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When my mother was 67, she lost her voice forever

Posted on 10 May 2021 (0)

When my mother was 67, she lost her voice forever – or did she?

My mother valued conversation. She loved getting people together to share perspectives on anything from the existence of God, to the ideas of George Bernard Shaw, to whether it was okay to kill of animals for food or sport.

Back when I was a teenager, she’d get me and my friends talking about social problems, about world politics, or about her favorite subject: moral dilemmas. She’d listen intently to whatever we said, and we loved it: we’d never been taken so seriously before.

When my sisters and I had children of our own, she took as much interest in them as she had in us. And they responded by wondering with her, about how sunsets are made, why people get sick, where insects go at night, and why rain can’t be stopped by waving a stick.

So when she was diagnosed with throat cancer and told that to slow its growth, her larynx must be removed, she faced the end of her preferred way of being with family and friends: in conversation.

At first, Mom wrote down whatever she wanted to say, on one of those “magic slates” that come with a plastic page to write on, lift to erase and then reuse. She found a Sesame Street one with Cookie Monster munching two cookies at once, their crumbs tumbling down the slate’s margins.

Young children liked the Cookie Monster, but they couldn’t read her words. And her conversation with adults was slowed to a boring pace by the write-and-read process.  So at the urging of her doctor, she tried to master “esophageal speech,” achieved by swallowing and trapping air in the esophagus and forcing it out in a kind of burp that allows her words to come out and be heard.

Encouraged by her speech therapist, a charming Italian doctor who reminded her of her old Italian boyfriend, she gave it her best shot. But she couldn’t learn it well enough to do much more than swear, her frustration salved by her doctor admitting that he’d tried it himself and largely failed.

Yet she never lost her sense of humor.

I lived far away and wasn’t with her for most of her ordeal, but we exchanged letters weekly. During one  hospital stay, she wrote: “I really don’t care what they take out – but if it’s my brain, I insist on all or none.” And  then “The doctor’s been and gone, and there are to be also an epidemic of students. I do wish I had more elegant underwear.” As well as “I’m going to end up in a text book – whatever else they say about me I hope they mention the red hair.”

From rehab, she wrote, “I’ve been trying esophageal speech for days, saying short phrases. I’m absolutely hopeless. I handed Dr. S. a note saying I could get no sounds but hisses, wheezes and gulps for two days.  I swore at myself, banged tables, stamped feet, then gave it one more try – and said every damn one!”

Her frustration was obvious: “God damn it, I terribly miss having conversations! I have no great motherly things to say, just long for the joy of exchanging fresh ideas to consider questions beyond mine.”

So she tried using an artificial larynx, a battery-powered device that when placed against her throat, emitted vibrations that “powered ” her speech in place of her missing larynx. Once she got the hang of it, she was able to produce clear sounds.

“I had an hour and a half conversation with Dr. S – I was manic, so happy after being dumb, in terms of exchanging thoughts and ideas, for the last six months.”

But her artificial larynx lacked an essential element: intonation. Often when she called a store or office, people would hang up on her, assuming that what sounded to them like squawking was just a joke.  She wrote that “Just a few people understand me on the phone – and they are great guessers. My great thrill was when the bank VP understood me: before he confessed that his father used an artificial larynx, I was about to ask if I could adopt him.”

Her mechanical voice took getting used to even for family and friends. She wrote me that when she tried to use her new gadget to call her son-in-law, “He heard my little Minnie Mouse voice and got hysterical. ‘Marian: is your house on fire? Are you sick? Shall I come up right away?’ I squeaked back, ‘No No No goodbye.’”

Mom found ways to connect with kids who visited: she’d doodle on the piano, playing familiar songs like “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” switching to a gloomy-sounding minor key and back to the cheerful one. She’d let kids ring the large loud cowbell, which she kept in case she needed to calling for help. And her clever quips helped: kids would stop staring and laugh along with her.

