By Jeff Shames
JJJJJerome Ellis presented a unique and moving keynote address at the 26th Annual Friends Convention in Chicago. As someone whose name begins with a J, I admire JJJJJerome for the unique spelling of his name. But I will refer to him here as Jerome.
In Jerome’s bio, he is described as a blk disabled animal, artist and proud stutterer from Tidewater, Virginia. He prays, reads, gardens, cycles, surfs, and plays. Through music, literature, performance and video he researches relationships between blackness, disabled speech, divinity, nature, sound, and time. Born in 1989 to Jamaican and Grenadian immigrants, he lives in Norfolk, Virginia, USA.
Taking to the lectern, Jerome described himself as having brown hair and beard, and described himself as wearing a pink dress, flip flops, and a gold chain. He paused for a few moments before beginning and spoke in a relaxed and gentle manner.
Unique to Jerome’s keynote was that only a portion of his speech was prepared, much of the remaining speech content was made up of his responses to questions taken from the audience, in an intertwined, thoughtful and caring manner. In this article I will cover the broad parameters of Jerome’s speech, while suggesting that readers view a video of Jerome’s keynote speech here or below.
Jerome stated that he inherited stuttering from his mother. He described his early, difficult years of growing up with stuttering. He wanted to be cured, and felt despair, fear and shame about his speech. Through the years this evolved, as Jerome developed “other ways of relating.” Jerome came to view stuttering differently, in “not wanting to speak in any other way,” and coming to see stuttering as “natural” and “cool.”
Jerome felt supported by his mother, her way was to pray for her son to be rid of his stutter. There were early challenges, but through the years Jerome has come to see his stutter as an “heirloom.” This was more of a gradual process than there being a tipping point. Jerome spoke of “wearing my stutter like a crown, wearing it at a tilt.” He feels gratitude and honor about his stutter.
Jerome grew up liking Porky Pig, even with his different way of stuttering. Now Jerome still loves Porky but also feels pain about him. It’s complicated.
Jerome then invited members of the audience to ask him questions. A number of topics were raised, such as his appearance in 2020 on the PBS program This American Life, how he “walks with stuttering today”, and how it was for him in college as a person who stutters. He was asked about the juxtaposition of stuttering and being a black man. Does he disclose being a person who stutters, or wait until he is asked? He said that this varies.
Jerome was the subject of a segment of This American Life in August 2020, titled “Time Bandit.” The piece examined Jerome’s participation in an annual event of the New York City based Poetry Project, in which there was a time limit of 2-3 minutes for each participant. He explained in his keynote how he dealt with this anxiety provoking quandary. (Watch the video!)
He and his wife married a few months ago, and one questioner asked how he would feel if a child of his stuttered. He responded that he would be “over the moon” if his child stuttered. He would support and encourage his child, if he had passed on the heirloom of stuttering.
Jerome feels that when he stutters in a given situation, the stutter is not the reason for there being no communication, it is more about the other person not communicating with him.
I am a stutterer of many decades, and asked Jerome about the discrepancy of his having a first name with five letter J’s, JJJJJerome, and yet (like yours truly) has silent speech blocks.
Jerome finished by inviting those present to talk to him during the conference. I appreciated Jerome speaking of claiming his stutter, even with its contradictions and paradoxes. He does his best to take his time, even with the pressures of the everyday world. Watch the video to see these and other questions answered!