Culture

Being Silent Nevermore: The Psychology of Raising My Voice For Those that Have Been Muted

Being silent nevermore: I now raise the roof on behalf of those whose voices have been muted

Growing up I was labeled as “gifted”.  I was offered the opportunity to skip a grade, which I wisely declined. Teachers in the South Bronx loved me. I was studious. I was advanced against all odds (in their eyes).  I was respectful and my mom was highly involved.  She would go to the local library and take out ten books at a time for me. She went and bought Spanish-English dictionaries for everyone in my class. Till this day, I have no idea how she managed to pay for that. I do know she took her red shopping cart and walked the 20 blocks to the nearest book store.

I was somewhat precocious in that at home I was referred to as a chatter box.  I would go on and on about the latest book or television plot I had come across. I had a rather rich imagination that led to me being a champion story-teller and little Ms. Carvel. I would talk so much that my mom, in the bedroom we shared, would beg me to be quiet for a few. She would drink black coffee to stave off the headaches.  I was named class valedictorian in 9th grade.  I put together, in my very own words, my valedictorian speech which my English teacher, of course, vetted and had me practice before her. In doing so I came to learn that all along I had been mispronouncing my “Th“.  Although, I had no accent, apparently I was a typical Nuyorican in that respect. I was somewhat mortified. After that, while I had been an enthusiastic performer, I became silent.

Because I was so gifted, I received full scholarships to the prestigious Phillips Andover Academy boarding school, a school year abroad, and to Vassar College. I worked hard. I studied hard. I was always hungry for information. I wrote of interesting things and my mind was creative in its prose. However, once out of the South Bronx, although, I knew the answers I hardly ever raised my hand in class.  I recall in 10th grade, there was this one time where I was out and about in the town of Andover itself buying a calculator for my extremely demanding math class. As I went up to the counter, the saleslady pulled out a sales slips notebook and started writing out the sales receipt.  I was paying with cash, my mother’s hard-scraped cash, but they still insisted on getting my name, address and my plans after graduating high school.  I gave them my dorm name as my address: Johnson North. She asked me to repeat it several times. I didn’t get the interaction.  She then said are you sure and I nodded my affirmation. She rang it up and placed the calculator in the bag along with the receipt. As I walked back to campus, my 14 year-old self looked at the receipt in disbelief. She had written as my address “Johnson Norf”.

Fast forward many years later. I was finishing up my PhD in record time (for U.C. Berkeley, that is) and deciding between post-doctoral position offers. Many of the positions were focused on lab work where you get to be a tenured professor’s writing and laboratory-operations minion. There was one that while in the guise of being a minion afforded me an opportunity for real-world application; and that was the offer I accepted. I endeavored to do stigma research with real-world application and understanding. I worked with HIV-positive individuals who felt so stigmatized by society and family members, that their voices were often-times muted. I decided, after my post-doc position ended to stay in the HIV field and therein my voice came roaring back.

We are now three decades into the HIV epidemic. During the ’80s it was community activists that raised their collective voices to enhance not only awareness of HIV/AIDS but also to humanize the treatment of those that were infected. By the end of the 1980s over 600 community based organizations sprang up to care for the infected and affected, as well as to raise awareness and demand for the allocation of financial resources to stem the oncoming epidemic. Now in the 2000s, I have picked up that mantle. At first, I was still a bit gun-shy as I was the new kid on the block and my Ph.D actually engendered some skepticism towards me. Many wondered if I was just some book-smart academic removed from the realities of the pain and suffering of not only community members but also of the HIV workforce which as a whole has been showing signs of burnout.  I had to prove myself repeatedly the first two years.

