Euphonious Exhortations

My voice is having one of its moments. These come around from time to time. This week I’ve been told not once, not twice, but five times that my voice … “has something.” This morning, I gave a family directions on the subway and both the mom and a random person who overheard me commented on how pretty and comforting my voice is. The homeless man I gave my half sandwich to in Grand Central Market yesterday said I sounded like a fairy godmother. A friend who wants to work with me on a film project hopes I’ll do some narration because I have a good voice. And the young woman who sells me my iced chai every morning told me on Monday that I talk like I’m singing.

I’ve had that last before. A woman once asked if I was a jazz singer because she said my voice sounded like I should be. A coworker once told me I should record bedtime stories because my voice is soothing. A friend’s baby sister told me I could scold her and it wouldn’t feel like scolding because I said everything “in a warm tone.”

It’s not always cute and sweet, however, the reactions to my voice. A man who was trying to date me (quite unsuccessfully, as this will illustrate) insisted I had to be faking my voice, that there was no way I could look like me and have this voice. Clearly, I have a face and figure made for radio! Another man said I should do audio porn, that my “Snow White sound” would make sexy text that much more titillating. Yup.

My voice is fine. It has probably gotten better with time. It certainly used to be glass-shatteringly high. My students used to tease me by repeating my instructions to one another in squeaky mouse voices. I don’t know that I really sounded that awful, but my voice is high. My dream of a Lauren Bacall or Kathleen Turner deep sexiness will never come true, but my voice is fine. Like I said, better with time. I’ve come to terms with it. I think of it the way I think of my face, thoughts perfectly articulated by this limerick:

As a beauty I’m not a star,
There are others more handsome by far.
But my face, I don’t mind it
For I am behind it.
It’s the people in front that I jar.*

I don’t think anyone is particularly horrified by the sight of my face. Certainly, the whole of me has elicited startled responses, but that’s generally about racism, and those folks can’t actually see my face. I’m not always aware of the reactions people have to my face, but reactions to my voice are much more noticeable. I can hear the change in other people’s voices when I’m on the phone, can see people turn and look when I’m out and about. And, of course, there are the folks who just tell me.

I like to say it doesn’t matter, that it’s just how I talk. I know I’m lying, however. I know how I respond to certain voices. And there would be no way to count the number of times I’ve successfully used my voice to impact a situation. It matters. And that seems so unfair. We can’t help the voices we wind up with. Yes, there are classes that teach people to sound different, but why should anyone have to take those classes when they already come equipped with perfectly serviceable voices?

I can’t change that random inequity. But I suppose I can try to use my gift for good, right? What does that mean? Well, maybe it means my friend with the film project is on the right track. That baby who told me that my scolding her didn’t feel like scolding because of my dreamy, “warm tone,” was the clue. Instead of only writing my anger, maybe it’s time to put my voice to it, time to start telling people all the ways they need to step up, just how they can straighten up and fly right, just how fiercely they can work at being anti-racist, at dismantling the structures of racism that are destroying us all.

Let me just clear my throat.

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* This limerick credited both to Woodrow Wilson and a poet I never heard of named Anthony Euwer. I have no idea whose poem it actually is, but I am choosing to believe it is Euwer’s poem and that Wilson was known to recite it (I’ve seen two different stories of people saying Wilson recited it for them).


Sending a warm thank you to my friend Lisa at satsumabug.com. Her decision to start making space for short-but-with-a-whole-arc musings was a good push for me. My essays of late have been getting longer and longer and longer … so long that I cannot find my way to the end and so have nothing to post on this blog. So I’m going to try writing shorter pieces, no more than 1,000 words, and see if I can’t get through some of the topics on my pages-long list of essay ideas! If this works, I may catch up with my #52essays challenge by year’s end!

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Giant-slaying

Spent my afternoon talking about David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. This is the first Malcolm Gladwell book I’ve read … well, heard. I didn’t read it, I listened to it. About three and a half times. It’s another book club pick I thought I wouldn’t enjoy, so I borrowed it as an audiobook from the library.

“Enjoy” doesn’t seem like the right word at this point, as I work my way through listen number 4.

Book group met for hours today … and it wasn’t enough time to talk through everything we wanted to talk about in this book. We had a great discussion, and we still couldn’t fit the whole book in. I, for one, would have been happy to talk for a few more hours so we could discuss all the things. Well … not really, but I am sorry I won’t get to hear those aspects of the book examined by the smart ladies in my book group.

Have you read this book? Which section(s) did you find most compelling? Have you read others of Gladwell’s books? Which would you recommend I pick up next?



It’s the 10th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head over to Two Writing Teachers to see all of today’s slices!

List of Demands

Oh yes, because there are things I want, things you will need to give me to ensure our easy interaction. And yes, I could say that respect is what you need to give me, but I’ve been saying it for years and have finally accepted that it doesn’t mean the same thing to you as it does to me.

So I’m making my demands known. Demands, making me sound like a hostage-taker. Maybe I am. My hostage is this moment, this moment that has flipped a switch for me, for so many people. I’m holding it and holding it. Holding it as if there’s a forever-fermata hovering overhead just now. Holding it and holding it, stretching it and myself. Will I post other things? Of course I will. At the very least, I’m only halfway through my 30-stories run, so there will be stories. But for today there are demands. Listen up.

