“What did you say?”
“Did you say something?”
“Who said that?”
These phrases are what I hear most often when i’m not at home. I’m the quiet guy, the one who doesn’t speak up. My voice was given to me by my ancestors-- before the slave trade, before America. In America Africans were forced to forget their native languages and learn this new one. I can’t make this language my own because of what was done to my people before it became mine. This language I have inherited is helpful only in making me forget what was once rightfully mine. My voice is the only thing that connects me to my memories.
When i’m at home, I use the voice I developed as I grew up with my parents. The voice I use outside helps me blend in with the crowd and seem ”normal” It also sets me apart from other kids who might “look” like me but speak a different language. Most people say they want to stand out when in reality most people want to blend in. Why? because our whole lives, we have had our voices preened for the singular purpose of one thing: survival. It is hard to survive if you can’t speak the language.
My outside voice is quiet because that is the socially acceptable norm. Nothing about my voice sticks out, it is just as low and smooth as any other boy my age. My voice has changed many times. Before this year, my voice was lighter, and happier. When my father died, it became darker and unpredictable. I can’t say the things I want to say, the way I want to say them.
One specific time was when I forgot my trailpass on the train. I was late for an appointment so I had to run for the train. On my way to the train station I somehow dropped my pass and hadn’t noticed. I got on the train and the conductor started walking over
“All tickets and passes please” yelled the conductor.
I reached into my pocket to get my wallet and my pass , but the pass wasn’t there. I got angry, I got frustrated at myself for not having the pass and ashamed for not noticing sooner. I wanted to express to the train conductor my own feelings, my depression, my anger, my self hatred. My voice had other plans.
“Ticket please” the conductor said.
“I’m sorry but I forgot my pass. Could you please let me ride for today? I swear I had it,” I replied.
“What? I’m sorry I couldn’t hear you. Could you please repeat that?” says the conductor
“Never mind” I reply.
So I paid the train conductor 5 dollars that I never should’ve given him in the first place. I’m ashamed to say that this particular event happened to me more than once. I happened to do the same thing 3 weeks later.
This time my trailpass and $25 was stolen by someone whose identity i’ve yet to discover. I decided to take the subway to the bus to get home so I could save money. I bought a transfer to catch the bus with minimal money. I made sure to button my coat so I wouldn’t lose the transfer, but somewhere between the subway station and the bus platform I dropped my transfer. If you’ve had a week as shitty as mine,then you’d know this was just the icing on the cake. I was angry that I’d cost my mother so much money in a week, that yet again i’d let her down. I knew some of this anger was about my father, but I didn’t know what to be angry at him for. I couldn’t yell at him , so my anger had nowhere to go but inside. I got on the bus feeling like the slime on the bottom of someone’s shoe and went up to the busdriver. I was ready to explain to him what had happened, I’d had the plan all setup in my mind, but I just couldn’t turn my thoughts into language. My voice disappeared .
Instead, I gave him 5$ for a transfer I wouldn’t even use.
“That was a one right?” asked the driver.
“No, it was a five” I replied.
“What? Don’t ever do that again son, ever. Next time i’ll spot you, but please don’t ever do that again”. said the driver
“Okay,” I said.
Out in the cold, unforgiving world my frustration and anger is not always obvious. I express my anger in subtle ways. I am sarcastic, people have to ask me to repeat myself which I know is annoying but sometimes that gets their attention. At home, where I am comfortable, my anger is not subtle,my voice is not quiet. I am loud and everything that is on my mind spills out, like a waterfall of molten lava, my words incinerating or cremating everything in its path. One incident in particular caused my mother great pain and I resolved that day to reign in my tongue, to format my way of speech. I was getting up for school, trying to get out of the house on time to catch the bus. My mother was doing her usual, checking to see if I had everything I needed for school.
“Did you brush your teeth?”
“Did you deodorize?”
“Did you eat?”
“No, i’ll just bring my food with me.”
“Did you take your meds?”
“Yes mom, I really have to go.”
“But you didn’t feed the cats.”
“You don’t have your squash bag stuff together though.”
“Maybe it would’ve been together if you hadn’t made me go to the doctors yesterday.”
“I’m doing the fucking best I can! I bust my ass going out there in the world applying for new jobs because of you! Whenever I buy something or send you to the doctor, its for your own good! I don’t know what else you want! I can’t do anything else! What else do you want!”
“Thanks. Now i’m late for school.”
My mother left the room and sat down in the living room. I immediately regretted what I said and went over to comfort her. We stayed there for a few minutes, and then she pushed me out the door.
“I love you Duke”
“I love you too, mom”
In James Baldwin’s essay “If black English isn’t a language then I don’t know what is” he says: “Language is formed out of brutal necessity” Daddy and I shared a deep connection through music. That was our language. Daddy sang all the time and we sang together. My voice was already changing before daddy died. He used to tease me when we were singing a song and I couldn’t hit the high notes anymore. Sometimes it felt like it was the other way around, like my voice changed to match my feelings inside. Daddies voice had a power that made you want to listen, it could lift you up or make you angry but you could always hear him. I am afraid that one day I will forget what his voice sounds like and all I will have are his photographs, the songs he wrote and the notes he left for me in our notebook. Maybe this means I will have to find a different language for this new sadness. I will have to alter this voice to be more compatible with the world the way it is now. In this language I will have to accept the fact that daddy is not coming back. As I move away from this hard time in my life, my language now stripped of any grandeur or confidence will change again. I believe that just like my feelings dictate my facial expressions , my voice will tell a new story. Hopefully, the new story will be a better one.