Reclaiming My Surrendered Voice

By Cee-Lou, guest writer

Having divested from Facebook a couple years ago for my own health and sanity (and because I was getting tired of my would-be-ex’s “nexts” ghosting me), I’ve lost a bit in the way of getting news. Yes, I sat out from Facebook for the entirety of the shambles that was our recent election, hearing things the old-fashioned way, through reading my chosen websites daily, hearing jokes on Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show—which were eerily accurate. And after the election, I chose to separate even more, for a time. Don’t hate me; I couldn’t for a moment. I just needed a moment.

But even now, getting back in touch with our new reality here, I still miss things every now and then. I didn’t realize that Melissa McCarthy was spot-on with her portrayal of Sean Spicer (in my humble opinion), that Ben Carson actually said what he said about slaves as immigrants, and I completely mistook it for a hoax that North Korean missile launches may have been discussed over dinner at a country club with world leaders. It’s too much sometimes.

And more recently, I missed the heated exchange between Angela Rye, CNN consultant and Joe Walsh, conservative radio host. However, after the opportunity of hearing Ms. Rye speak just a day after that event, I am now up to speed, and more challenged to consider standing my ground, rather than running for the comfort that can come with denial. Although I may not completely be there yet.

She came to campus today to speak at a luncheon aimed at our young women of color, but open to all. I’ve never seen such anticipation. Students started popping in my office door 30 minutes before the event, asking if I was attending, but I was meeting with my students at the time. Colleagues came in and asked if I was heading up to the conference room, but again, my students. By now, I knew this was something big that I was missing, and I even tried to convince my appointment to go up, in the attempt that I could also go and not feel horrible shirking my duties, but to no avail. I would miss her speaking. I had appointments all the way until the luncheon was to end.

I was able to end my last appointment five minutes early. Should I go up for 5 minutes? I took the opportunity. Thankfully, it was running into overtime, and the room, set up to look like a multicolored disco for some reason, was still, every person hanging on her words. At this point, I was still unaware of who she was, but I knew she had her audience. Ms. Rye moved around the room with zeal and ease, talking to them as if every woman there was her sista-friend, and it was fine. She warned that she had no filter, and continued to take questions from the audience. I guess I’d just made it for the questions and answers segment.

She was just finishing a response to a question about the importance of your “ride-or-die” girlfriends, that they were needed, that we as women cannot and should not sacrifice these connections. Instantly, I felt myself part of her amen corner, thinking of everything that has happened to me and my own ride-or-dies since we’ve all hit 40. Divorce, parents getting sick, parents and other family dying, more divorce, getting fired, new careers, starting over – and that was all in the past two years. All of us.

Kabrisha Bell, Photographer

Then a student asked her about her interview the other day on CNN, where she confronted Joe Walsh. I know; if I had Facebook, or paid attention to Twitter I’d have known what she was referencing. But the student was in awe of her “voice,” and asked Ms. Rye how she found her strength, her voice. At this, Ms. Rye started to answer, to talk about that exchange that was on the national network, and her voice started to crack, then quiver just a bit. She said she didn’t think of herself as “strong,” but saw that her voice has evolved with her, that it is still evolving. Again, she reminded us that she has no filter, and she’s not always sure she says the right thing, but any strength she exhibits comes from starting out, and letting yourself evolve. Now, keep in mind that I’m paraphrasing her here, and not perfectly.

That moment, however, I thought of what strength is, where I am, what I need to speak out against, and what I haven’t spoken enough about. The older you get, the more you realize you don’t know, so they say. And looking at the other side of my ripe “old age,” I knew there was much I needed to learn. She told us to give our own selves credit for finding our voice, and also to allow for times when we can improve.

I thought about what I’ve gone through the past couple years. Where my voice has grown and where I’ve kept silent. I thought about what she’d said, and realized that strength, real strength, a voice that matters, is never stagnant. It is not something that just appears out of the ether. A real voice is fluid; it ebbs and flows. It has seasons of growth, and moments of dormancy. But don’t ever get comfortable.

I think that comfort may serve as a voice’s mute button more than a fear of speaking out. Fear? Fear can be battled, and overcome. But comfort? Now that is the thing that atrophies the muscles of the vocal chords.