But not always. She wrote me that “My six-year-old friend Hank came over to visit, and I yanked out my speaker and said ‘Hi, Hank.’ He looked surprised, stared at me, and said, ‘Oh, last night I dreamed you could talk.’ I said, ‘I dreamed that once too.’  ‘Oh,” he said, ‘I guess I’d better go now.’ I did cry for a moment after he left because he had such a nice dream and wanted to find out if it was true. Is it healthier to be angry, or to cry a bit? I guess a bit of each.”

And yet she never indulged in self-pity, and fought our worry, as well. “I told Dr. di Simone that next time one of my bossy sisters calls, to tell your office to say, “Dr. Di Simone is busy with Mrs. Shutt, in Autopsy.”

She didn’t have long to live, but she stayed open-eyed and interested, engaged in conversation with each moment of life that remained. And her wit never deserted her. As she wrote me in one letter: “I wish people would stop praying for me, lighting candles, kissing me solemnly on the forehead as if I were a station of the cross in a Catholic church. I don’t mean to be ungrateful – I’ve just opted to enjoy each day – and all the absurdities of my experiences.”


Posted on 10 January 2021 (0)

Every day, I get glimpses of the erasure of Americans of color. My May 8 New York Times arts section (“For a Great Escape, Try a 1940s Musical”) describes the era when white movie stars like Fred Astaire and Shirley Temple danced in blackface to tap and jazz, trained by African American dancers, allowed to appear in Hollywood films only in stand-alone scenes that could be cut out when the films were shown in the South.

In the same issue, I learn of another erased American of color, Thomas McKeller, the elevator operator whose “tautly muscled body” was sketched in charcoal by John Singer Sargent, serving as the basis of the artist’s gods and heroes murals, his model’s African American facial features replaced by “classic” Greek and Roman features, hair and skin.

The very next day, the Times runs “A Killing Sheds Light on the Fear of ‘Running While Black,” about Black joggers who call out greetings or flash smiles to white passersby, so as not to be feared, knowing their individuality is unlikely to be seen. As one runner puts it: “I don’t know who taught me that, but I know it’s required, and that’s really sad.”

Three days later, the Boston Globe reports that due to the COVID19 pandemic, Boston officials have finally (but temporarily) dropped the entrance exam to their three prestigious public high schools, a test based not on what is covered in Boston lower schools, but rather on what’s covered in private (“independent”) lower schools. Another erasure, this time of black and brown youth, who are, largely for this reason, less likely to glean entrance to Boston’s “exam schools.”

The next day, I see a public TV documentary on Asian American history, including how Chinese laborers who built much of our country’s first transcontinental railway were excluded from the famous 1869 photograph of the final “Golden Spike,” joining East and West coast tracks, just as during and after World War II, the more than 1 million Black soldiers were left out of World War II news broadcasts lauding “American soldiers’” bravery. Decades later, the Department of Defense commissions a documentary about Black soldiers’ WW II contributions, but nixes Black filmmaker William H. Smith’s inclusion of soldiers’ frank accounts of racism. That full reality can finally be seen, thanks to Smith’s independently produced “The Invisible Soldiers – Unheard Voices.” Perhaps this explains the recent comment of Drew Bees, the white Saints quarterback  who claimed that “taking the knee” dishonors his grandfathers’ service, ignoring the  Black soldiers who served, as well.

And now, because of the global visibility of the excruciating near 9-minute knee-on-neck murder of George Floyd, what’s been invisible, especially to whites like me, has been revealed. We are finally seeing and feeling our country’s intransigent, institutionalized, inhumane and intolerable racial inequity. As writers, we can all be part of uncovering what’s hidden, to insure that people of color, now and in the past, are no longer erased.

The Talking Drum

Posted on 21 July 2020 (0)

Lisa Braxton’s debut novel, The Talking Drum (INNANA, a Canadian feminist press, 2020), is remarkably timely. Set in fictional “Bellport, Massachusetts,” in the 1970s, it dovetails with Boston’s Black residents’ current struggle to keep Boston’s Nubian Square alive and flourishing, as well as the gentrification of the South End long ago, and Boston’s now very white Seaport.

