Voice, Conscience, Community
by Gregory Stephens
My son Samuel turns 21 on July 1, 2019. Biracial, multilingual, and a Muslim, Samuel wants to be an imam whose students pay for his teachings. I cannot tell his truth to my parents, conservative Christians in West Texas. Although conscience may demand that we attempt to speak across boundaries, sometimes more communication is not better.
After accompanying Samuel to pre-Ramadan prayers, I meditated on what it means to have voice, to use voice guided by conscience, and to direct conscious voice towards the communities which discipline one’s voice. Community is the chorus—like the collective voice of Greek drama, or musical refrains--without which voice is too often self-serving. But in truth community can also constrain voice, erode one’s capacity to be honest, even strip voice of the capacity to “speak truth to power.”
To adhere to such an ideal presumes that there remain ways to project voice that can heard by those in power. There is also the prickly issue that a focus on speaking a “truth” to power can rupture one’s relationship to community, and distort our “true voice.”
The question of voice has personal and professional bookends for me. I came of age with the conviction that I had something important to say, the talent to express it, and that there were audiences who could be moved by my voice. I’m not sure where this belief came from. I have been humbled many times; this faith was often questioned. But I have never really shed this idea.
My professional concern with voice grows out of conflict with academic communities. My writerly origins are in journalism and creative expression. I earned a PhD after turning 40, as I was raising another biracial bilingual child—Sela, whose voice appears in the “Afterthoughts” of my first book. I carried something of the voices of journalist, songwriter, and father into my scholarship. But academic prose has become formulaic, unreadable. New generations came of age thinking that bad writing is standard practice; young editors began demanding that I conform to a voiceless norm. Having a community of readers remains important to me. I began to push back against the demands that I neuter my voice.
My professional community demands that I write in a way that is unreadable to my cultural communities of origin. Writing in the disciplines has often meant repressing my truer voice. Yet I to try to strike a balance, to work within this discipline, while also reaching for a wider audience. But this wider community has stopped reading. Where does that leave me?
People still respond to stories. Artful language and metaphor can still find an audience. Post-apocalyptic narratives are a best-selling genre for a reason. The adaptation of Handmaid’s Tale resonates with viewers trying to make sense of a post-rational political landscape.
If I want to express voice with conscience, as a writer or a teacher, I don’t have to state my own opinion. I can choose visionaries like Bob Marley, who in his song “Babylon System” said this about what universities turn out:
Deceiving the people continually…
Me say them graduating thieves and murderers
Marley crossed boundaries with his calls to “rebel.” But if resistance were my primary message, then who would listen? My conscience, disciplined by different communities who are often intolerant of each other, dictates a less romantic view of resistance.
I look around and see that there is little conscience left in American public life. For years, I have felt that keeping my own voice, and listening to my own conscience, requires tuning out the spectacle of Media America. Those voices are full of hate; devoid of grace, and so I have withdrawn from them, as much as is possible. I ask: What conscience still shapes me?
My parents, conservative Christians with a conscience, did not vote for Trump—or for any presidential candidate. In contrast to the willful blindness of much of the religious right, their moral compass allows them to see clearly. Their reaction is entirely rational: they are ashamed of what America has become. I have not shared the literal faith of my parents since I became a man, but their ethical structure extends to the son. The teachings from their tradition that continue to inform my conscience survive in the form of stories.
I think of the story of Elijah and the “still, small voice” (I Kings 19). It was a time of famine and war, of state-sponsored terrorism and indeed of genocide. Elijah fled into the wilderness, fearing for his life. He had put to death 450 prophets of Ba’al, and Jezebel, the Phoenician wife of King Ahab of Israel, promised vengeance within a day.
On Mount Horeb, Elijah waited for the voice of God. There came a great wind which “rent the mountains,” an earthquake, and finally a fire. But “the Lord was not in” the wind/ earthquake/ fire. Finally the deity spoke in a “still, small voice” emanating from a cave. The Lord asked Elijah a simple question: “What are you doing here?” Elijah explained that his people had forsaken their covenant, and that as the last prophet, his life was in danger. Whereupon Elijah was given his marching orders, which naturally involved more bloodshed.
When I ask myself the metaphysical question “What are you doing here?” my thinking is shaped by a chorus of voices advising us to listen to the voice within. In Moana, a blight begins killing off the vegetation on a Polynesian island which had long been self-sustaining. The fish disappear. Moana, daughter of the chief, wants to go out in the deep waters to save her people. Her father forbids it. In a song sung by Moana’s grandmother, “Where You Are,” she is advised:
Mind what he says but remember
You may hear a voice inside….
