People, Not “Voices” or “Bodies,” Make History

The “voice-giving” that is so central to the mission of liberal philanthropy underscores something essential about the custodial politics at the heart of the American political system. We need to do far more than “give voice to the voiceless" to win justice.

The 107th regiment of United States Colored Troops. (New York Public Library)

Today, we are virtually inundated with a phrase that seems at once neutral and unobjectionably positive: “to give voice.” Since the euphoric days of multiculturalism in the 1990s, giving voice to marginalized and vulnerable communities — often referred to as “the voiceless” — has become a mantra for thousands of nonprofits, philanthropies, and corporations.

Even earlier, the idiom took root in academia during the 1960s as part of a larger trend toward incorporating perspectives that had long been excluded from the venerable master narrative. The field of American history has benefited immensely from the new social history’s efforts to recover and incorporate previously ignored “voices” from the archives, resulting in dramatic and much-needed revisions of the past.

But rarely in the half-century of this seemingly democratizing march has anyone paused to interrogate the stock phrase that scaffolds so many of these scholarly and philanthropic endeavors. What does it really mean to “give voice to the voiceless”?

Their Testimony, Not Ours

Somewhere in the lexical history of “giving voice,” the primary function of the phrase moved from a reflexive action (expressing oneself) to an ascriptive one (endowing unto others). That is, it’s become something of a political act. The bestower engages in a liberatory gesture — indeed, performs an act of redress — and, not incidentally, advertises their own benevolence in the process.

Historians can be especially susceptible to this unthinking maneuver, much in the same way they have viewed their fundamental task as “giving back agency” to individuals in the past, as historian of slavery Walter Johnson has argued. Many historians are rightly occupied with discovering neglected testimony from the archives. Firsthand accounts from dispossessed individuals previously unaccounted for in the record can make for the most engaging and necessary historical narratives.

In the field of African American history, the most exciting collection of sources to emerge in the past few decades is the pension files of United States Colored Troops (USCT), housed at the National Archives in Washington, DC, and partially digitized on various online forums. Of the roughly 180,000 USCT who served in the Civil War, more than 140,000 had been enslaved; many black veterans and their surviving heirs later applied for a pension owing to death or disability. The application process required firsthand testimony: veterans needed to narrate service details, and widows, for their part, needed to explain the history and “legitimacy” of their marriage to the deceased soldier.

The federal government conducted this intensive process of documentation for more than seventy years following the war, leaving behind an unrivaled trove of testimony by formerly enslaved people on their intimate experiences of slavery, war, and emancipation. For a people so long denied standing — and indeed a formal legal personality — it is tempting to fixate on these records as representing thousands of autobiographies, as fundamentally compensatory documents, and as ends in themselves, rather than what they were: a means to an end.

The thousands of freedmen and freedwomen who gave oral depositions did not do so to enter their “voices” in the historical record. They did so because they had to, in order to substantiate their claims for a $12 monthly stipend (roughly $350 today). When they took that step, they most certainly weren’t given open platforms to freely narrate their lives, but instead had to operate within tight bureaucratic strictures. As claimants, they learned the right kind of story, emphasizing the right details about their lives in the right way, in order to convince highly skeptical — if not outright hostile — federal officials of the legitimacy of their claims.

For instance, Abram Haywood, formerly enslaved in South Carolina and a veteran of the 33rd US Colored Troops, had the regrettable opportunity to “tell his story” in more than a dozen affidavits and depositions from 1889 to 1915 as he pursued his modestly sized pension. Along the way, Haywood named others who could corroborate his claim for a disability incurred while in service. In turn, special examiners of the Pension Bureau pulled testimony from his former comrades and fellow slaves, including Henry Fisher, Daniel Grayson, June Green, Richard Holmes, Wally Mattis, Edward Simmons, and many others. A number of the testifiers and witnesses in Haywood’s case had their own pension claims to pursue, their own testimonies to give, their own rejections to weather and rectify with reapplications, and their own sets of witnesses and testifiers.

Haywood’s case is more exemplary than exceptional. Nearly 1,200 veterans of the 33rd USCT alone have a pension case associated with their name, be it the veteran himself and/or his widow, mother, father, or orphaned children. Among more than 135 USCT regiments, chiefly composed of the formerly enslaved, well over 100,000 black southerners applied for a pension, and many thousands more contributed testimony on their behalf. By simple fact and sheer necessity, they regarded their bids for pensions as collective endeavors.

Framing their testimony as individual acts of self-affirmation through “speaking truth to power,” therefore, strips away the political context that generated the production of these testimonies in the first place. It romanticizes a decidedly unromantic situation, the material stakes of which were often quite high, with a basic income for life hanging in the balance — not to mention the threat of fines and imprisonment for suspected perjury. one thing becomes abundantly clear: they didn’t submit to months or even years of painful, testimony-generating special examinations for our sake, but for theirs. If given a choice, they would much rather have taken the money, even if it resulted in so many archival “silences.”

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.

Platforming “voices” in this way appears to be nothing more than a liberal nostrum for inclusionary statis, a sedative to a restive populace.

Philanthropies are by far the most zealous purveyors in voice today. “Nonprofit organizations,” proclaims one such group, “are uniquely positioned to give voice to the voiceless.” In her work on the Ford Foundation’s confounding relationship with the Black Power movement in the 1960s and ’70s, historian Karen Ferguson details the perilous consequences of “multiculturalism from above.” Corporate philanthropy redefined racial liberalism, Ferguson suggests, by “fostering a new black leadership class” and by assimilating minority “voices” into its reforms as a diffusion tactic, using representation as a way to lower the expectations of black communities demanding structural change. Then, as now, with the recent corporate overtures to Black Lives Matter, the “dominant liberal philanthropies are engaging today’s black freedom struggle from a very different place than their grantees — not from a position of black liberation and radical struggle, but from one of pacification and liberal reform.”

More than a simple expression of goodwill, the voice-giving that is so central to the mission of liberal philanthropy underscores something essential about the custodial politics at the heart of the American political system. Elite, anti-populist pluralism ultimately functions to neutralize threats to the social and economic order. It does so by imparting agency and encouraging allyship instead of collective struggle and solidarity.

Many historians today have adopted a liberal-philanthropic sensibility in their approach to political struggles in the past. They look for heroic voices culled from the voiceless masses to raise up as timeless moral exemplars more concerned about our present than theirs. Whether in academia, philanthropy, or politics, the voice-givers present themselves as self-appointed brokers of authority and acceptability, safety technicians for the status quo. Though they implicitly brandish the countervailing threat of authoritarian silence, the real alternative to a society of curated voices amid the sea of the voiceless is true democratic participation.

Our collective struggle is our power. That is what matters, and what ought to be remembered.