It only took one season for me to love the competitive singing show, “The Voice” something about getting to compete simply on the merits and strength of your voice seems like the fairest way to approach a contest like this. Of course, ultimately it becomes about whether you’re the “full package” or have the “x-factor” but at least at the beginning it’s all about your voice.
Scientists are pretty sure about one thing when it comes to pinpointing when humans developed the ability to speak…
and that’s that they have no real idea when it happened.
They have suggested that speech development arose anywhere from 2 million to 50,000 years ago which is one helluva window if you ask me.
That’s because speech can’t be fossilized.
There’s no way to know by looking at a skeleton of an early human if they could talk.
And no one busted out the charcoal sticks to write “spoke to Lucy today” on the cave walls.
And as random as this line of inquiry may seem to you this question of, “when did this happen” became relevant for me over the last month when…
I hosted a 21-day meditation challenge.
Every day, for 21 days I recorded a guided meditation. With over 300 participants signed up I was broadcasting my voice to inboxes around the world daily.
And one day I thought to myself, “when did this happen?” When did I become so sure of my voice?
My voice has evolved over time.
And I don’t just mean what I use it for, I mean what it sounds like.
In elementary school we had, like most families whose parents had jobs, an answering machine. We’d run into the house, stand over the device, mesmerized by the flashing light, wait for an adult to get within earshot, and press the button to play the new messages.
And like all technology back then- it sometimes malfunctioned and recorded things it shouldn’t have…
Like…a random afternoon when everyone was home.
You could hear my little sister’s angelic voice. Barely audible over the sounds from the Disney Channel on the television and the clinking of our Tinker Toy sets spread out on the floor.
Her voice was so sweet.
No one else is talking.
Little sister makes a sudden move
You can hear a grunt.
You can hear her being pushed back on to the floor.
Next… you hear a boy say, “you know my back is already hurting!”
there was no boy in the house.
My entire family was baffled listening to this recording while checking the new messages.
My mom’s eyes narrowed looking from my little sister to me, and then to my father. Almost wondering when exactly during the day we snuck a boy into the house.
My mom turns to face me slowly…
She says, “Tianna, was that…you?”
I could hear the mixture of disbelief and barely contained laughter in her voice.
My dad says amused, “Tee, your voice is deeper than mine.”
And I’m embarrassed.
And although no one would accuse me of being a shy kid, no one would ever describe me as talkative child either, especially after that.
Last October, over twenty years after we heard my voice on tape for the first time, my dad was watching me from the back of a conference room as I wrapped up my three-hour “Why You’re Not a Track Star” Crash course. As we were cleaning up my dad says to me, “I learned something today too”
I ask him what that was.
And he said, “you can talk.”
To which I responded, “who knew?”
Fast forward a few years from that voicemail debacle and I’m in high school. I’ve worked hard on changing my voice.
I was speaking in a higher register than was natural for me.
I articulated every word (thanks to my mom’s insistence and persistence on the subject).
My reasoning was that if I did speak I wanted to be heard, and clearly. And I most definitely didn’t want whatever I was trying to say to be lost to the distraction and surprise of a cute little girl who sounds like a boy when she talks.
Anyway, that was my voice- practiced- trained. I was sneaking and calling boys (a boy- one time- relax) on the second line in a spare bedroom that doubled as an office. I think my nervousness about making the call made my false voice even higher and my articulation even more pronounced.
A woman picked up the phone and asked who I wanted to speak to. I told her.
And I will never forget what happened next.
The woman that answered the phone said, “Hold on.”
And I heard her yell…having barely moved the phone away from her lips it seemed, “Ayyye! There’s a white girl on the phone for you! You got white girls calling here?”
I was mortified.
When he came to the phone I said, “You know I’m not white right?” Which is probably the dumbest thing I could have said because we were in school together.
I hung up the phone.
I never called again.
I went from sounding like my father, to sounding like my mother who often got mistaken for a “white woman” on the phone and perhaps still does.
By the way…sounding “white” isn’t a thing. It took me a long time to understand what people were really saying to me when they’d say this. So let me be clear:
There is no race with a monopoly on having an expansive vocabulary or the wherewithal to annunciate, respect the rules of grammar, and communicate effectively.
That is an individual choice you make in the way you wish to interact with the world.
And if you are one of those people that says phrases like that (eg. talking white, sounding white) to other people the problem is that you’ve attributed the aforementioned characteristics of good communication to a group of people that you don’t belong to. You’ve excluded yourself, the better criticism is to ask yourself why that is.
Anyway…before I get too far off topic.
I never called him again.
And I made a correction to my self taught “voice lessons.”
Around this same time I was having a bit of an identity crisis anyway, having gone to a majority white elementary school, I went to middle school and had to be told by other black kids that I was black, before that I really didn’t pay my race too much attention.
