I heard them through my headphones before I saw them.Â Male voices with a youthful and inexplicably ethnic cadence slicing through the sound of â€œDonâ€™t Stop Till You Get Enoughâ€ that was pouring out of my headphones at almost full blast.Â Not loud enough for me to distinguish their words but loud enough for me to turn my intense gazeâ€”which had been fixed on the empty space before me but that was focused on the burn creeping up my legs as my feet pushed into pedals on the gymâ€™s stationery bikeâ€”away from the burn to look towards the voices.Â Inexplicable how I knew before I looked that these voices belonged to young black males. Â Inexplicable how much I wanted to get off the bike and tell them not to be so loud.
Flashback.Â Early 2004.Â The Mall in St. Matthews, when a huddle of Limited Brands stores formed the mallâ€™s most fashionable main entrance.Â I stop in to Express to see how my former and favorite and only African American manager likes her new assignment at the Mall.Â We stand near the entrance and pretend to fold sweaters as we talk.Â Loud laughter and slang draw our heads to the side, and we see themâ€”dark young males in dark baggy clothes, walking with pimp limps, their gesticulation moving from hands to full-bodied expression, and making all that noise as they pass the store entrance.Â We watch in silence until she says, â€œSome people just donâ€™t get it.â€Â I shake my head and sigh.
Flashback.Â Spring 2006.Â The Ali Center. Iâ€™m on a tour just for volunteers, and I see for the first time the exhibit that will become my favorite: An old black man with a weathered face wearing a straw hat, a young black woman with classic 1960s pointed-frame glasses.Â Two other characters.Â There they are on a wide film screen: Negroes describing how ugly black was, how they were to be quiet, to stay out of sight, to hide their blackness if they could.Â Then video of a loud and young Cassius Clay saying he was black and he was pretty.
Fast forward.Â June 30, 2010.Â The Diane Rehm Show is about noise.Â The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want. Diane Rehm recalls her mother telling her to keep her voice down.Â Garret Keizer, the author and guest, assumesâ€”without presuming to speak for Diane Rehmâ€™s parents, he saysâ€”she was told to be quiet in part because she was a girl and because her mother, like his, probably believed in civility.
He adds that â€œthe flip side of people being oppressed by noise, drowned out by the noise of others, is people who have been silenced.â€
People who have been silenced because their silencers didnâ€™t like what they heard: sounds of confidence, of resistance, of persistent cultural memory recalling a time when song, dance, and drum were the norm and when quiet came with night.
Youâ€™re making us all look bad, my manager at Express and I wanted to say.
Donâ€™t you know youâ€™re living up to stereotypes? I wanted to ask the teens at the gym.Â To be loud is ghetto.Â Itâ€™s too black.Â White people will stare at you and shake their heads in disapproval.Â Theyâ€™ll watch you as you enter the locker room.Â You already fit the stereotype of being loud; youâ€™re probably a thief, tooâ€”thatâ€™s what theyâ€™ll say in their heads.Â We must make a constant effort to show that we are above that, that we know how to act.
But who said our voices were bad?Â Who decided it was inappropriate to emote, to express joy and excitement at audible levels inside a place thatâ€™s not a library?
How long will we have this hanging over us?Â How many of Obamaâ€™s cabinet members or nominees have resigned to make scared white peopleâ€”and/or those paranoid about losing their powerâ€”feel more comfortable?Â How many have left because someone was too honest about his or her feelings about this country?Â How many times has the president himself back-peddled on his own comments because they werenâ€™t put into a context that put his most conservative opponents at ease?
Diane Rehm said that in addition to her mother telling her to keep her voice down, she also remembered always being the loudest one out on the playing field.
Although I realize that in that contextâ€”outside among other children, where it was okay for her to use her voiceâ€”she was effectively kept in her place, I also see that there is freedom in loudness. Â An artist who is well-experienced in getting children to create art once educated me on how to work with the population.Â She said that in school, much time is dedicated to getting children to be silent, all the while forgetting that there is great creative energy in noise, in the exchange of words and ideas.Â Her solution was to let the children talk until she shook a musical noise-making device alerting them that it was time to be quiet.
Itâ€™s suffocating to live under scrutiny and expectations.Â And leaving your speech, your feelings, your culture, and your essence under wraps doesnâ€™t tame you.Â It makes you want to scream.
Letâ€™s not scream.Â Letâ€™s be honest.Â Letâ€™s express ourselves with neither intrusion upon othersâ€™ quiet, nor fear of othersâ€™ judgment.Â Letâ€™s learn how to play again.
Letâ€™s get loud.