I would like to declare a moratorium on the phrase “giving voice to the voiceless.” You hear it bandied around a lot when people are talking about the work of writers of color, women writers, or anybody else who has been marginalized. I will admit that I have used the expression a time or two myself, but I will never say it again. Here’s why.
Last week, Frank X. Walker and Irene McKinney gave a reading at Rutgers-Newark. Both are writers from Appalachia, moreover, Frank coined the term AFFRILACHIA to highlight the experiences of black folks in the region. They both read such powerful and brave poetry. (You can hear Frank read his Medgar Evers poems here– he even writes from the POV of Evers’ murderer.)
Anyway, I am sure the work that these writers do would fall into the “giving voice to the voiceless” category. And frankly, that’s just condescending. The people that Frank and Irene write about are not voiceless. They may have been excluded from our so-called “history”, but it doesn’t mean that they are silent. It’s almost like saying someone is invisible, just because you didn’t notice them. When I introduced Frank, I said that rather than “giving voice to the voiceless, he offers aid to the hearing impaired.”
Writers don’t “give” anyone a voice, but ourselves. We may be able to amplify voice that has been ignored. And if we are lucky we can help that voice find a new audience, an new ear, a new heart.