Expensive Voices

I am sitting here reading Melissa Harris-Perry’s Email to Her #nerdland Staff and I applaud Dr. Harris-Perry for taking this stand.

As I read through the letter, I thought about something I tweeted a few days ago…

Someone read this tweet and asked why I was commodifying my voice. After some conversation, I realized that this person thought that #MyVoiceCosts was referring to my desire to charge speaking or consultation fees. While all speaking and consultation fees are welcome 😀, that was not the direction I was taking.

As you may know, my background in in mathematics education, so as a graduate student, one of the greatest lessons I had to learn (and continue to learn) was how to write. I could pull some sentences together and write excellent literature reviews in the genre of book report, but there was a missing element: my voice.

One of my mentors made it her mission to encourage me and other students to develop our voices in writing. I have dedicated myself to growing in my ability to share my voice. In many ways, this blog represents a critical step in that process. As I type I am actively suspending my perfectionism (I have to actively restrain myself from editing for hours before I post), which is an amazing feeling.

I now know that the work that I have put into growing as a writer and becoming comfortable with my voice was not really about writing. Yes, I’m a tenure-track faculty member at a research institution, so I am expected to write for my dinner. BUT this process has been more about developing a scholarly identity that has, in so many ways, really been about learning who I am.

The voice that I am learning and developing is born of struggle and pain. It is birthed through tears, disappointment, and rejection. I’ve pored over difficult texts and experienced the intense euphoria that comes with finally “getting” that random, obscure concept or making some elusive connection. I’ve had moments where I was unable to simply enjoy a movie because I was analyzing its sociological messages. There are amazing highs and gut-wrenching lows, but I would not trade a moment for this voice…this nuanced voice that still shakes and cracks as it finds its way through adolescence and into adulthood.

So when I say #MyVoiceCosts, I am saying that the price that I am continually paying to develop it requires that I not use it without careful consideration. I cannot allow it to be co-opted, mimicked, silenced, or otherwise taken for granted.

So as I read Dr. Harris-Perry’s email, I am particularly struck by the final sentences.

“While MSNBC may believe that I am worthless, I know better. I know who I am. I know why MHP Show is unique and valuable. I will not sell short myself or this show. I am not hungry for empty airtime. I care only about substantive, meaningful, and autonomous work. When we can do that, I will return — not a moment earlier. I am deeply sorry for the ways that this decision makes life harder for all of you. You mean more to me than you can imagine.”

What I read here is a #MyVoiceCosts declaration. I consider the challenges that I face as a Black woman academic and cannot begin to fathom the seen and unseen trials that she has endured. She, too, has paid an exorbitant cost for her voice and this declaration is a clear statement that she will not allow MSNBC to alter her understanding of her value.

So, MHP, I’m with you. To those people and institutions who don’t see our worth, let us respond, “I know better. I know who I am. I know why my work is unique and valuable. I will not sell short myself or my work. I am not hungry for trinkets or attention. I care only about substantive, meaningful, and autonomous work.” And let us take the necessary steps to preserve the integrity of our expensive voices.