As an overzealous first, second, and third grader, I would gladly participate in oratorical contests at my elementary school. Actually, I would aggressively win oratorical contests at my elementary school. In these contests, you memorize the speeches of extraordinary speakers, scholars, rhetoricians, writers, public figures, etc and perform them, embodying the words and mimicking the actions within the original speech. Back then I liked the attention fed into my black body because of my big mouth. I’d recite those speeches loud and proud. I didn’t really need a mic. My voice has always traveled. You could hear me in the back of the school auditorium just fine without it.
My teachers would be the ones who entered me into contests. Sometimes they wouldn’t even ask me. Probably because I was always the one eager to show people what I know. If your class won, you’d get prizes like a Friday pizza party or a free book, and with this weight on my back, it fueled me. I wanted to be the one who gifted my class this privilege. I knew I had the animation, the memorization, the execution down pat. I had the ego of a self-made success story. As a child I had more confidence in myself than the common adult had in anything they did.
The last time I was in a contest, I lost. I don’t remember the last thing I recited, but I distinctly remember the last thing Andrea, my opponent, performed. It was her rendition of “Harriet Tubman” by Eloise Greenfield that ended me. The way she said Harriet Tubman didn’t take NO STUFF. And wasn’t scaaaaaaaared of nothin’ either. The way she said Didn’t come in this world to be NO SLAVE. AND WASN’T GONE STAY ONE NEITHER. The way Andrea delivered it; I knew I was over before she even finished. We all became slaves to her voice and of course she won. She should have. It’s not that I was bad, she was just better, and it was apparent.
But this didn’t stop my big child ego. I kept trying to prove myself as best. But the older I got, even though my voice didn’t get quieter, it was no longer the prize. It became something else. I noticed my voice began to play the back more often than it seized the stage, . It was never as sure of itself as it had been in early childhood. My cousin used to tease me and say I sounded like Lou Rawls, gutted and deep. I screamed louder. But my voice also started to get shy in fear it wouldn’t be received they way I wanted it to. It started to censor itself. To lighten up, to whine. Or maybe it just developed into what it was supposed to be.
When I overhear myself speak, my voice is way higher than I originally thought it to be. My words are more jumbled than I would like. I speak really fast and everything I say gets distorted. My voice has never translated well. I am—always have been—on the other end of “Huh?” or “What?” I hate repeating myself. I’m always repeating myself. I am the epitome of “Never mind.” I’m a slave to my own tongue.
When I’m out of Texas, people call it my accent. When I’m in Texas, people just call me country. But what they have in common is they both don’t fully hear me.
This semester I’m taking a History of Rhetoric class I hate because it’s telling me there’s one precise way to write and orate in order to give off a clear message. I don’t fit the description in any way. My words on and off the page flip and turn and collide.
The way I was trained to publically speak is not how I speak in everyday life. The way I write doesn’t always feel the same coming out of my throat. When I was forced to take a public speaking class as an undergrad, it had too many rules, too many clauses. Even with me trying to stay inside of the lines, the authenticity of my borderline speech-impeded voice left my classmates looking confused, left first impressions clouded, left me wondering, is my voice something I have to fix.
In my writing, voice is what I get complimented most on. Yet in life, I always feel like I’m running out of ways to properly use it. How can people who’ve never heard me speak, who don’t know me, conclude something I wrote sounds like me, when people I talk to everyday never really hear a word a say?
Now I pay closer attention before I open my mouth. It’s still big, but I make it a point to clear my throat, make sure nothing is standing in the way of my intention and my reality. I make sure to slow down and try not to jumble an entire monologue into one sentence, and I shouldn’t have to.