Braxton portrays her characters’ passions for drumming, books, love, and for building a vibrant and safe community via a bookstore and music/drum center. She also conveys the warmth, great food, culture and hopes of African immigrants, their patriarchal attitudes notwithstanding.

Her story also makes clear how her characters’ hopes and visions can get stymied by rampant capitalism disguised as “neighborhood development,” as well as by racial stereotyping that can be used by unscrupulous characters to get away with misdeeds.

On a more personal level, The Talking Drum explores themes of trust, loyalty, and painful apologies needed to make a marriage work, as well as parenting challenges. A young girl, despite her bursts of “acting out” rooted in domestic abuse she’d seen as a child, has the fierce support of her mother and a drumming teacher.

As a longtime Boston area resident, I remember how, in the 1960s, Harvard used racism – and motorcycle gangs, to scare renters (unsuccessfully) out of its Mission Hill properties, and how in the 1980s landlords deliberately set fires to collect insurance, and sell their lots to profiteers.

The Talking Drum is a compelling book. And given the mystery fires, the love affairs, the colorful characters, the drumming, and the urgent and timely issue of gentrification and how financial problems can twist people’s motives, I think it would also make a great movie.



What a white person like myself can do, by anon

Posted on 19 June 2020 (0)

I have privilege as a White person because I can do all of these things without thinking twice about it…

I can go jogging (#AmaudArbery).
I can relax in the comfort of my own home (#BothemSean and #AtatianaJefferson).
I can ask for help after being in a car crash (#JonathanFerrell and #RenishaMcBride).
I can have a cellphone (#StephonClark).
I can leave a party to get to safety (#JordanEdwards).
I can play loud music (#JordanDavis).
I can sell CD’s (#AltonSterling).
I can sleep (#AiyanaJones).
I can walk from the corner store (#MikeBrown).
I can play cops and robbers (#TamirRice).
I can go to church (#Charleston9).
I can walk home with Skittles (#TrayvonMartin).
I can hold a hair brush while leaving my own bachelor party (#SeanBell).
I can party on New Years (#OscarGrant).
I can get a normal traffic ticket (#SandraBland).
I can lawfully carry a weapon (#PhilandoCastile).
I can break down on a public road with car problems (#CoreyJones).
I can shop at Walmart (#JohnCrawford) .
I can have a disabled vehicle (#TerrenceCrutcher).
I can read a book in my own car (#KeithScott).
I can be a 10yr old walking with family (#CliffordGlover).
I can decorate for a party (#ClaudeReese).
I can ask a cop a question (#RandyEvans).
I can cash a check in peace (#YvonneSmallwood).
I can take out my wallet (#AmadouDiallo).
I can run (#WalterScott).
I can breathe (#EricGarner).
I can live (#FreddieGray).
I can visit a loved one in the middle of the night(#DarQuanJones).
I can ask someone to put a leash on their dog when it is required in the public park we are in (#ChristianCooper).

White privilege is real. Take a minute to consider a Black person’s experience today. #BlackLivesMatter

My review of The Beiging of America

Posted on 30 August 2017 (0)

In my local cafe the other day, I watched a customer order a coffee and then boldly put in a second order. ”What are you?” he quizzed the server. “Black and Cambodian” she replied, handing over his latte without visible flinching. But who knows how she felt about “The Question” that the contributors to The Beiging of America: Personal Narratives About Being Mixed Race in the 21st Century constantly face?

The 40 narrators recall schoolyard taunts (“you look like burnt toast!”), jokes (“If you mama was white and your daddy a Negro, you’d look like a zebra!”), challenges (“If there were a race war, what side would you be on?”), and compliments like “exotic” that don’t feel complimentary (“the word stuck like a burr in my mind”).