Then the big event happened. While providing a seemingly ho-hum conference presentation I was surrounded by protestors. But not what you would think it was about. I was being harangued because I was Hispanic.  Puzzled at first, I let the protestors do their thing. Then I remembered I had a voice. My voice steadily rose above theirs and I shifted the conversation. In that instant I became a hero to some,  a pariah to others. By protesting me and my ethnic being they gave me a microphone that I have quite effectively used since that incident. I am widely viewed with respect now and in every meeting I participate in people know I have something to say.  I do presentation upon presentation where I own the room and am a total diva. Why shouldn’t I be? I know my stuff. I’m articulate. I can weave in pop culture seamlessly to drive home a point. I can be really funny (twisted and dark, mind you). I can relate and I represent! It is my job and my mission to speak up. That is what my mother worked hard for. It is what I worked hard for.

Since my Andover Days, I have developed a fairly flat accent. Occasionally, in moments of rage, I may sound more like a New Yorker. That doesn’t happen often. Well, not that often. I pick up a microphone now and I rock the house even if I still slip and say “norf” instead of north.

Prompted in part by the weekly writing challenge of “the sound of silence

25 replies »

  1. My brain is a bit too inarticulate today to be able to express my full feelings on this post. But I feel a very strong urge just to say Thank You. If I can just say that reading this has come at just the right time for me, I hope that’s enough x

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      • Things are great, thank you, mimi. To explain a little further as the fog in my brain has cleared slightly, circumstances in my family have recently had me doing much contemplation on my own upbringing and education. Accent and roots also have relevance for me – in a slightly different way from you, but with the ultimate effect of silencing me for a period of time. Having been born in Canada, brought up mainly in England, and spending most of my adult life in Scotland, with what is considered a ‘posh’, or ‘English’ accent, I’ve struggled to feel that I fit in to a neat box, and have often been the butt of slightly derogatory remarks. I went through a similar period of silence, ironically starting at a time when I was at theatre school learning how to use my voice correctly. Eventually breaking out of that silence, finding my own voice, and realising that it’s ok to embrace my Canadian and various-sorts-of-British-ness, be comfortable in my own skin, and just do what I do, was so refreshing. I think reading this yesterday just gave me a tremendous sense of calm – your story has parallels with mine,and it helped a couple of things click together. So again, thank you. 🙂

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      • Thanks for sharing your story. Its amazing how our varied life stories and not being wedded to one place brings such moments of pain. Im glad my story helped 🙂 again, thanks for sharing such a personal account. It also helps me to better understand how my life trajectory fits in with that of others

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  2. I love this! Many of the UCT students say campus is divided by accent for African students in particular, (I think Buhle Zuma has done his phd on this) but I’m so glad you found your voice and can rule the room!!

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  3. I always enjoy reading your posts! I think many of us can relate to having their voice silenced in one way or another by feeling out of place. As a student from a very, very small Western town attending school in a big East Coast city, I understand the feelings of feeling quieted by your differences. I loved this look into your life, and I’m glad to hear that you’ve found your voice again!
    -Taylor
    http://tayloryates.wordpress.com

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  4. This is such a thought-provoking post. It really resonates with me, because I am from Glasgow, and moved to the US at 10 years old. I was a pretty outgoing, talkative child, but after most of 6th and 7th grade receiving a chorus of “I don’t understand you! What is she SAYING?!” every time I opened my mouth, I then pretty much shut it and barely spoke for the next two years, until we moved to England… at which point I was mocked for my now American accent, and the whole cycle started again! While it’s not okay to mock anyone for anything ever, there is something particularly undermining when teasing focusses on your voice – it feels as though it never matters what you say, people only hear how you say it. Thanks for sharing!

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    • Oh my. Thank you for sharing your personal story. It makes me so sad to hear of these taunts we have gone through. I think your point is so right on – people focus on how they hear you say things. Again, thanks for sharing with me. I hope these cycles stop. Have a great day ahead

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  5. This is powerful stuff. One of my best friends is a non-traditional student at Columbia and learning a whole new world. I’m going to send her to this blog. I think it will really encourage her. Thank you for sharing this!!

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  6. Interesting, I started wearing more pink after I separated from my (now ex) husband, about the same time I stopped being silent. But this is NY so much of my wardrobe is still black. And since I’m a New Yorker, I’ve reclaimed my strength of spirit. I love this blog post, love hearing about strong, kind and intelligent people like you. (And your mom is a hero)

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