That voice inside is who you are.
This is a parable for the times, in which a young “woman of color” question the father, and breaks with traditions that have become blind dogma, in order for her people to survive.
Most expressions of this conviction—that the truth is a voice inside—are individualistic in nature. Christina Aguilera addresses “The Voice Within” to young girls, who can overcome heartache by learning to “trust the voice within.” In a very different style, Queensryche asks, “Are you ever reminded to trust the voice inside?” (1997).
In a video clip of an interview with Bob Marley, apparently in Toronto in 1979, the author of “Exodus” leans into the mike and advises:
You see the people have a voice inside that talk to them. That is the voice that these people must listen to. Because in everything you go and do, there is a wrong way and a right way. And if you listen good, you will know the right way. Because there is a voice inside talking to every one.
Unlike Moana, a fictional heroine for an era inclined to question the word of the father, Marley was a fundamentalist who believed that the word of God had been revealed to his perfect father, Haile Selassie. The Rastafarians re-imagined the Christ figure as “black,” which enabled them to call into question Eurocentric history, including the post-colonial order which was Marley’s formative matrix. The voice inside that Marley advised people to listen to was at once rebellious, submissive to an imagined supreme authority, and a conscience that enabled people to tune out the false teachings of “a world that forces life-long insecurity.”
We can repeat variations of “to thine own self be true,” and imagine that if we just listen to the voice inside, then we will walk good. But “things are not the way they used to be.” Who is our self, after all? Few can imagine a unified, singular self, nowadays. Our self is situational; no one voice travels effectively to all the communities with which we must interact. Yet I come from a world in which a unitary sense of self and community still seems unbroken.
I recall talking to my sister Jayma when my parents lived on a farm near Cross Plains. I had to come from far away—from California for a decade, and later from foreign lands, including Jamaica. Jayma had lived in Abilene since 1963, among friends and family who knew her from the time she was a girl. Jayma asked me about my sense of community. The people I communicated with were scattered across the globe, I said--my readers and people I had met through music--but I still thought of them as a community. Yet I recognized an absence caused by my moving and questing. There was no one person who knew me at every stage of my life.
My youngest sister Becky lives among conservative Christians, a community that looks almost entirely “white.” By contrast I have lived my adult life among “black and brown” people, producing brown babies myself three times. Since I came of age, I have tried to find common ground with people who often seem to have little in common with the world of my family.
This story comes in a form that my family will understand. But it’s also an allegory about what I have lost and gained by trying to develop that conscious voice that can cross borders.
Jacob was travelling with his two wives and eleven sons. After he had sent his family and possessions across a river, he spent the night by himself on the bank. He wrestled all night with a man, perhaps an angel. When the man-gel saw that he could not overpower Jacob, he wounded his hip at daybreak, and demanded that Jacob let him go. Jacob would not release him without a blessing. So the man gave Jacob a new name, Israel, which means “he struggles with God.” And Jacob-Israel walked away with a limp (Genesis 32).
This strikes me as a myth on the order of Sisyphus, where human beings are punished for daring to challenge a deity. Sisyphus had to push that boulder up the hill forever and ever. But Camus says that we must see Sisyphus as happy. I think he’s right, as I think the girl in “Shoes for the Rest of my Life” by Guadalupe Dueñas was “happy.” She tried to get rid of all the ugly shoes that her father brought home from his bankrupt factory. He thought he was doing a favor, but for an image-conscious girl, this was a prison, a script she was compelled to rewrite. This unending labor, for the girl as for Sisyphus, provided structure and meaning for their lives.
But I wonder about Jacob’s “blessing.” One does not wrestle with a God and come away unscathed. Was the bum hip the only wound that Jacob bore? What about dragging around the name of Israel? The Children of Israel would forever struggle with their God, Jehovah. Their scripture describes them as a fickle people. Their mythology of being “chosen” has had mixed outcomes, at best. But what if Jacob had been content with winning his wrestling match, and released his opponent without demanding a blessing? In what unimaginable ways would life have been different without the bum hip, the new name, and the “blessing” that was perhaps not so different from the rock of Sisyphus?
I too tried to rewrite the script with which my father blessed me, and then was compelled by my conscience to try to “speak truth to power.”
