“Your silence will not protect you.”
I begin with this quote is from “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” one of a series of essays collected in ‘Sister Outsider’ by Audre Lorde. It's a quote often repeated by many. Let us consider what it would take to realize this principle as a living practice and dive deeply into what it would mean to realize Lorde's core message and ethically struggle across difference..
A little context: Lorde's essay was initially delivered as a prepared speech at the Lesbian and Literature panel of the Modern Language Association’s December 28, 1977, meeting. It has been published in many of Audre’s books, including, The Cancer Journals (1980),and Sister Outsider (1984). She opened this speech with the poem A Song for Many Movements, originally published in Audre’s, The Black Unicorn, (1978). Its content shares Lorde's reflections on being faced with her own mortality, the fruitlessness of her silences and the power of struggling across difference.
“Of what had I ever been afraid? To question or to speak as I believed could have meant pain, or death. But we all hurt in so many different ways, all the time, and pain will either change or end. Death, on the other hand, is the final silence.” ~ Audre Lorde
In reflecting on the thoughts above she openly shares the Insights and questions that arose while reviewing her choices and actions in the course of her life. Audre Lorde's revelation flows into a powerful clarity:
“Within the war we are all waging with the forces of death, subtle and otherwise, conscious or not -I am not only a casualty, I am also a warrior”
A clarity that transformed into a passion for mapping a shared struggle of impact.
“Perhaps for some of you here today, I am the face of one of your fears. Because I am woman, because I am Black, because I am lesbian, because I am myself -- a Black woman warrior poet doing my work -- come to ask you, are you doing yours?”
This statement is not a naming of identity to claim the most endangered status but a beginning to a mapping conversation where people can struggle across difference. Identity categories, even in their abundance, are umbrella terms that underlay a network of different power and privileges from person to person which also sit within a given context and herstory that should not be ignored if we are ever going to achieve bringing our “Whole-selves” into a community.
As her thoughts progress and she frames the question for community building by challenging the awareness of the audience by pointing out our collective mortality:
“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.”
A challenge again for us to mind our work. And what is the work? Audre demands of us to speak our truths, and not only to speak them but to transform ourselves by speaking from what could be viewed by some as our most vulnerable form -- to speak it from a place where you have the hope of being valued. Honesty is trust building.
“But for every real word spoken, for every attempt I had ever made to speak those truths for which I am still seeking, I had made contact with other women while we examined the words to fit a world in which we all believed, bridging our differences."
When we speak from that place of having hope: a hope that our words, lives, and experiences will not be dismissed, we are leaning in and demonstrating how we build collective trust. We are mining our pain to give voice from a place of sharing and learning. Not an easy thing to do when we are actually experiencing impacts of daily microaggressions of systemic oppression . The least we can do when we are all risking so much is to honor that disclosure with a transformation in our practice to each other.
Speaking from that raw place can be frightening when there is unclear accountability to others, historical context and ourselves. Being willing to transform silence into language and action is the act of having self-awareness, being centered in your story, sharing your truth, and generating a collective picture where each feels their "whole-selves" and truth are represented. The transformation happens within the accountability. It is achievable. When it is not achieved it is easy to spot other motives at play.
These actions are not small and we have to build conversations, communities, and work that revers struggling across difference in demonstration not just in language. For to linger in such theory without putting it into new practice is GASLIGHTING 101 for communities and individuals. The pain we are experiencing in our lives is NOT theoretical – it is practiced daily upon us. So how could theory without practice solve them? Being unaccountable in our practice also replicates the harm of the things we seek to change.
It is an understanding that identity is not a politic, i.e. just because a person identifies as something DOES NOT mean they will know or have experience with any of the history, tactics, oppression and culture of its social justice movement struggles, wins and losses. It does mean that by claiming an identity A person will inherit a history of privilege's and oppression's attached, whether or not they have direct experience. What a person inherits added to what an individual personally brings into a moment is the literal entry of building a self-awareness that can be used to view individual and community impact objectively.
The implied key to enacting all of this transformation is with active listening.
Re-member an encounter when assumed or real differences between you and another individual or group were beneficial to a situation instead of destructive:
1. Was the end result something that made everyone feel invested? If not, what would you do differently?
2. How did you navigate seemingly competing experiences?
3. What made you feel valued in the situation?
4. How did you show that you listened to each other?
5. How were each of you transformed, person to person?