So that is how to create a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.
—Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
For years, I have heard compliments about my voice. People who participate in my journaling workshops frequently describe my voice as soothing, and they tell me it makes them feel safe enough to reveal things they hadn’t shared before. My college students often say my voice is warm yet authoritative. They tell me it makes them listen, even when I’m saying something that doesn’t have much substance. Back in the 1980s my friend Carter called me “E. F. Holbrook,” comparing my voice to the popular commercials about the E. F. Hutton brokerage firm. “When E. F. Hutton speaks, people listen,” the voice-over proclaimed. I laughed, but clearly Carter heard what my students hear. And let’s not forget the men who said my voice had put a spell on them. One of them joked that I could make a lot of money doing phone sex.
My children hear my voice in ways others are not privy to: the gentle tones, when they were little, that convinced them that the silly songs I sang out of tune would heal their owies; the shrill, scratchy tone that came out nearly unbidden when my anger exploded like thunder when they were teenagers; the authoritarian voice that left no doubt that I meant it when I said, “If y’all don’t get yo nappy heads up in here, I’m gonna [fill in the blank]”; the icy tones that said they had disappointed me; the calm, reassuring voice they hear as adults when they’re second-guessing themselves and need reassurance, and at those times when, as one of my daughters puts it, “Mom, I need you to talk me down off a cliff.”
I have often wondered if I could earn extra income doing television and radio commercials, or narrating videos and audiobooks. Maybe I could be one of the first women to voice movie trailers. In 2006, after I completed a merger that blended SASE: The Write Place, the literary arts organization I founded with another arts organization, Intermedia Arts, I decided to find out. I had been using my voice to lead literary programs and to teach creative writing, composition, and journal writing for a number of years, and I thought this might be a good time to expand my world. My voice had already provided me with small opportunities: I had narrated a couple of short films for a neighbor.
Conversations with acquaintances who do this kind of work, coupled with a Google search, revealed that there are a good number of talent agencies in the Twin Cities, some that offer training in voice acting. When a friend recommended her high school buddy’s father, an actor/teacher/talent agent, I decided to give him a call. I liked the way he described his workshops, and the price was definitely right. He said he was offering a three-weekend workshop for beginners that would start the following week, so I told him to sign me up.
The instructor’s studio was in the basement of his home, and he had instructed me to enter through the back door and go down the flight of stairs that led to the studio. My son Julian, who composes and produces urban hip-hop gospel music, also has a state-of-the-art studio in his basement and assured me that basement studios were not unusual. I arrived late the first day, the usual for me, and I was a little nervous, expecting to be the only dark person in the room, also the usual. I drove through the middle-class suburban neighborhood slowly and looked at the little white, beige, and light-blue bungalows, hoping not to attract any attention. I parked in front of the man’s house and walked around to the back with my head up and shoulders back, trying not to look out of place in case any of his neighbors were watching. I hesitated for a moment when I reached the back door, and when I didn’t hear any sirens I assumed that no one had called 911 to report a strange black woman lurking around the house. Then I opened the door and started gingerly down the stairs, hands sweating as I held on to the railing and took in the musty basement smell. When I reached the bottom of the stairs and turned into the room where the class was being held, I was relieved by the warm welcome I received from the instructor and the other students, all of them white, as I had expected. A thirtyish blonde woman dressed in denim cutoffs and a T-shirt flashed a bright smile and patted the empty seat next to her on the old sofa where she sat in the dimly lit room.
Just like Julian’s basement studio, this one was equipped with professional microphones, mic stands, music stands, sound equipment, and a computer. Cables were neatly taped to the worn shag carpet, presumably to prevent injuries to clumsy people like me who might trip over them.
I could tell right away that the workshop was going to be well worth the time, energy, and money I had expended to be there. The man clearly knew his stuff. The other participants were friendly and, like me, were eager to find out if their voices had the potential to be successful in this type of work. The man’s teaching style was an effective blend of lecture and demonstration. He invited students to ask questions whenever they came up and he took the time to give thorough responses. And though his personality was a bit curmudgeonly, his occasional smile, a brief, flickering twinkle that flashed through the lenses of his horn-rimmed glasses rather than from upturned lips, showed that he enjoyed sharing his knowledge.
