When my African ancestors were chained on ships and journeyed through the Middle Passage, they sang. The sorrowful tones bonded them regardless of language, tribe or culture as they were led to bondage.
When white colonists forbade African worship through dancing and drumming they viewed as idolatrous, my enslaved ancestors held informal “camp meetings” to sing spirituals or work songs while they labored.
When Harriet Tubman helped lead nearly 100 slaves to freedom through the Underground Railroad, she sang “Go Down Moses” to signify that she was in the area and “Wade in the Water” as a warning to hide from slave-catching dogs.
Passed down from generation to generation, the songs of slavery expressed joy, sorrow, inspiration and hope. They also symbolized protest, rebellion and freedom. It was their voice.
Bowie State University history professor Karen Cook-Bell noted that singing was the “authentic voice of enslaved African Americans who were denied the ability to write down and thereby preserve their thoughts in physical documents.”
Hundreds of years later, the voices of Black Americans remain in peril.
Voting is the foundation of a democracy that allows every citizen the opportunity to have their voices heard. But since the Supreme Court struck down key parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in 2013, Black citizens now face the worst voter protection in decades. With the GOP leading the charge, nearly 400 voter restriction bills have been introduced in 48 states during the 2021 legislative session.
A vocal and active movement seeking to protect Black lives against police brutality and end America’s long history of systemic racism repeatedly provokes great opposition. Peaceful and passionate protests have been categorized as riots as police forces antagonize and threaten protestors with tear gas and riot gear, tactics used during the Civil Rights Movement of the ’60s.
But none of this is going to stop us.
Here’s what I know for sure: The spirit of my ancestors flows through me and my voice is the one thing I have always been able to rely on. It first manifested as a child when I sang gospel songs like the ancestors who came before me and in school choir. And then I discovered the power of the pen — or in millennial terms — the power of the keyboard.
Because of the sacrifice, struggle and hope of my ancestors, I owe it to them to use my voice to speak out against injustice and inequality. I do this as a journalist. But I’m most certainly not alone and Black people are using their voices in a multitude of ways to fight for justice and equity, with social media as a crucial key to change.
Black people — and other marginalized communities — have been excluded from the bourgeois public sphere in the past. But not anymore. The internet, social media and easy access to smartphones created what sociologist Zeynep Tufekci describes as a “digitally networked public sphere” that can uplift marginalized voices and galvanize a movement.
Digital activism allows activists to share their message, resources, stories, videos and organize before taking to the streets. The constant stream of information and communication created a strong foundation evident through the 2020 uprisings provoked by the murder of George Floyd.
“What’s distinct about the current movement is not just the clarity of its messaging, but its ability to convey that message through so much noise,” journalist Jane Hu wrote for The New Yorker during the global uprisings.
In addition to digital activism, there are grassroots organizations committed to building political power for Black citizens and there are countless journalists covering voter suppression and advocating for Congress to pass the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Both bills protect voting rights and offer reforms to a partisan system.
After Sen. Joe Manchin made it clear that he would vote against the For the People Act and oppose the end to the filibuster, a rule that prevents bills that would benefit people of color from passing without Republican support in the Senate, several civil rights leaders — including the head of the NAACP — met with the West Virginia Democrat to persuade him to rethink his position on both issues. He remained unmoved, but has since proposed a few voting changes he would support. But this is not where it ends.
I am proud to be Black. And despite the many attempts to minimize or dismiss our voices, we will continue to fight to be heard and recognized. Like the slaves who sang in chains, I won’t be silent. We won’t be silent.
This story was reported and written through a journalism course on opinion writing and edited by USC Annenberg Associate Professor Alan Mittelstaedt. Annenberg Media student editors reviewed the story and published it per newsroom guidelines.
Annenberg Media is a student-led multiplatform news media overseen and funded by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Many of the journalists are working weekly shifts in its newsroom, known as the Media Center, to fulfill curricular requirements. Annenberg Media is independent of the university administration. Please direct news tips and press releases to firstname.lastname@example.org