As I stand here this morning

Assemblies from the archives of Harris Westminster Sixth Form

Voices of the Voiceless (January 2022)

There is a book of which I suspect you’re not aware – Mr Handscombe would introduce it as a colossal tome of soaring psycho-analytical scholarship, but between you and me, it’s a children’s picture book called Not Now Bernard, by David McKee. Twenty four pages of words and pictures that begin with Bernard explaining to his parents that there’s a monster in the garden that’s going to eat him. “Not now Bernard,” they reply and so he goes out into the garden and is, on page four, eaten by the monster. The rest of the book consists of the monster trying to attract the attention of the parents who simply say to it “Not now Bernard” until it is incongruously tucked up in bed at the end of the day. It’s quite a dark story.

Today I would like to think about those who, like Bernard, lack a voice whether it’s because society ignores them, or because they get eaten by monsters, or because they’re unable to speak up for whatever reason, and I’d like to reflect upon the words of Maya Angelou who said “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you”. Those words come from her autobiography “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” whose title comes from a poem called “Sympathy” by Paul Laurence Dunbar, who wrote:

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,
When he beats his bars and would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart's deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings –
I know why the caged bird sings.

One of the themes of Maya Angelou’s book is the power of the voice – to sing, to speak out – and one of the events is when she was raped as an eight year old: she used her voice to tell the adults, but when the man escaped jail-time but was then lynched by her uncles she blamed her voice for the violence and stopped using it, remaining mute for several years.

This story highlights several groups of the voiceless: children, like Bernard, can often be ignored by adult society, and even when they are listened to, like Maya, they aren’t always heard: once she spoke up she lost control of events and the outcome was not what she intended. The voiceless can also be those who can’t speak, or find it difficult to speak, because of a disability – even something fairly mild like a stammer can make it hard to have your voice heard, make you self-conscious, make you self-censor, or force you to watch as quicker people speak across your space in the conversation. And the voiceless can be those who can’t find the words to express their trauma, who don’t know how to tell their story.

Within the politics of the UK, there are groups who feel voiceless, feel that their votes are wasted, feel that there isn’t any point in voting when nobody is there to truly represent them. One of the impacts of this is in Scotland, where some Scots feel that their voice is shouted down by louder English ones, those who, like us, live closer to the “Westminster bubble”. They think that to reclaim their voice, they need an independent country. Some of you have Scottish heritage and will feel passionately about this; rather more, I think, will identify with other nationless groups whose people are even more harshly oppressed than the Scots. One such group are the Kurds of Southeastern Turkey and northern Syria, Iraq and Iran. They have good reason to feel unrepresented in their countries, particularly in Iraq where Saddam Hussain’s Ba’athist forces conducted a genocidal attack, including poison gas, concentration camps, and mass murder of civilians. This atrocity was remembered by a British activist and rapper called Lowkey who, in collaboration with Immortal Technique, sang “Voices of the Voiceless”

This is for every one of Saddam’s Kurdish murder victims,
And all the pure souls that never had the chance to speak,
Truth pumps in my arteries and causes my heart to beat.

Whenever the Kurds ask the international community for a country of their own they’re told “not now” – it’s never the right time, even when monsters threaten to devour the region. The nature of Bernard’s monster is never revealed, but there is an element of menace there, a call to us to consider what will happen if we don’t listen to the voices of the voiceless.

Maybe you’ve been thinking as I’ve talked about people or groups that you come across whose voices aren’t heard, and maybe you’ve been thinking about how you can listen to them. I hope that you’ve been thinking about the power of your own voice, the way that you can choose to speak up or stay silent. Maybe you feel rather like Bernard – that you’re desperate to tell your story but nobody will listen. Maybe you feel like Maya – that you’re unable to tell your story for fear of the impact it will have on others. Maybe you feel like I do sometimes, that your story is there for the telling if you could just find the words.

It’s Resilience for a Better Tomorrow, and I’d like to think that in our Better Tomorrow we can make Harris Westminster the kind of community in which everybody’s voice can be heard; and I’d like to think that we can help every single Harris Westminster student – each one of you – be someone who knows how to use their voice and is confident enough to do it when they have something to say. For this to happen, we have to work together, to listen and support each other, to encourage people who find it hard to find their voices, and, sometimes, for the louder, more confident among us to hold back and be quiet. This is sometimes hard, but by listening we learn – and learning is amazing – by listening hard, actively, thinking about what is being said rather than letting the sounds of it pass our ears whilst we think about what we want to say…, by really listening we get to understand each other and by understanding each other we get closer to that better tomorrow we’re working for.

The chorus of Lowkey’s song goes like this:

What happens under darkness shall come to light,
Can’t silence us even though you try,
You can try to avoid us but it’s pointless
You can never avoid the voices of the voiceless.
Take our freedom, can’t take our pride,
Come what may we will survive,
You can try to avoid us but it’s pointless,
You can never avoid the voices of the voiceless.

I understand what he’s saying but I’m not sure I share his optimism (perhaps he doesn’t either) – I think that we can’t be confident that the voiceless will somehow find their voices; I think that we need to be more active, or we’ll find that we say “not now” once too often and find that there’s a monster in poor Bernard’s bed. My optimism instead comes from you, from us. Each of you is a wonder with ears to listen and a voice to speak up for the voiceless, and a voice with which to tell your own story. Let’s tell those stories, let’s listen, and heed Maya Angelou’s warning that “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story within you.”