But had that happened to me? I wonder that. There is so much I choke down daily. And I’m not talking about in the public sector. I think I may have it opposite from most folk. Most black and brown folk go into their workplaces, those 9-to-5’s, and have to endure “funny” stories at the water cooler that veer into offensiveness, questions about how we get our hair to do that, those microaggressions that we deal with seemingly as soon as we step out of our doors. But mine was the opposite. My workplace was my refuge, my safe space. I was able to nurture and be nurtured at work. I was able to share looks across the room with colleagues where we both know what each other means. Home was a different story.

Home was not my peace. “Home” was a place where I was misunderstood, belittled, minimized. Or, at least, that was the attempt. If it was a day that I saw him, it was a day that I had to brace for an offense — some blatant and extreme, some subtle. All of them coupled with the gaslighting accompaniment, either sung by him or hummed in my own mind, ringing out — “was that offensive? Did he mean it that way? What did he just say?” I was so tired. I actually looked forward to work.

After the talk, I googled Angela Rye’s moment with Joe Walsh, and I recognized all to well that indignant, smug voice that he wielded, the kind that you can just hear how much he doesn’t think of Ms. Rye or anyone who may resemble her. “But it’s not about race,” he says. They always say that. This, even though he blatantly stated in his recent tweet that former President Obama was held to a lower standard because he was black. But Ms. Rye continued to speak, continued to shoot down Joe Walsh’s skewed logic. She continued to persist. She stood her ground.

I’ve had exchanges like that. In my kitchen (a lot of them in my kitchen, for some reason), my bathroom, my family room, my car, my vacation, my bedroom. These spaces that should be safe, should be sanctuary. They are not. I feel as if my voice has strained from the weight of these conversations.

I recently discovered Zora Neale Hurston’s essay, “How it Feels to be Colored Me.” How it feels to be colored. That had me thinking. In it, she posits that when she first left Eatonville, Florida, when she was 13, she was no longer Zora but “a little colored girl.” This idea of feeling colored. There is so much that one can feel in a relationship. The messy one, the pragmatist, the one who does all the cooking. But colored. That is what I felt in my marriage. I was the colored one. I think in the beginning, I was the shiny colored one. Now I was just colored.

In the beginning, I was too busy nursing my wounds from a past relationship to notice, and then I felt the pressure of making sure I was married by 30, too much to stop and think. But here I was, married. Two children and 10 years in. My voice was tired.

A few years prior, my voice had been sharpened, but now I was done. I had papers started. I was out. Then…custody came up. I would have to share my children, without my supervision, with him. Him and the many new shiny coloreds that he’d easily corral. I gave in. I had to go dormant.

I recognize it now. This is not a safe space. I cannot come home after hearing the insanity that No. 45’s regime spews daily and see that look across the room. I won’t be able to even lament the end of the Obama era, as my husband is now an “Independent” who came upstairs a little too jovial for me on the morning of Nov. 9.

So where is my voice? It comes out at times. Like the time that we were on summer vacation and he mentioned that people should stop judging the police officers who were killing black and brown people like Michael Brown and Eric Garner, “because we need to give them a chance.” Neither Mr. Brown nor Mr. Garner had that chance. Or the multitudinous conversations about our son’s school and how public school is a completely safe place for our son, and that racism is a thing of the past, or not applicable to him. All said with a tone that suggests he knows more about this than me. Of course, this is coming from his extensive background of growing up in rural Vermont. Always negating my experience attending and teaching in public schools.

I suppose in order to grow muscle, there must be tension. Now, I don’t claim to know much about weightlifting, but I’m going to bet you can’t bench press 5 pounds for a year and expect to come out with sinewy forearms. However, I’m also not sure what happens if you have the weight set at 300 pounds from the start. I’m hoping that it just makes you stronger? But never stopping, I know that can make you tired.

I’m tired. I do not liken myself to my ancestors, but I feel as if I can understand those slaves who chose to stay in their state in order to keep their children close. I am not proud of me. And I can’t say that I am anywhere near Ms. Rye’s outspokenness. Should I be? Has comfort and the desire for peace stifled me? It may be.

Zora said, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” What do you do when that background acts as a never-ending wallpaper? What is my voice evolving to become? Will it grow stronger? Perhaps. Perhaps. I know the coupling of the new regime and my “wallpaper” at home create a desire to push forward inside me, to not be comfortable.

Maybe ol’ No. 45 was good for that. Maybe we were too comfortable. Now there is discomfort. Now there is maybe an opportunity to evolve, to strengthen our muscles. Maybe I can find a way to do this even in my own home.

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