I lost my voice over the weekend. I spent over a week playing a character in a play that screams a lot. I’ve played characters that yell before, so I’m surprised this even happened. You just never know when your body is gonna do something unexpected.
Gosh, writing that made me sad. I originally typed saying instead of writing, which shows how much I connect writing to my voice. My mom had a stroke my junior year of high school, and that was definitely something “unexpected.” Before the situation became more dire, my father, younger sister and I were told that she would never fully recover, and so she would have to live in a nursing home. It didn’t work out like that, but in the interim when we believed she would be alive and yet not “fully recovered,” I thought about what it would be like to have my mother in a nursing home. To have her possibly be able to wave at me, or at least show some sign that she was present and seeing me, but without her ever being able to say anything to me. She would be voiceless.
Sometimes I feel like my mother was voiceless even when she was able to speak. I believe my mother was very unhappy. We were poor and constantly struggling, and she was not at all a part of the Oak Park community. She didn’t have friends in Oak Park, and she was always working in terms of dealing with my dad and being a homemaker and all of that. My mom seemed to have made a lot of sacrifices, and I’d like to believe that she wanted better for her kids. She wanted me to be a journalist, and to that end, she would make me sit at our dining room table for hours on end practicing my handwriting. I don’t know if it ever got better. I grew to resent my mom’s dream for me to be a journalist. She never told me why I should be a journalist, it just was a fact of life.
Cut to over a decade later, and I want to be a journalist. I am highly aware of the irony in how I now want to be the things that my parents wanted me to be but I rebelled against when I was younger; my mother: journalist, my father: musician. These are occupations in which professionals in these fields talk about “giving a voice to the voiceless” or “using your voice to make a statement.” I used to hate my voice. I thought I sounded “too gay and nerdy” when I was younger (whatever that means). Older people, especially black women, loved telling me how well I spoke. I used to hate my singing voice as well, although I loved to sing. I thought I was talentless, and it didn’t help that years of voice lessons and choir and theater led to being told the same thing over and over: “Anthony, you have so much potential.”
Potential. I hated that word because I always felt like it was used to slight me. To me, you should have just said “Right now, your talent is just not as good as the plethora of black men at this high school who are doing the same things you do. But you can find your way if you work hard enough. We don’t know what “your way” is, we’ll never do these plays and songs and musicals again so that you can prove that you have grown. We’ll just keep doing things that don’t fit your “natural gifts” or whatever, and you’ll just have to keep trying.” It was odd, because at home I didn’t speak unless spoken to, I was just quiet and withdrawn. And at school, I did talk and try to use my voice, but I believed I wasn’t good enough to be heard. So I wondered, what was the point of even having a voice at all? What would I do if I didn’t have a voice, literally?
Discussing ableism in the arts is not new, although I am surprised at the lack of conversations I’ve had about it at Oberlin. I remember my first or second year there was a big petition going around Facebook about how Warner (the Theater and Dance building at my campus) was not accessible to just about every identity that wasn’t a thin cis white able-bodied person, and I signed it, but I thought, why aren’t we talking about what it means that most of us in these performing arts fields are still able-bodied people making art? And that it’s only when we’re injured in some way that we start to think about ableism and how it affects our future in our professions?
Even when I would philosophize about not having a voice, I was still scared of losing it. I internalized this idea that I just haven’t reached my potential, and I thought “What if I lose my voice and I never get a chance to get there?” I have friends who are visual artists who dramatically declare that they would rather commit suicide than be blind. I always hated that because the first artist I ever admired (besides my father) was Stevie Wonder, and I’m like “This man is one of the best musicians in the world.” Now I’m thinking about how Nyle DiMarco was the first deaf winner of Dancing With The Stars, and I’m feel like I’m getting into a bit of “exceptionalism-talk” (where I’m just highlighting cool things people outside of “the mainstream” have done that make them deserve to be given the respect they deserve just for being a human being, but that’s a whole other blog post). The point is that there are ways for people to still create art even if they are not able-bodied, but the constant assumption is that we have to be able-bodied in order to make “real art or tell real stories.”
My journalism fellowship is at a public radio station. It was not a part of the job description that I needed to be able to speak or hear, but I do wonder if I would have been considered for the job if I was deaf or mute. Would I then have to find other opportunities to “share my voice?” Would my voice be worth “hearing?”
Now I think that my mom wanted me to be a journalist so that I could be a black man that talks about the things that people don’t want to talk about. For all I know, maybe it was a projection, maybe she wanted to be a journalist. I’ll probably never know. I do know that the one thing about disability is that it is a status/identity that people can come in and out of over the course of their lifetime, and maybe it will affect me. Maybe something will happen in which I can’t perform or write the way I currently can. If that happens, I wonder if I will see myself the way I saw my mother when I thought she was going to be in a nursing home.