GALVESTON DAILY NEWS:
At a high school in backwater Brethren, Michigan, Jim, a fourteen year old African American boy trembles in his seat. His hands perspire as he holds a poem he has written called Ode to a Grapefruit. Thinking it too good to be original, his teacher has ordered Jim to validate the work as his own by reading it before the class.
Any high school freshman would be scared. For Jim it’s sheer terror. He hasn’t uttered a word in school since he arrived eight years ago from Arkabutla Township, Mississippi.
There he had lived in a four room farmhouse with his maternal grandparents, his mother and her eleven siblings. Before his son’s birth, Jim’s father left to pursue a career as a boxer and later an actor. His mother soon followed suit to find work in the city.
By 1936 the duel scourges of Jim Crow and the Great Depression had denied black children a decent education in Mississippi.
Jim’s grandparents moved the family to Michigan. He struggled with the new land, cold and white. The loss of his boyhood home, and the absence of both parents, was traumatic.
Jim began to stutter.
In Mississippi it wouldn’t have mattered what a poor black kid said or how he said it. In Michigan it did. Jim was ridiculed. He became a mute, saying only a few tortured words to his family.
Frustration and anger grew until the day he was forced to recite his poem.
In his autobiography “Voices and Silences”, Jim recalled the moment. “I was shaking as I stood up, cursing myself. I strained to get the words out, pushing from the bottom of my soul. I opened my mouth—-and to my astonishment, the words flowed out smoothly, every one of them. There was no stutter. All of us were amazed, not so much by the poem as by the performance.”
After being silenced for nearly a decade, his voice was no longer the halting staccato of a frightened boy. It resonated. Reading his poem aloud in public had unlocked the cure to his stutter.
He became a debater winning a scholarship to the University of Michigan. After appearing in several school plays, Jim worked summers as a stage hand and carpenter.
In 1955 he reconciled with his father in New York City where he took acting classes by day and worked nights refinishing floors.
After nine years of playing off Broadway, he was offered the role of Othello in the New York Shakespeare Festival. With his booming oratory he made the character his own, garnering awards that propelled him to a career as a premier Broadway, television, and film actor.
The irony of Jim’s story is this. Of all the roles he’s played, perhaps his most widely recognized have been with his voice alone—Darth Vader in Star Wars, Mufasa in Lion King, and national spokesman for CNN.
Jim’s last name is common. His voice is not. You may know him as James Earl Jones.
Malcolm D. Gibson
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