Catrina Sparkman shares the power of voice

This ‘born speaker’ reflects on free speech and January’s insurrection at the Capitol.
Catrina Sparkman
Photo by Marla Bergh

As an author, theater professional and a minister of the Gospel, for more than 25 years I’ve taught people from all walks of life how to reclaim and exercise their voices. I often tell my students, “There is no such thing as ‘quiet people.’ There are people who own their voices and people who don’t. When you own your voice, you can do what you want with it. You control the frequency of use and the volume.” Then I encourage them to open up their mouths and release a sound.

All my life, the ability and freedom to speak have been incredibly important to me. As a child, I honestly believed that the worst thing an adult could say to me was, “Be quiet” or “No talking.” The teachers in my grade school were very big on children not talking — no talking in the hallways, in the bathrooms or in the cafeteria lunch line. The one constant refrain my parents could expect to read on my grade school report card was that I talked too much.

I attended a small parochial school on Milwaukee’s north side in the early ’80s, a time when it was perfectly acceptable to silence little girls. To my parents’ credit, they never scolded me for my loquaciousness. They seemed to already understand what I would later come to realize for myself: I was born to speak.

Perhaps my teachers, many of whom were nuns in the Roman Catholic Church, only wanted to prepare me for a world they knew had no interest in hearing a Black child’s voice. Or perhaps, whether they realized it or not, they had Emmett Till’s disfigured body in their psyches: the 14-year-old boy from Chicago, son of a single mother, who was lynched while visiting relatives in Mississippi in 1955. Words cost Till his life, and because we grew up seeing images of his mutilated child-sized body inside copies of Jet magazine that lay next to overflowing candy dishes on our grandmothers’ heavily polished coffee tables, Till’s voice still speaks from the grave to many African Americans of my generation.

“It’s the duty of every person to find their voice and use it” is another thing I tell my students — “to utilize inflection and whatever props you deem necessary to tell your stories.” Sometimes when I say this, I envision a king standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Spurred on by the voice of the legendary Mahalia Jackson, he crumples the speech he had previously written for the occasion in his hand and tells the crowd of 250,000 assembled about a dream instead.

Sometimes I think about two sprinters raising their gloved fists in the air at the 1968 Olympics — shoeless to represent poverty and wearing beaded necklaces to honor lives taken by lynching, tarring and those thrown overboard during long, deadly journeys through the middle passage.

Catrina Sparkman in front of newspapers

Photo by Marla Bergh

And sometimes I think about a young football player with a glorious Afro kneeling during the national anthem.

On Jan. 6, I watched a mob of zealots descend upon our nation’s Capitol hyped up on lies. With voices filled with indignation, the insurrectionists also used props. Nothing supposedly “incendiary” like a black glove, a crumpled speech, a beaded necklace or a bent knee, mind you. No, they had war paint, Viking horns, animal fur, pitchforks, Confederate flags, zip ties, nooses and Molotov cocktails. These are the “theatrical props” the insurgents used to “exercise” their First Amendment rights.

And what will become of them?

I cannot help but think of a man murdered nearly a year ago on a Minnesota sidewalk and the protests that ensued in the aftermath. For nine minutes and 29 excruciating seconds, we watched George Floyd plead for his life, soil his pants and call for the comforting arms of his dead mother. And when his breath did finally expire, thousands across the country and around the world took up his cry. He is proof that what I tell my students is true: A voice filled with faith echoes throughout the whole world.

History has shown what happens when people who look like me raise their voices in anger. Now I wonder what will happen to the people who don’t look like me when they raise their angry voices, too. Will they be jailed? Investigated by the FBI, labeled a priority threat to the national security of America?

Will America hold them accountable like Till and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were held accountable? Like Floyd? Will they be snuffed out like candles in the wind? Will they be beaten, castrated and drowned? Or, like Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Colin Kaepernick, will they be ostracized by the sporting establishment they love? At the very least, will the president of the United States go on national television, as Trump did in response to Kaepernick and his fellow players who knelt in solidarity against police brutality, and call their mothers female dogs?

I certainly hope so. At least that.

Catrina Sparkman is a guest columnist to Madison Magazine. She is a theater artist, theatrical consultant, workshop trainer, public speaker and the author of several works of fiction and nonfiction.Footer that says Subscribe