This essay is part of our online special issue honoring bell hooks
“Coming to Voice” or Blatant Disrespect? An Epistolary Offering to My Mother for Understanding and Our Freedom”
You may be wondering where all this “talk back” has been coming from these past couple of years. Well, I got permission from bell hooks. It all started with her.
Prior to my first graduate degree, I devoured everything I could get my hands on written by bell hooks. For me, reading and reflecting on what I read from her canon was akin to being given a new nervous system—a nervous system untainted from family and societal ills. Bell’s words were so good to and for me, I had to spread the “gospel.” I purchased 10 copies each of All About Love, Communion, and Rock My Soul and sent it to close family and friends in hopes they would get “hooked.” You were included in that number because you are a reader and love to discuss ideas. Sadly, I have yet to know what you think of those books.
While we have had many discussions and arguments about the source of my suppressed voice in all forms, I want to share with you the source of me “talking back.” My voice continues to be a work in process, but it is a voice that is now unafraid to advocate for herself and stand up for her truth(s). Reflecting on my childhood, I wanted this cultivation of voice to come from you, but instead, it was suppressed and often shut down through your stern glances. It was often told to “speak when spoken to” or dismissed because I would “kindly” question something you would state as fact. Through these exchanges, I learned it was better to be quiet. Even in my early adult life, I did not speak unless I was spoken to for fear I would be shut down or stumble over words I nervously tried to find to be clear if I decided to say anything.
How could I continue my adult life not able to assert myself when I needed to… even to you, Ma? Do you want to continue to see me as a demure adult scared to speak, or do you want to see me as a fully actualized assertive woman ready to speak truth to power? As my mother, what do you truly want for me?
I became very angry with myself and decided that things needed to change. This inability to assert my voice was even affecting the ways I wrote, or rather, could not write, and even my mental state. It became so much that I shut down. Something had to give. After a couple of years matriculating in my doctoral program, I decided to explore what prohibited me from asserting my voice. I felt myself becoming depressed and was full of paralyzing self-doubt. I decided: Whatever the cost, I need to begin finding the spirit and words to shape my voice into something I would be proud of. Bell’s work helped me to remember and gave me permission. It became a life and death mission to find that permission. At the time, I didn’t know I could give it to myself, but bell helped me to find it.
Whether it was divine intervention or not, I am deeply grateful for how bell’s words shook my soul and prompted me to save my life through speaking up. Even to you. Before I could confront, stand up, and assert myself to people who may attempt to silence my voice (especially in academia), I needed to confront the source of it all: you. If I cannot challenge, advocate, or tell my truth(s) with you, how can I do those things with anyone else? At one point I was willing to shrink for your love, but now I am willing to bear the costs of a possible change in our relationship because of this firm voice I cultivate remembering bell’s words.
Although the challenges of advocating for myself and standing firm in my truth have shown up the most with you, please understand that I would never intentionally seek to blatantly disrespect you. Quite the opposite. If anything, I hope you understand that, with graduate degrees or not, coming to my voice and this ever-present need to “talk back” was and is a matter of life and death for me. Great efforts are made to silence me as a Black woman every day, even from the people who say they love and care for me. I refuse to be silenced from someone who I seek out for a sense of “home.” As I fine-tune my assertive voice, I will continue the commitment to being honest with you, even when it may hurt, and even when I may find myself regressing to that young woman who was scared to speak.
Bell reminds me that “what we can’t imagine, can’t come to be.” I imagine our future engagements will be full of respectful, engaging, and affirming discourse that will fuel the fires for our relational freedom. We still have work to do, and it is work I am ready to confront and heal with you. All I want is the healthiest, most loving, and free relationship between us. I hope you do, too.
Loving you (still)….deeply,
Khahlia Sanders recently completed her doctoral studies in Educational Studies at the University of Cincinnati and looks forward to a balanced life and creative career in higher education and as a community-accountable scholar and educator. Her research interests include qualitative, arts-informed, and mixed method research methodologies, faculty professional development, and culturally responsive pedagogies. As a member of the Black Letter Writers Society, she enjoys writing letters and creating mail art. For readers wondering if Khahlia’s mother read the letter before publication, yes, she read it and hopes it will give others courage to confront loves ones who may stifle their voices.