Beware the Voice-Givers
People, not voices, populate the past. That only some of their struggles are registered in the official record — and registered in ways legible to the powerful — says more about the record than it does about them. Scholars who fetishize “voices” fail to appreciate the duress that so thoroughly enveloped the historical testimonies of the disempowered, which were often exclusively registered in the legal and punitive apparatuses of the state. And so, with the pension files of the USCT, we’re left with a seldom–appreciated historical irony: we can thank an especially burdensome federal administrative state in the post–Civil War South for all of these insightful firsthand accounts of how immiserating life was for black Americans in the post–Civil War South.
Donning their professional blinders, many scholars write as if the historical tragedy of Atlantic slavery was that so few “voices” of the enslaved and formerly enslaved entered into the archives, and on their own terms, thereby leaving a paucity of knowledge about their lives. But the real tragedy is that they were enslaved at all. In any event, the enslaved doubtless had more pressing concerns than finding ways to insert their “voices” into the archives.
The strange alchemy that renders a person into a voice patronizes them in two senses. First, it perverts their political actions and aspirations, flattening the complexity of their life into a mere voice uttered at a single time and place. Second, even more nefariously, it implies an authorial sponsorship of that voice — a kind of stewardship, if not outright ownership. How many works of history or social science betray the conceit of “giving voice” to their subjects, as if the subjects lived their entire lives on mute until the noble intervention of the scholar?
The language of “voices” may seem a welcome alternative to the contrived, mystifying talk of “bodies” that has littered so many expositions of the black past and present following the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates. But in the end, both tropes are similarly put to liberal ends. Whereas “bodies” are rendered politically inert — and racist oppression naturalized and unmoored from political economy, therefore unalterable — “voices” are accorded a veneer of agency for deployment in the abstract marketplace of ideas or highly mediated national dialogue. It’s how a spokesperson for Facebook can, in honor of Juneteenth, proclaim a “responsibility to help give voice to underrepresented communities around the world.”
Such remarks might be dismissed as shameless marketing pabulum. But the operative conceit, here and elsewhere, is that adding more voices to the “conversation” miraculously charts a course to a more just society, as if those in power are simply unaware of people’s hardships, and knowledge of such will inspire them to change. The entire project represents a liberal fantasy world wherein the only coin is righteousness, and power is conspicuously and conveniently absent from the economy.