Much of the workshop time was spent with students taking turns at the mic reading from scripts the instructor had placed on a music stand and receiving his feedback on the power, resonance, and overall quality of our voices. Indeed, I tripped over the cables on the floor when it was my turn. And then, in keeping with my innate clumsiness, I spilled the papers from the music stand onto the floor while rifling through them to decide what to read. When I picked them up, a script for a Progresso soup commercial was on top. I decided to read that one and save myself any further embarrassment.
I don’t remember the exact words, but the script went something like this: “We love your Weight Watchers–endorsed soups. My husband looks the way he did twenty years ago.”
The teacher instructed me to read it again several times, each time giving me tips on how to make my voice more effective.
“Breathe from your diaphragm,” he ordered. Then, “Say it like you mean it. Remember how your husband looked twenty years ago!” His voice was an interesting blend of Marlon Brando Godfather raspiness tinged with a touch of gentle matter-of-factness, a voice that perfectly matched his personality. My smiling classmates applauded, and I felt relieved when he finally declared, “There. Now I believe you. Now I wanna buy that soup.”
Three weekends later, when the workshop was over, I felt pretty confident that what I had been hearing all those years was true: that indeed I had the potential to be a voice actor. My next step would be to make a recording of my voice and send it off to talent agencies. My son agreed to make my CD and to record his own voice as well, since he too had an interest in this work.
I spent the next few weeks standing in front of my bathroom mirror reading ad copy, stories, poems, and newspaper articles aloud, practicing breathing from my diaphragm and projecting my voice and imitating voices I heard on commercials. I smiled when Julian called one day and asked, “Mom, are you ready yet?” Though he was in his thirties, the call took me back to his childhood, reminding me of every small child’s query: “Are we there yet?”
THE INSTRUCTOR promised to keep us informed about opportunities and auditions whenever they came up, and true to his word he started sending frequent emails. One of them, a commercial for a wet mop, caught my attention. I responded with an email expressing my interest and letting him know that I hadn’t yet recorded my CD. He said not to worry: he would be doing the auditions himself, over the phone. I wouldn’t need to read the copy the company would be using for the commercial, he said, because at this point they were simply looking for the right voice. I could choose what I would read.
We scheduled the audition for the following week, and I intensified my bathroom mirror performances, happy with my new ability to breathe from my diaphragm and allow my naturally soft voice to project and exude more power. I read passages from Isabel Allende’s memoir Paula, about the daughter she lost to a horrific illness. I’ve always been fascinated with her ability to seamlessly weave the political climate she left behind in her native Chile with whatever story she is telling in her novels and memoirs. I read print ads that attracted me either because they were great ads or because they were so sexist that they disgusted me, in the latter case hoping to achieve a voice that warned, “Ladies, if you buy the line of crap this company is selling, you will be demeaning yourself and the rest of womanhood.” And I read poems and song lyrics until, standing before the mirror projecting my voice fully, I decided what to read: the great Nikki Giovanni’s poem “Ego Tripping (there may be a reason why)” always makes me stand up straighter, confident in my own strength, power, and beauty, despite the way America portrays me and my sisters, daughters, and granddaughters.
The night before the audition I kept waking up and looking at the clock for fear that I would oversleep and miss it, even though the audition wasn’t until 10:00 and I never sleep past 6:00. I got up a couple of times and practiced. Then for the entire hour before the appointed time, I stood in front of the desk in my home office watching the Mississippi River flow past my window while I practiced breathing properly and projecting my voice, all the while praying that my fatigue wouldn’t come through.
Finally, it was 10:00. I took a deep breath, picked up the phone, and dialed the instructor’s number. He greeted me warmly and explained his process for doing phone auditions, saying that he would record my voice using equipment that would make me sound like I was live in his studio. He told me to read as though I was standing in front of one of his microphones, took me through a brief sound check, and then said he would cue me when it was time to begin. I took another deep breath and on his cue began.
“I was born in the congo,” I read, feeling pride and power in my voice.
I walked to the fertile crescent and built the sphinx
I designed a pyramid so tough that a star
that only glows every one hundred years falls
into the center giving divine perfect light
I am bad
I took another breath and continued:
I sat on the throne
drinking nectar with allah
I got hot and sent an ice age to europe
to cool my thirst
My oldest daughter is nefertiti
the tears from my birth pains
created the nile
I am a . . .
“Carolyn,” the man interrupted. I thought I heard some urgency in his voice, but I ignored it and kept reading.
. . . beautiful woman
“Carolyn,” he repeated a little louder and with authority. I stopped reading. “Carolyn,” he repeated a third time. “Take the Black out of it.”