CONCLUSION--Wrestling with an audience
A couple of years ago, Samuel drove a stick-shift Honda Civic from Oklahoma City through Abilene, to see his grandparents, on the way to Tucson. He was going to read some Bible stories, he told me, in case they asked him if he had been reading the “Good Book.” On practice drives, he was going to the bookstore to read Mastery, hoping to gain insights on leadership, a step towards becoming an imam.
No one in my parents’ world could have imagined that their grandson would be a biracial Muslim. But in all three generations, “we walk by faith, and not by sight.” For my parents and my son, they walk guided by religious faith. I have a writerly faith, which means that trying to find an audience is at the core of my existence.
Most mornings on waking my unconscious mind is consumed by trying to reach my readers. In these semi-conscious maneuvers, I am trying out tone, style, different ways of framing the story, the use of satire or symbols, direction and indirection. There is a whiff of desperation about this compulsive quest, a Sisyphusean task of breaking through to readers in a post-literate age. Wrestling with the audience, perhaps, except that I am no longer exactly sure who my audience is, or if true words even exist that convey the complex reality in we move, and live, and have our very being.
As a Creative Writing teacher, I ask myself: Is there a subject, a situation, a conflict, an antagonist, and character development in this story to which I am struggling to give birth? These unconscious wrestling matches mostly recede during waking hours, but I know that it’s the time-honored story of the artist’s struggle to speak his or her truth. But our society of spectacle has little interest in character development. I need an explosion about right now: BOOM! What are we blowing up and killing off in the dream life of the culture? “What we have here is a failure to communicate,” as Cool Hand Luke said to the Law, mockingly, right before The Law shot him.
Language has been corrupted, and can no longer be trusted. For a writer devoted to communion with an audience, this problem has no evident solution. “It’s not for a lack of love of the language” that his films have no words, said director Godfrey Reggio, but that “our language is in a state of vast humiliation.”5 "What is to be done?" asks David Lurie, the ex-professor in J.C. Coetzee’s Disgrace. "Nothing that he, the onetime teacher of communications, can see.”
Seeking escape from “the society of spectacle,” the idealistic hero of Into the Wild retreats to an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilderness, where he vows to “call things by their true name.” Desiring to live in truth, he starves to death, which is a sort of poetic justice, in the Quixotic sense. Those who go all the way in their quest for a truer way of living, and speaking, seem to encounter disgrace, exile, or ex-communication from community. They become iconic figures who are heroic to some, but contemptible fools to many others.
When I speak to my students, I know my audience. In professional communication, the audience is somewhat clear. But when I am trying to convey my “inner voice,” the notion of audience breaks down. Audiences now are splintered into a multitude of self-referential bubbles.
In truth, most writers seeking an audience are trying to convince a gatekeeper to give them a chance. But in commercial publishing, the gatekeepers are only interested in potential best-sellers. When it comes to academic writing, few of the colleagues who churn out unreadable scholarship seem interested in readers at all.
But I developed my chops as a journalist, and as a songwriter. The idea of an audience was immediate. Readers of newspapers wrote back to me, or stopped me in public places. The feedback from audiences for my songs was immediate; I could hear my songs on the radio, hear people signing them in clubs, read reviews by music critics, etc. But in the academic world, the notion of an audience of real readers became ever more abstracted, and unattainable.
Yet I am hard-wired for the writerly life, so I do something like Jacob. Wrestling with an angel, and dreaming of a ladder, I engage in these pre-dawn wrestling matches. I am convinced that there must be some way to get over, to get across, to speak and write in a way that will move my readers…..and move them, to what? As a post-Christian, I seek understanding and empathy, not conversion. But in a post-apocalyptic political landscape, I wonder if empathy is not something like a lost or misplaced faith. People seem to want blood, and as Bob Marley sang, sometimes “it seems like total destruction’s the only solution.”
About the Author
Gregory Stephens is Associate Professor of English at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez, where he specializes in Creative Writing for STEM students. His book "Three Birds Sing a New Song: A Puerto Rican trilogy about Dystopia, Precarity, and Resistance" was published by Intermezzo in 2019. Short fiction includes “Raw Meat (Sexy Mama),” in Smaeralit 3 (2017), and “Caiseas Blues,” an excerpt from a novel-in-progress, "A Terrible Racket," published June 2019 in The Esthetic Apostle. Recent literary nonfiction includes “Integrative Ancestors redux--A Child's story from the past to the future,” Dreamers Creative Writing (Oct. 2018); "Split-Screen Freedom,” Writing on the Edge (Fall 2017); and “Che’s Boots: Discipline and the flawed hero,” in Intraspection.