Early on, they learned who would or would not protect them. Nadine Knight was forced to stand up in 8th grade biology class so that the entire class could observe her “negroid nose.” Timeka Drew was asked, when she was just a first grader, why her white mother was “a nigger lover.” She ran to a white mother, who comforted her with a hug but didn’t report the insult to a teacher or the principal. So she learned at age five, “I was not safe. I knew I would never be safe in a space run by a white person. Race seemed to be a game I could not win. I was constantly on guard, wondering how others saw me.”

Most painful for a person who can “pass as white” is that, as contributor Carly Bates writes, “You are the product of interracial love, and every day you are witness to interracial hate.” Charles Snyder writes that “Because I look ambiguous, I got a keen insight on how white people view black people in our country, and also experienced black neighborhoods that viewed anything white as enemy, evil or a system of oppression.”

Words can hurt and words can help. As Jackson Bliss writes: “Until there’s a word for you, coined by people like you, it’s like you don’t exist in the world. In a very literal sense, you need language to sanctify your struggle. It wasn’t until I discovered words like happa [Hawaiian pidgin for mixed race], multiracial, and Nikkejin [people of the Japanese diaspora] much later on in my life that I felt real in an existential sense.” Carlos Adams takes on an identity similar to “gender fluidity”: “I am not biracial because I’m trying to balance two competing selves. Nor am I mixed race because I’m trying to heal the split between two opposing sides. I am interracial, trying to understand the fluidity of my identities.” Anthology co-editor Sean Frederick Forbes has at different times in his life identified as Latino, Colombian, Black/Afro-Caribbean, and now Afro-Latino, even though he says “Afro-Latinx-Anglo-Scot” would more accurately describe his multi-diaspora heritage.

And Jewel Love now embraces both lifestyles that come with her mixed race heritage: “Forever I will have a sense of the calmness presented at our white grandparents’ house and the fun of my Black grandma’s home. “Both pieces add to my personality: boisterous and stoic, formal and loving, boundaried and eclectic.”

As the number of biracial/multi-racial individuals continues to grow, Abra Mims is hopeful: “We will become a more visible part of the population, and that it will become easier for us to be our whole selves, completely seen, in whatever ways we identify.”

The server in the coffee shop may have been okay with her curious customer’s double order of latte and racial identification, but I wish that white customer had read this anthology, and heeded Diane Tsuchida’s advice: “No one will write a handbook telling you the correct questions to ask when you’re curious about someone’s racial background.  So perhaps the key to your curiosity is to silence it.”

Honoring Black women activists

Posted on 16 January 2017 (0)

On Martin Luther King Jr Day, I want to honor these young Black women:

  • 3 young women, Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors (two are queer), who started #Black Lives Matter, launching the BLM movement
  • 2 young women leading Black Lives Matter in Boston and in Cambridge – Stephanie Guirand and DiDi Delgado
  • 2 students, Meggie Noel and Kylie Webster-Cazeau whose video is changing Boston Latin School
  • 2 Black high schoolers (and 2 white men) who chained themselves to the Cambridge City Hall front door to insist on expanded affordable housing
  • Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback, a bi-racial man, who knelt during the National Anthem to support Black Lives Matter’s protests, and those that followed, including high school athletes
  • Shay Stewart-Bouley, who leads Community Change Inc
  • Bree Newsome, who responded to white supremacist David Root’s slaughter of 9 Black worshippers at a prayer service, by scaling the 30-foot flagpole in front of the South Carolina statehouse to take down the Confederate  flag – the flag was permanently removed the next month

Everyday Racism: Questions and Quandaries Table of Contents

Posted on 11 October 2015 (0)

Everyday Racism: Questions & Quandaries – 3rd in What Was I Thinking? essay series (2015)

Table of Contents

Who’s Beautiful? Who’s Not? Who is attractive? And who decides? A news article about “jolie laide” still grates on me.

What’s Behind the Power of a Stare? When is a “long look” okay, simply rude, or even racist?

Why Read Slave Narratives? My students borrow my racism-related books, but never select a slave narrative. Why?