1. Stop telling me slavery ended in the 1860s. Stop. Because, obviously, I know that. But — and this is the big bit — slavery’s end doesn’t mean slavery never happened, doesn’t mean all of the social and institutional constructs that were put in place to keep me down never existed, don’t still exist.

2. Stop telling me your family never owned slaves. Mostly you should stop because there isn’t ever a reasonable context for telling me this, and you just sound ridiculous. But also, it’s likely that you don’t know this for a fact, so you should just stop. I know you want to tell me this maybe-fact about your family because you think it explains something. You think it will help me see that all this “racism stuff” doesn’t have anything to do with you. You never owned a slave a day in your life. Yes, well …

2b. I am no longer going to do your homework for you. Go look up “white privilege” for your own self.

3. Stop telling me I need to “get over” slavery/Jim Crow/racism. Let’s play pretend: You have debilitating arthritis that causes you pain nearly every day of your life. Every once in a while, the pain is so severe, you complain. And when you complain to me, I say, “Oh Lord, not with the arthritis again! Can you give that a rest already and get over it?”

Wasn’t that a fun game? Didn’t you feel heard, valued, cared for, understood? No? Well, get over it! (See what I did there?)

Racism isn’t something to “get over,” like a cold or a broken leg. Would that it could be so simple. And, even if it were something to be gotten over … I’m actually not the one who needs the cure. Just let that sink in your mind for a minute.

4. From this point forward, I will no longer entertain any sentences that include the words, “not to be racist, but …” or rephrasing of same. You and I both know that when you say these words you’re thinking they excuse whatever racist thing you’re about to say. They don’t. Period. My hand is up in your face as you try to defend yourself. Stop.

5. Just as I will no longer do your homework for you (see item 2b above), I am no longer willing to be your understanding of the monolithic body of Black People. I represent myself. I talk about things that piss me off. The things that piss me off may also piss off other black folks, but I don’t speak for them. I don’t need you to listen to what I say and then follow up with some nonsense about how you “didn’t know black people felt that way.” I want you to fix this, but I’m willing to understand your confusion. You may be thinking of “black people” as a collective noun, and we all know that collective nouns are singular. Absolutely correct. However, collective nouns — the glee club, the army, the prom committee, the senate — are made up of individuals. Individuals who may all be part of that collectively described group but who rarely think and feel the same way about all things (please refer to, ahem, the senate). So you are welcome to be surprised that I feel some kind of way about something, but you need not assume that what I think is what all black people think. After all …

5b. I am equally unwilling to listen when you try to convince me that what I feel and think is somehow wrong or invalid because you’ve heard of some other black person who doesn’t agree. I can easily accept that there are plenty of other black folks who don’t get pissed off by the things that piss me off. When I tell you that something is irking the crap out of me, when I tell you that a particular comment is racist, I don’t need you to hold up for me some random other black person you know (or know about) who disagrees. Do you agree at all times with every other person in your particular racial or ethnic group? In your family group? I’m guessing not. Also, please refer to item 3 from the grievance list. Those folks may be singing the song you’d rather hear. That’s on them. That’s on you. That has nothing at all to do with me and what’s on my mind.

Maybe you think pointing out what you perceive as dissension in the ranks is just some friendly Devil’s Advocate playing, helping me see perspective. You got no takers here. And the devil? Already has more than enough advocates. You need to sit down. Maybe read something while you’re keeping your mouth shut.

6. Stop telling me that police officers have difficult jobs. You’re right, of course. They do have difficult jobs. That’s one reason most of us can’t and don’t want to be police officers. That’s also why police officers all went to the Police Academy to be trained to do their very difficult jobs. By telling me how hard it is to be a cop, are you saying police work is so hard that it’s impossible to properly train officers? Are you suggesting that police officers have no ability to assess the stressful situations they find themselves in while doing their difficult jobs? Are you saying that the situations which have led to numerous armed, actively-violent white people being arrested and not killed were somehow less difficult than being faced with an unarmed black person? Again, I have to tell you to take a seat. Take several.

7. Stop telling me you’re colorblind, that you don’t see color, that you don’t see me as black. No one believes you. Even you don’t believe you. Being colorblind isn’t even desirable. If you can’t see color, you can’t see me at all. If you can’t see color, you’re negating all the work people of color have done to make this country. And maybe that works for you, but I’m not interested. Seeing color isn’t the problem. Seeing color and deciding that mine is “wrong” or “bad” is the problem. Seeing color and telling me the job is already filled, or the apartment is no longer available is the problem. And really: the idea that you don’t see me as black? Come on, people. Let’s never, ever go there again.

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It’s a lot all at once, isn’t it? And this is only a piece of the list! But we’re at a good moment now, a chance for you to step into the national conversation, to listen rather than jumping in with your convo-killing, “We need to stand together,” business. Maybe you really want us to stand together, but remember what I told you last time: all of us standing together to face racism means you coming to stand over here with me, not vice versa. That’s not up for debate. For many of you, it may also mean keeping your mouth shut for a while.

In this moment, you have an opportunity to have what may be your first real conversation about race in America. You can do this. And you have to.