1st October 2021
To mark the start of Black History Month, Phillip Cole writes about how superficial differences can be broken down by shared experiences such as stammering.
For me, Black History Month is always a time for introspection. It's an opportunity to exercise humility and appreciation amidst the poignance of the occasion and a chance to reconcile this against my own personal battles with my stammer. Instead of trying to highlight something unique to stammering in the black community, I want to rather use this as a way of reinforcing the commonalities of being a human.
The exact dates vary, but consensus seems to agree that the first commercial movie screening took place somewhere within the culturally rich bosom of 19th century Paris. The historical significance of this moment cannot be understated.
Whilst there have always existed the artistic mediums of picture and scripture to capture the chaotic ramblings of mankind's geniuses, the emergence of film allowed for an unprecedented level of intimate access to foreign cultures that words, drawings and the imagination could never truly capture.
Instead of trying to highlight something unique to stammering in the black community, I want to dispel that notion and rather use this as a way of reinforcing the commonalities of being a human.
Suppose you were a young child living in a reclusive village in early 20th century Britain. For your grandparents and their ancestors, the breadth of their knowledge about the world could only be formed by thumbing through yellowing books, which were simply a blinked still image of a moment in time. However, for you this was all very different. Everything changed with the commercial proliferation of film as an accessible medium for storytelling and notably, this allowed for the normal, isolated person to have an insight into very disparate customs.
'Black Is Beautiful' was the slogan for a cultural shift and an awakening in the zeitgeist, which was championed through film as a vehicle for expressing the rich and diverse heritage of African Americans. The 1950s saw the meteoric rise of black actors and musicians, with the societal acceptance of these figures being largely through their depiction in movies as resolute and empathetic, which was so vital in dispelling any pernicious and ignorant beliefs about how darker coloured skin correlated to something inherently lesser.
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As time moved along, there was another artistic shift in the portrayal of black actors and thespians, which was a movement championed by the suave and 'cool' that oozed from the greats such as Sidney Poitier and Sammy Davis Jr — figures whose articulate and sultry tones heralded a new way for society to ingest black culture. With black musicians, from Duke Ellington of the early jazz movement to Biggie Smalls leading the punchy and gritty hip hop genre, the loquacious and poetic has become symptomatic of black culture.
Speech, confidence & stammering
One could posit that the alleged fast-talking and confident speech of black culture was the result of systematic oppression. Quick-witted responses were a survival instinct born out of the necessity to find amicable ways of defusing tense situations with the law and other powerful appendages of the western society that we were thrust into.
An argument could be made that fluent speech has historically been a tangible way to denote who was the most assured and confident in a situation and difficulties in doing so were attributed to fear and uncertainty — emotional states which were unhelpful in a world which has often been combative for people in minorities and under-represented groups. It is these very ideas that are so counter-productive for people with speech impediments.
A stammer has no prejudices or pre-conceptions. Whilst by virtue of their profession, someone like a clinical psychologist would suppose that there are formative factors from environmental stimuli that influence the likelihood of a young person developing a stammer, which would be disputed by speech & language therapy. However, there's something beautiful about how stammering, the experiences of a person with a stammer, transcend race, gender and creed.
...in spite of who we are and what we look like, something as challenging as a stammer can be a powerful way to bring all cultures closer together.
I remember one of the introductory speech therapy sessions I attended as an adult, in an organisation called City Lit. I was astonished on my first day. Out of a dozen or so young men and women who had come to City Lit to aid their own individual pursuits of fluency, it was eye-opening to see and hear how completely different and unique everyone there was. Literally, all walks of life and socio-economic status were represented and the conversations I had with these wonderful people showed me that irrespective of the different journeys we took to get there, how much commonality we had in our strength to keep pushing forward.
In Black History Month and as we celebrate the sacrifices and immense talents of humanity, by virtue of the moniker of the occasion, there is the harmful tendency to view this as another form of segregation and highlighting the differences in us as a collective. To me there is no more important a task as to teach and be taught during this time and to use this as a way to bring us all closer together. To me, my first day of speech therapy highlighted that in spite of who we are and what we look like, something as challenging as a stammer can be a powerful way to bring all cultures closer together, with a shared sense of the resilience that makes us human.