In the Face of Resistance: A Lay Facilitator’s Experience: What to do when students in my anti-racism class resist its basic premise?

It’s My Job, Not His, to Counter Anti-Semitic Stereotypes: My husband, who is Jewish, doesn’t fret over lingering prejudices, while I need to unravel each one.

The Stories We Tell Ourselves About the People Who Came Before Us: I heard one family story growing up, then discovered a truer story.

Is Racism Too Entrenched to Be Defeated? Can we end racism? If not, should we keep trying?

Racial Justice Books Worth Reading: Here’s Why: These eighteen books are about looking at our lives through the lens of race, examining deeper dimensions of racial justice pioneers, getting our facts straight, learning from collective experiences, and imagining lives through fiction.

My Review of Books I read on our Aug 2015 Reading Weekend, Great Barrington, MA

Posted on 08 September 2015 (0)


The Meursault Investigation, by Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud (The Other Press, 2015; first published in 2014 in France). Stunningly told in the 2nd person, from the perspective of Musa, the brother of “the Arab” killed by Meursault in Camus’ novel L’Etranger. Musa  talks to whoever will listen in a bar, Ancient Mariner-like. He is haunted by what he sees as the acclaimed French Algerian author’s  ignoring the humanity, even the name, of the man he killed for no reason.  The reviews I read after our reading weekend talk of Daoud’s “revenge” plot but ignore (except for Irish Times) what I saw: the confusing conflation of Camus as author and Camus ‘s character Meursault. […]

Thanks for visiting my blog

Posted on 26 July 2015 (0)

Welcome to my blog, which I use as a website, not for daily blog entries, which are not my style. I prefer conversation in person or via the printed word. Everyday Racism: Questions & Quandaries, my third collection of personal essays pondering everyday racism (including my own) is now in print. The racial justice publisher Crandall, Dostie and Douglass Books will distribute it starting this fall. Check out for their full list of books including my two earlier booklets in what has turned into a What Was I Thinking? series. Or contact me at (

My 2nd booklet on race-related essays is out

Posted on 23 October 2012 (262)

My 2nd booklet of personal essays, What Was I Thinking? Digging Deeper into Everyday Racism is just out and available from my distributor. The racial justice publisher Crandall, Dostie and Douglass Books sells it for $8.95 at In them, I re-examine my high school textbook; view (and misjudge) my mother’s racial views, and learn how to show cultural respect. I also struggle to “see” institutional racism, rebel against the current “bloodlines” craze, and reconcile myself to anti-racist jargon. A final chapter gives capsule reviews of 18 new books that I recommend to anyone concerned about racial justice. And if you missed my first booklet, What Was I Thinking? Reflecting on Everyday Racism (2010), it’s also available at […]

My Staircase and the History and Hope it Holds

Posted on 01 November 2019 (0)

Bruce Hartford’s “Troublemaker” Memories of the Freedom Movement

Posted on 02 September 2019 (0)

I couldn’t put it down: Hartford’s memoir is largely about his four years as a white CORE “foot soldier” in the Black Freedom movement in Alabama and Mississippi. He describes beatings and death threats but makes clear the far greater and life-long risks facing Black people who protested. marched, tried to register to vote, or simply opened their home to him. He describes how many county sheriff’s got paid for every arrest, court document, prison transfer – plus a share of criminal and traffic fines – which sounds like Ferguson (Dept of Justice found the city’s coffers depended on unjustified, ever escalating fines). Being part of organizing that resulted in 20% of voting age Crenshaw County citizens attempting to register and 101 of the 462 managing to do so, is impressive. He conveys the CORE culture (“no praise, compliments, affirmations, acknowledgements, and “touchy feel” human relations simply weren’t part of our task-oriented organizational culture”). His memoir is infused with both humor and realism: it ends with “no social struggle EVER succeeds as much as the participant want or hope, but doing the best you can in the situation you face is how progress is made, however slow and frustrating that may be.” His perspective: “My part was small but it was a part nonetheless in a story that would, and does, echo down the generations.”