I cracked open my copy of Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals this morning to reread “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.”
The essay contains one of the quotations for which Audre Lorde is best known: “Your silence will not protect you.” That sentence, even pulled out of context, is powerful – a reminder, a rejoinder, to speak.
But in the context of the entire essay – a beautiful essay on breast cancer, mortality, fear, race, visibility, and vulnerability – Lorde offers so much more than a highly quotable sentence on the responsibility or risk of silence or speech.
"And, of course, I am afraid – you can hear it in my voice – because the transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation and that always seems fraught with danger. But my daughter, when I told her of our topic and my difficulty with it, said, ‘tell them about how you’re never really a whole person if you remain silent, because there’s always that one little piece inside of you that wants to be spoken out, and if you keep ignoring it, it gets madder and madder and hotter and hotter, and if you don’t speak it out one day it will just up and punch you in the mouth.’
On the cause of silence, each one of us draws her own fear – fear of contempt, of censure, or some judgment, or recognition, of challenge, of annihilation. But most of all, I think, we fear the visibility without which we also cannot truly live. Within this country where racial difference creates a constant, if unspoken, distortion of vision, black women have on one hand always been highly visible, and so, on the other hand, have been rendered invisible through the depersonalization of racism. Even within the women’s movement, we have had to fight and still do, for that very visibility which also renders us most vulnerable, our blackness. For to survive in the mouth of this dragon we call america, we have had to learn this first and most vital lesson – that we were never meant to survive. Not as human beings. And neither were most of you here today, black or not. And that visibility which makes you most vulnerable is also our greatest strength. Because the machine will try to grind us into dust anyway, whether or not we speak. We can sit in out corners mute forever while our sisters and ourselves are wasted, while our children are distorted and destroyed, while our earth is poisoned, we can sit in our safe corners as mute as bottles, and still we will be no less afraid." [emphasis mine]
I have wondered this week – aloud, on Twitter – about silence.
I first heard about the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, a week ago today, on Twitter. I heard about the death from a fellow writer, Sarah Kendzior, who lives in St. Louis and who’s written extensively about the economic struggles of the city. I watched as the story unfolded on social media via the various social justice activists I follow (broadly speaking, I follow three groups on Twitter: educators, journalists, and social justice activists); journalists responded much more slowly, eventually picking up the story as a militarized police force tear-gassed an angry and grieving community. And then there were those who were silent.
Another dead Black man, just a week after the New York City medical examiner’s office ruled that the death of Eric Garner – killed when a police officer put him in a chokehold – was a homicide.
Another and another and another.
Clearly social media has become an important tool that is reshaping how “the news” is told and shared. Although what happened to Michael Brown and what has happened since in Ferguson touch on some of the most important stories that the US must face right now – poverty, racism, police violence – I’m not sure Brown’s death would have received national media attention had people not been taking and sharing photos on their cellphones. Talking, tweeting, retweeting, amplifying at first the voices of the community of Ferguson and then amplifying the responses as “the whole world was watching.”
From Audre Lorde again:
"Each of us is here now because in one way or another we share a commitment to language and to the power of language, and to the reclaiming of that language which has been made to work against us. In the transformation of silence into language and action, it is vitally necessary to teach by living and speaking those truths which we believe and know beyond understanding. Because in this way alone we can survive, by taking part in a process of life that is creative and continuing, that is growth.
And it is never without fear; of visibility, of the harsh light of scrutiny and perhaps of judgment, of pain, of death. But we have lived through all of those already, in silence, except death. And I remind myself all the time now, that if I was to have been born mute or had maintained an oath of silence my whole life long for safety, I would still have suffered, and I would still die. It is very good for establishing perspective."
Why are we silent? When are we silent? What does our silence mean? When is our silence about our fears, our vulnerabilities? When is our silence bound up in our privilege of not having to speak? When is our silence complicitous?
There is no single answer here, of course. I don’t necessarily translate silence as “indifference.” Silence is personal, and silence is complicated. But, as Lorde reminds us, our silence will not protect us.
I worry a lot about the silence on issues of race and gender among educators, particularly those in ed-tech. This isn’t simply a matter of silence this week, silence on the death of Michael Brown or the death of Trayvon Martin or the death of Jordan Davis or the death of Renisha McBride. Yet the patterns of silence are there.
I want us to think: how might education technology – its development, its implementation – be shaped by these patterns? To act as though new technologies – be they Twitter, iPads, Google Classroom, “personalized learning software” – are free of ideology or are equally or necessarily "liberatory" seems so dangerous.
So yes, I often feel that I have to be even more vocal because silence is – has been – so defeaning. It is – has been – the norm, a reflection of the privilege (white privilege, class privilege, male privilege) of much of the ed-tech community.
So yes, I am louder. I take risks – often fumbling with my words as I try to channel my frustrations – and I try to take responsibility for what I do or say (and don’t do or say). I do stop and think about when and why my words are seen as “attacks.”
“Attacks.” There are dead bodies, and yet we talk about anger on Twitter as "attacks."
"Attacks." See, I worry about my own safety. And I worry about the safety of my allies. I worry about the safety of students of color. I worry about the safety of communities of color. Physical safety. Mental well-being. Our future.
I worry who our silence, what our silence might protect.
What is our responsibility to speak? As educators? As parents? As citizens?
When must we force ourselves to take risks – “transforming silence into language and action” – knowing that we might fuck it up and say something less-than-perfectly-crafted, less-than-perfectly-wise. Knowing perhaps too that, thanks to social media, our voices are louder, our platform is larger. Recognizing even that the risks of speaking, for those of us with privilege, are smaller.
If we don’t speak, if we don’t prompt one another to speak, then yes, we are left with silence. Where has that gotten us so far?
"We can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired. For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.
The fact that we are here and that I speak not these words is an attempt to break that silence and bridge some of those differences between us, for it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence. And there are so many silences to be broken."