I have long been familiar with that peculiar situation of being the only black female in a room full of white and often male peers and being treated as if the words I spoke had not been said – like my speech was invisible and my physical presence just barely tolerated. When I first started working in corporate public relations I would go home after a day in the office - a day of meetings and press releases and events – still shy and uncertain about what I have to offer and wander if perhaps my speech was not clear enough, not loud enough? Was I stupid? Did my words not link together to make coherent sentences? The blank stares I would receive when I offered an opinion – looks that seemed to say: “Oh God the monkey spoke!” ... I cannot deny that those looks are still burnt right into the core of me, that every time I brace myself to speak in a boardroom, in a presentation or meeting I have a moment where my voice stumbles on the memory of that blankness.
I am not every woman. I am not every black woman and I do not claim to speak for all the multitudes of black women in South Africa. But I know how I felt in those early days before I reclaimed my voice. I see that same look, that same feeling in the eyes of black women who open their mouths in places of importance, watch as they speak words with relevance and meaning, and then flinch as their audience tries desperately to pretend not to have heard them. This happens every day all the time. I remember in those first years of work my friends and I would talk about why it happened. We would have long, rich conversations where we poured out our shame and fear – where we sought reassurance from black sisters that we were not mad or dim-witted. That we could be heard, should be heard. Had to be heard.
I do not know why my speech was overlooked in those early days. That is not my reason for writing this today. I write this because I want to say this to you today as a black woman who is reclaiming her voice, who is speaking out loudly and endlessly despite the blank stares and nervous laughter and cold eyes. The only way that we can move from being the soundless noisemakers; the big bootied, glossy haired business suits; the token tea-makers; the only way we can break the oppression of our voicelessness is by speaking. Speak constantly. Offer your opinions, over and over again. The temptation is to only share your soul and your grit and your liver with those same black women who have always heard you but you cannot yield to this! I urge you to speak! Living in fear of the criticism or the blank stares is simply another form of bondage. Speak and speak and speak. Write and speak some more and you will be heard and you will find liberty in your voice.