In high school, my nickname was “Project” my mom HATED that nickname, it was almost like it was a personal insult to her who HAD grown up poor and in the projects for her daughter who knew NOTHING about that life to be known widely as “Project.”
I didn’t get it then but I get it now.
I earned that nickname from track and field athletes from Euclid. We had several Cleveland schools in our Lake Erie League Conference. And I had never seen so many black people in my life than when we traveled that way for our meets. I won a lot back then and finally other teams began to ask our team where I came from.
The overwhelming consensus was that they must have recruited me from the projects.
As terribly politically incorrect as that is, I embraced it fully. Going so far as to be in character looking like a baby thug at my competitions.
But two words: high school.
Anyway there was one boy from another school I had a crush on, and my winning ways and popularity made it easy for me to exchange numbers and strike up conversation with him.
I called him from my TracFone after making sure I still had enough airtime to have a decent conversation.
He answered, his voice heavy with trepidation. I figured it was the unfamiliar area code throwing him off.
“Hey, it’s Tianna. Um, Project”
“Oh. I thought this was Richard”
“Huh? Who? Why Richard?”
“Because the caller ID says Richard Madison”
“It’s all good, your phone’s just in your dad’s name makes sense”
“No, my dad’s name is Robert. There’s no Richard in my family”
I hung up.
I ran downstairs.
I told everybody what happened.
They started calling me Richard.
The jokes were endless.
Gotta love family.
But I stopped talking on the phone then and I almost never left voicemail messages. Having regressed all the way back to the day I heard my voice on the answering machine and was also shocked by the baritone timbre of my voice.
I was extremely grateful for the rise of email, text messaging, and aol instant messenger.
And so I became a writer.
But something else happened…
and like the scientists I mentioned earlier, I can’t exactly pinpoint when it did.
But I started talking again.
And at first, like anyone who hasn’t spoken in a long time, like Lupita’s character in “Us” it sounds
and our first reaction is to cease talking to spare us the difficulty of exercising that muscle into fitness.
But we cannot.
Over and over and over throughout my time on this planet I’ve let comments and conversations, a situation, or a person, change or silence my voice.
Instead of using my voice to change the conversation or situation,
or silence the person.
If humans didn’t need speech to survive we would not have developed the ability to do so.
And even if you don’t believe in evolution think of it this way, if we didn’t need speech to survive the creator wouldn’t have deemed it a necessary upgrade.
So when you make the conscious decision to not speak.
To not use your voice.
It’s not simply that you’d just “rather not.”
You’re almost making a life or death decision.
Think about how many people commit suicide, suffering in silence from shame. Shame can only thrive in silence.
Think about how many people are abused, suffering even now because they can’t tell anyone. Or how many of those abused go on to abuse others because they’ve internalized it all.
Think about all the people who remained silent or “apolitcal” when the third reich rose to power and how many deaths can be attributed to the complicity of that silence.
Think about how you feel when you don’t say something when you know you should have. Those feelings that arise in you that you then choke back down—unexpressed, unacknowledged, repressed.
Don’t do it to yourself. It’s not worth it.
You’re worth it.
And there will be people that say, “shut up and dribble”.
Or who will respond ferociously to what you do have to say.
Just yesterday, someone called me full of shit on instagram because (this is his comment) “one week you’re bragging about how great you are, the next week you’re down in the dumps. It’s like a song on repeat. I’ll give you some unsolicited advice…whatever you’re doing ain’t working. So before you try and give us advice, how about getting your own crap together?”
Thanks Chris for that by the way.
Because that comment made me pause.
And for a few hours I wondered, do I have to be perfectly together before my voice can be heard?
Do I have to wait until I’ve figured out life’s great mysteries before I can say anything helpful to anyone else?
I decided two things:
1) Absolutely not. With that logic no one on the planet would or could say anything to anyone else about anything ever again.
2) Chris could go f**k himself. Sorry not sorry.
Which leads me to my final point. I did NOT tell Chris to fuck off. I didn’t say anything to him directly. Part of using your voice is to do so responsibly. I personally subscribe to the concept of ahimsa: a yogic principle that espouses non-violence and compassion not just in action but in thought AND speech.
(I failed Chris on the thought part…but like he said my crap isn’t yet together so…I’m a work in progress.)
Anyway my ultimate point is this…
Use your voice.
It will kill you not to.
It may not be a literal death.
It may not lead to your complete emotional destruction.
But a part of you…
that part of you that needs you to speak up when you don’t…
dies a little
and over time
who knows what effect that may have on you.
It’s not worth it to find out.
Bloggers Note: If you want to hear me use my voice follow me on instagram and check out my stories, every weekday morning I read a passage from a book called Daily Enlightenments by Nathalie Herrman. Additionally, here’s a link to a guided mediation I recorded for the meditation challenge.
Thank you for all you do to support, encourage, and strengthen my voice.