Losing One's Voice

Barbara Krawcowicz, "Drop Dead" 2013

Barbara Krawcowicz, "Drop Dead" 2013

The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living.
- Marcus Tullius Cicero

I lost my voice yesterday. It was the weekend, so I wasn't being paid to talk to anyone, but it was stressful. Whispering at young children doesn't work very well, and snapping your fingers at them like dogs is both disrespectful and ineffective. My wife didn't like it either. Today my voice is coming back and, luckily enough, all I have to do today is read and write - no vocal ability required!

However, what I have to write about today is the loss of a voice that isn't mine. The loss of another voice. Of another, and another, and another, and another, and another. The loss of as many voices as there are days, the silence they leave behind that of the grave, the silent chorus singing at us from above, as unheard now as they were in their last moments. These voices belonged to many: Sandra Bland, arrested in Waller County, Texas, for not using her signal while changing lanes, and Rexdale W. Henry, arrested in Philadelphia, Mississippi for failure to pay a traffic citation, and Ralkina Jones, arrested in Cleveland, Ohio after arguing with her husband at his workplace. All three died in police custody over the last week. I can't speak for them.

These voices belonged to Troy Goode, hogtied face downward in view of his family on an EMS gurney outside Memphis, Tennessee, and Bruce Stafford of Hendersonville, North Carolina, arrested for selling stolen puppies, who died after a 'brief physical altercation' with officers during his booking. They belonged to George Mann, shocked with a Taser outside his garage in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and Anthony Ware, who stopped breathing after officers pepper sprayed and handcuffed him in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Jonathan Sanders, exercising his horse in Stonewall, Mississippi, before dying in an encounter with a police officer now accused of choking him to death with a flashlight, had a voice. Christian Siqueiros of Montclair, California, had a voice until a group of police officers restrained him, allegedly by sitting on him; he died of a heart attack a short time later. These voices belonged to William Jeffries, who died of a broken neck after Jeffries was arrested for public intoxication, and to Shane Gormley, who died of a heart attack after being Tased four times during a struggle with a State Trooper in Ogden, Utah. All these people died in July of this year, and their voices are mute now. I can't speak for them, nor would I wish to. I can only speak for myself.

One of the things I love about the work I do is that I never, ever have to speak for another person, because the kind of work I do at the university that employs me is mostly talking to another person. In the writing center encounter I speak as a reader, as myself, to an author who is working to speak for themselves as clearly and powerfully as they can. As a scholar I narrate my experience of reading texts to other scholars, as a teacher I teach students about composition and about literacy, all so the texts can accrue more meaning for readers and the readers more possibilities for making their own meaning, in their own voices. I don't have to speak for anyone but myself, just as I am now.

What I wonder, though, is what I have to say for myself in the face of this loss of so many voices. What can I say, in the absence of the dead and in the presence of those who should have protected them? What do any of us have to say in the face of this? I asked myself this very question all of the last school year, carrying Mike Brown's name around in my heart as I taught students who weren't left to bleed out in the street in Ferguson, Missouri, before their first semester of higher education. I ask myself this every time I hear about another voice silenced.

I firmly believe that what we do, as people involved in writing center work, is to amplify voices, to multiply their strength and complexity and individuality as much as we can while we can hear them. As of time of writing, the silent chorus has added at least 658 members since January 1st. We can't do anything with silence.