Did I hear him right?
“Take the Black out of it,” he repeated. Yes, I had heard him right.
“Take. The. Black. Out of it!” he exclaimed a third time.
I STOOD IN A HEAVY SILENCE, my heart turning to stone from the weight of his words. I pictured the tall, skinny man sitting at his work station wearing the wrinkled white shirt, unbuttoned at the neck, that he had worn to all three of the workshop sessions, and in my mind I repeated the encouraging words he had uttered while critiquing me in his basement studio. I wanted to ask him, “Didn’t you notice the Black in my voice when I read the scripts on your music stand?”
I wonder what his response would have been if I had asked him some of the questions that ran through my mind. What if I had asked him to give me a reason why I should take the Black out of my voice? “There may be a reason,” Nikki Giovanni said. I’m guessing he would have stammered a bit and then replied that the company he was representing wanted a “traditional” voice. I wonder if he would have had the guts to tell me that the company didn’t think the American public was ready for the multitude of voices that make up this nation today. I seriously doubt it. Instead, when I started reading, he had uttered the first words that came to his mind, the words that meant what he truly intended—uncensored, not coated with the processed sugar known as “Minnesota Nice.”
I wish I had thought to ask him if he would be willing to take the Irish out of his voice, to negate his identity, but when I was finally able to speak, I couldn’t find words. Truth is, the poem I read could have been written by any Black poet, past or present: Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, Audre Lorde, Maya Angelou, June Jordan. She could have been a contemporary poet: maybe Natasha Trethewey, Elizabeth Alexander, Nikki Finney, Rita Dove. She could have been a local poet: Mary Moore Easter, Tish Jones, Sagirah Shahid, Sherrie Fernandez-Williams. Or it could have been a male poet. It didn’t matter who the poet was: the man’s reaction would have been the same. He probably would have seen any poem that spoke to strength or equality, one that offered a call for my people to rise up against the odds and be inspired to feel pride in who we are as a threat to his power.
As I stood at my window searching for words, my mind flashed on a scene from Roots, the powerful miniseries based on the historical novel that author Alex Haley wrote following the results of his search for his own roots. Every detail was clear as the scene unfolded in my mind’s eye.
A crowd of slaves on a plantation in Annapolis, Maryland, watched in horror as a recaptured slave was brought for public punishment. Three white men on horses ordered two slave men to spread the younger man’s arms and bind his wrists to each end of an iron bar. They then pulled the bar up with a rope and fit it into notches carved into two wooden posts that they had pounded into the ground. The young man screamed words in his native language, pleading for help from whatever gods he believed in.
One of the white men climbed off of his horse and handed a long leather whip to one of the slaves who had bound the runaway.
“Say your name!” the overseer commanded in a thick Irish accent, and then he repeated the words. Each command was followed by one or more lashes from the whip and screams that made the slaves in the crowd wonder how much life the boy had left in his bones.
“My name is Kunta . . . Kunta Kinte,” the young man replied in broken English, desperation threading through every syllable.
More lashes. “Your name is Toby,” the overseer insisted.
“My name is Kunta Kinte,” the young slave repeated, refusing to give in.
“When the master gives you something, you take it. He gave you the name Toby. It’s a nice name, and it’s gonna be yours till the day ye die.” The man’s tone was shockingly nonchalant.
“I . . . am . . . Kunta . . . Kinte,” gasped the young man, trying with everything he had left to hold on to his identity.
“I want to hear you say your name. Your name is Toby,” said the overseer and gestured for James to deliver more lashes.
Finally, when the young man had no reserves left, he said in a weak voice, “My . . . my name is Toby.”
“Say it louder so they can all hear ye,” said the man, pointing dismissively at the onlooking crowd of slaves.
“My name . . . my name . . . is Toby,” gasped the young man.
“Aye,” said the overseer. “That’s a good nigger.”
The women in their gunnysack dresses, their heads wrapped to hide their kinky hair, and the men in torn shirts and raggedy pants, all stared at the young man, their faces full of the grief of knowing that another one of them had had the Black beaten out of him.
AFTER A LONG SILENCE, I heard the man’s voice coming through the phone.
“Carolyn. Carolyn. Are you there, Carolyn?”
“No,” I whispered. I hung up the phone, then called my son and told him I wouldn’t be making the voice CD for a while. “I don’t think I’m ready yet.”