Voicing Vocal Women

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JUST BEFORE GOING TO BED THE OTHER NIGHT, I scribbled a note to myself. A question, really. Do I go around empowering women and their voices because my mother had lost hers? It just came out like that. It happens to all of us, ideas popping up in our heads. Often fleeting. Those of us who spend a lot of time writing tend to record those sorts of thoughts, even when we don’t initially understand them, or are even sure we are behind them.

Now what might I mean that my mother lost her voice? Well, we are most all of us born with a voice, and babies, for example, have no compunction with making that fact known. I mean they think nothing of using their voices, even in the most inconvenient of times. Like, when the parents are trying to sleep, or smack in the middle of a Sunday sermon, maybe. But after a while, as we grow up, some of us start to question our voices. Not how they sound exactly — although that can be a factor in all of this — but how our voices should be used. We begin to apply rules, and get rules applied to us. Children should be seen and not heard. Keep your voice down. If you don’t have something nice to say then don’t say anything at all. Shhh! But why do we allow others to tell us how and when to use the voices we were given?

My mother had many voices I never got to hear, or only heard whispers of. She was an anthropologist, for example, seeking to understand communities to which she did not belong. I didn’t hear much about those stories. She was a musician and singer; I do remember hearing her playing her guitar at parties when I was very young. She was an artist, too, and fortunately that voice lives on in her paintings — and in my daughter who also speaks with an artistic voice. When I was growing up, my mother’s voice was rarely heard in the house, unless it saying some pretty bad things things under the influences that overtook her. My sister’s and my voices were pretty quiet, too. We learned early on to pretty much speak only when spoken to. It was a matter of some survival and not just manners. My father’s voice ruled the roost; even now I quote him regularly, hear him still, all these years after his passing.

Now what do I mean that I think I empower women and their voices? Well, I do think I am a woman’s woman, as they say, a pretty fierce proponent of women of a certain age, in particular. My age. Women in our “silver years,” as Pastor Smith (blessedly back in the pulpit) coined today. In my day-to-day I am on the lookout for women’s voices getting tamped down — at meetings, on social media, in personal conversations… I have finally become the person who says, “I believe that’s exactly what my friend just said” or, “did you know she was a historian, maybe she has some things to add to this conversation.” Who is to say which came first, but my work in the field of oral history is directly tied to this mission that I have apparently accepted. Specifically, I am interested in amplifying the voices of African-American women through the stories they have lived and told. Having been a student, and now a teacher, I can testify to the paucity of Black women’s voices in the classrooms of this country. And that drives me crazy.

Many, many people have asked me over the years how and why I — a White woman — am dedicated to the field of African-American History and Culture. I do not know the answer, but I can see a trajectory. From my 4th grade best friend Brian Johnson’s mom, who lived in what we called “welfare housing” (with no concept of derision) who was so busy with work as a single mom; to my fabulous girlfriends of color all the way up until high school when an apparently universal sociological event happened that separated White kids from Black kids; to the music, and the art, and… But I think it’s mostly because there were just not enough stories told about these folks that I knew, and I wanted to know why.

Please understand, I do not “give” voice to the women in these oral history interviews. They surely don’t need my help there. I merely provide increased access and contextuality to their stories. Whether I am writing an article about Louise Epperson, fierce Newark, New Jersey activist central to the city’s mid-century housing battles https://newestamericans.com/over-my-dead-body/; or interviewing members of my former First Baptist Church of Madison, where I facilitated an oral history project featuring stories about domestic work, the old neighborhood, and segregation, I believe it is important that Americans hear these voices amidst the cacophony of yet-mainly White male voices. They speak to us in the news media, on the movie screen, and in the political arena. Sure, you can think of a lot of exceptions to this White male domination — thank goodness — but they are still exceptions.

I believe that unearthing the stories of women — of color, especially — is a call for me. Whether I am writing a blog about the obfuscated Biddy Mason park in downtown LA https://ncph.org/history-at-work/responsible-relationships-in-historical-commemoration/, or interrupting a man telling his story for the fifth time to a table of women with untold stories, I want our country’s chorus to sound different than it does right now. I want people to read the words of my friend, Naomi Extra who just defended her dissertation while already being a lauded poet and writer http://www.naomiextra.com/about; my friend Evelin who has seen a lot in her day and yet walks with enviable grace as she facilitates diversity training sessions for companies and organizations; and all the Black women whose lives have been cut short because of our gendered and racially violent society https://www.usatoday.com/in-depth/news/investigations/2021/03/11/sayhername-movement-black-women-police-violence/6921197002/. And then there is my mother, a woman who had fewer obstacles in keeping her voice than some, and yet chose to internalize so many other’s stories that she lost focus on the telling of her own.

This blog is my voice: awkward, controversial, and out of tune, I would imagine, at times. But it is mine, and I use it to tell stories — of life, thoughts, experiences, and other people. Sometimes my stories resonate with you, the way that your stories so often do for me. There is so much more I could say right now, on the subject of saying things. But for now I will leave it here. It’s someone else’s turn to speak.

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