaginailoff, a woman who is far more concerned with finding offense than she is with actually understanding how the words she uses work together to form sentences.

Next week's TV Guide includes a letter from her which says, "I do believe that, thanks to Dennis Haysbert's character on 24, people will be more accepting of Barack Obama in office [this is in response to a piece TV Guide ran on 1/21 in their Breaking News section]. My problem is with the fact that you wrote Haysbert played a black president. Haysbert is black. He does not play black!"

Apparently Ms. Zaginailoff decided that grammar was optional, so she opted out of any comprehension of how subjects, verbs, and objects work. For those who are as clueless as Zaginailoff, though, let me explain:

A direct object is, in simple terms, a noun that generally comes after a transitive verb; in effect, it receives the action of the verb directly. In the sentence "Haysbert played a black president," Haysbert is the subject; played is the verb. A direct object is often found by asking the question "subject + verb + what?" Haysbert played what? President. (Remember, the object must be a noun, not an adjective; black is an adjective describing president.)

At no point does this sentence state that Haysbert "played black."

I realize this is heady, intellectual stuff, but let's hope that at some point one of her friends will attempt to educate Zaginailoff so that in the future she doesn't come across as a Jethro Bodine with a chip on her shoulder...


Anonymous said...

As you know, TV Guide edits everything. Here is the complete email:
I do believe that people who loved Dennis Haysbert's character, as I did, could be more accepting of such a person (perhaps Obama) in office in real life. I personally feel race or gender should never be an issue. The person's character is what matters. My problem is with the fact that you (Stephen Battaglio) said Haysbert was playing/portraying a black president. Haysbert IS black. He does not PLAY black! He is simply a great actor, who happens to be black, and happened to play president for the first time on TV. So it could have read that he was the first black man to play president on TV (since Morgan Freeman was the first to play president on film). All that said, I hope shows like "24" [and the sadly canceled "Commander in Chief"] continue showing people that real change is possible, whether it be people of color or women in important positions. With Martin Luther King, Jr.'s day coming up, let's hope his words (character over skin color) ring true in '08 and in the fictional or real future!
Comment: I am perfectly aware of how grammar works. My question is if anyone would say that Bill Pullman played a white president? No! They would've said that he played president. Geena Davis also played president. She did not PLAY a female president. Yeah it can seem "picky" to you. But ask Morgan Freeman, Dennis Haysbert or any other actor of color if they "played black presidents", and tell me what they say.

Or perhaps you are too ignorant to see that the way you say/write something can sound prejudicial, Mr. Biggot.. I mean Biggers! [Offense intended]

And yes, the old TV Guide was better! There we agree. :)

-Mrs. Zaginailoff

Anonymous said...

I would like to retract where I call you Mr. Biggot. The truth is I do not know you nor you me. I certainly hope you are not a biggot. I do hope you may one day understand what I meant: Things may be grammatically "correct," but still be prejudicial and therefore not "right."

I wish you asante, paz and peace! :)

Mrs. Z

cliff said...

However, there was nothing prejudicial about the statement to which you objected.

The statement that motivated your letter to TV Guide came about because current election trends indicate that there might be a black President in 2009. TV Guide's writer commented that a popular portrayal of a fictional black President might have helped in some way to make that happen. Nothing prejudicial there, and the statement was grammatically correct and cogent.

I assure you that, if Bill Pullman had played a white President in a nation that had never had a white President before, his race would certainly have been mentioned in an article that focused on the possibility that a white man might be elected President.

(And for what it's worth, James Earl Jones played the first black President in the 1972 film The Man.)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the update on James Earl Jones. I guess it still boils down to semantics, not so much prejudice. Actors don't "play" a race unless it is different from their own. If you are a white actor portraying a king who is black, then you are playing a black king. Or if you are an Asian actor playing Othello, then you are an Asian actor playing a Moor. Therefore, even if the U.S. has not yet had a black president, a black actor simply plays president. He is a black actor playing president. He does not "play" a black president. Why? Because the actor IS black and therefore does not "play" black. Also, a female actor plays president. She does not "play" a female president. (She IS female.) Semantics of acting! We can simply agree to disagree!

Perhaps writers will have to work with actors to figure out how to write about this, since this topic (candidates of different gender and race) is something "new" in (U.S.) politics, but not so new on film!
Mrs. Z

cliff said...

And now we're back to grammar...

In the phrase "Haysbert played a black President," the S+V+DO is Haysbert+Played+President. Black is an adjective modifying President, not an adjective modifying Haysbert.

Geena Davis plays a female President. In the series John Adams, David Morse plays a white President, George Washington. You may choose interpret the emphasis differently, but the grammar is absolutely correct on this one.