Uncle Remus, John Wayne, Jerry Falwell & Me

What is your speaking voice? Is it different than your voice at the dinner table or in the pub or on the baseball field? Do you take on a persona that sounds a whole lot like someone else—your hero maybe?

Have you visited a church only to discover that all the pastoral staff sounds eerily alike? I have.

Of course, when we visit churches we are hearing denominational language, but I’m talking about voice inflection, slang, prayers, illustrations. I guarantee that in churches who pride themselves as being on the leading edge, they work hard to sound hip and laid back like college kids. Even when the pastor is 45 or 50?

Still, the most extreme example of this was when I (never having met a black person in real life until I moved away from home to Ohio) met new white friends, we hung out, laughed and played…

Uncle-Remus-&-MeBut when we went to church all of a sudden they prayed and preached like black people. I was baffled. I didn’t yet know that Pentecostalism has its root in African American spirituality and was astounded to watch this fascinating drama play out: when the “Spirit fell”, white people who are otherwise poker faced, uncoordinated and stiff as boards, started dancing and acting and sounding black. I couldn’t help but wonder what full-spirited cowboys and ranchers from CO might look and sound like. Cowboys square dance and do the two-step for a reason. Native Americans shuffle and hi-yi-yi and pound drums because that is authentic to their design.

Church felt confusing and lonely. It was a culture foreign to me. I didn’t belong and I wasn’t sure I wanted to.

What is my song? What is my dance? Maybe I don’t have one.

Though my childhood family is largely not Pentecostal and pride themselves for their controlled, sanctified individualism, when we pray or the talk around the dinner table turns to Scripture or a theological diatribe (its never a discussion or even debate because there is no room for another opinion) they sound just like their old Baptist ministers who preceded them.

Certain topics are spoken with such finality that if you so much as pause and look straight ahead, you’ve agreed. Which means, I am immediately argumentative. In this particular case, however, I am left with no voice at all. I get to choose to remain silent, waiting for the first opportunity of escape.

Writing has been especially vital to my sense of identity because through the hours of scribbling, I am finding a rhythm, it’s quite like my dancing—it has a white girl rhythm, a little clumsy and stiff, but its got soul, good laughter, and a nice variety of music and color. I’m a child of a vast and multi-colored melting pot, after all. And I think I’m finally okay with that.

While writing, I want to be aware of:

  • denominational or Christian-ese that slips in without my notice.
  • the Holy Spirit’s fire igniting and moving in and through me, but in a dance that is consistent with and recognizable as my ethnic design and voice.
  • never speaking in a voice that shuts down another’s.

Do you think that writers with a strong ethnic community more readily find their voice on the page? Why or why not? Share in Comments.