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The work I have done on listening—inspired by Krista Ratcliff’s groundbreaking Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness (2005), and by long talks about “soundscapes” with a good friend who is blind—led me to stumble onto sound studies, which focuses on the concept of “sound” in modern times and most recently on technologies of sound. And then when I read Nicole Furlonge’s magical Race Sounds: The Art of Listening in African American Literature (2018), I started trying hard to hear the voices in books—and to hear, really hear, the voices of those around me, particularly students.
So, you can imagine that when I ran across a book called Permission to Speak: How to Change What Power Sounds Like (2023), I was instantly intrigued.
This book, by speech coach and linguist Samara Bey, grew out of Bey’s experience of literally losing her voice during her grad school years, and her discovery that the troublesome nodules growing on her vocal cords and impeding her speech were caused by: her lowering her voice, mostly unconsciously, to a tone not comfortable for her. In attempts to sound a certain way—a powerful way—she had come close to silencing herself. This experience led, eventually, to her career as a speech coach and consultant, working with professionals ranging from Pierce Brosnan to Gal Gadot, and others who want help finding or reclaiming their voice.
What intrigued Bey in her studies of voices was the “authoritative voice” she heard so much about. How did one acquire such a voice? She discusses this at some length in her introduction, but it turns out the voice of authority sounds like “straight, white, rich, remarkably large men… They are who we tend to believe. They are out experts and anchors and leaders and heroes.” Take a look at courses on “executive presence” or “how to sound like a leader,” she says, and you’ll find advice to speak slowly, keeping your voice low and steady and avoiding emotion.
Hence the subtitle of her book: How to Change What Power Sounds Like. In eight chapters, she guides readers (speakers!) through discussions of breathing, vocal tics and habits, pitch and tone, the use of emotion, liking your own voice, and owning the words you choose to use. She asks, “How could we be seen and heard when we’re scrambling to hide the parts of ourselves that don’t fit the standard and squeezing our voices into the mold that was never meant to fit us?” —and goes on to argue that we can resist that “standard” and, indeed, even change it.
Bey provides lots and lots of concrete examples of learning to hear and to really like your own voice, and how to inhabit it in ways that will connect you to other people. It’s her belief (and her experience) that learning about and embodying your own voice is the path toward “fundamental human coexistence” and to the “promise of belonging and the pleasure of community. It’s saying Let’s care about things together. Public speaking is just caring about things together, bigger.”
Bey invites readers to join her in figuring out how they sound when they “actually believe that”—and to join her in a movement to change what power sounds like.
I haven’t finished reading this book yet, but I can already see excellent applications for teaching, and for learning to listen not only to our students’ attempts to emulate the standard “voice of authority” but to the voices that carry their deepest sense of self.
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