by Christen A. Smith
“I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.” – Audre Lorde, “The Transformation of Silence into Action” (1984)
This week has been very difficult. The death of Freddie Gray still haunts us along with the ghosts of injustice that took away his life. I am tired of watching us die. We are all tired of watching us die. As a black mother, my body aches every time I see the face of anybody’s child flash across the news. Necks snapped, shot in the chest, choked to death. The looping videos twist my stomach and catch in my throat. I cry, but crying is not enough. The pain is so great that at times it is difficult to even speak. This was especially the case for me this week, as I, like many of us, watched Baltimore burn with rage, hurt and anger.
I did not mourn the buildings and the property damage. I could honestly care less about CVS. CVS is going to be just fine as are all of the other buildings, cars and inanimate objects that cannot possibly have breath taken away from them. Freddie Gray's family is never going to be fine again however. If you will not let us vote, if you respond to our peaceful protest with resigned indifference, if you insist on killing us, then you should not be surprised when the nation catches fire. These kids don't have any other political outlet because this nation has taken away every single possible path to survival that they could ever have and they know that. Youth basketball league and after school programs ain't gonna cut it anymore.
No, my grief is anger. I am mourning our nation’s inability to hear our children screaming out in pain. Their anguish is as illegible as their humanity. I do not question why they loot and burn because I know what it’s like to need to speak and not be heard. To need to cry and not have tears. To need survive and not feel hope.
Much of my family is from Baltimore. I grew up going to family reunions there with my grandparents in the summers. Baltimore is a place that has always brought happy memories for me: crab cakes and card games, music and laughter, so many aunts, uncles and cousins you don’t know who’s who. So as I watched Baltimore burn this week, I felt a double pain: a sense of a loss of innocence and grief over the loss of life. For me this loss of innocence is not just about watching a city that I truly love crumble. If you know anything about Baltimore you know that it has been crumbling and burning for many years. No, loss of innocence also means recognizing that we as a nation seem unable to afford black people dignity.
The all-too-familiar utterance of the word “thug” from middle class black politicians and community “leaders” has been disconcerting and shameful but not unexpected. The sector of the black middle class that religiously upholds respectability politics would rather call hurting young people "thugs" than deal with the harsh reality that their ascent to power and capital gain has been built on their disavowal of working class black identity and their exploitation of their “exceptional” black status. In other words, the very “thugs” that they disparage are the very people that they have needed to use as stepping-stones to achieve their class status. And lest we think that this makes Baltimore about class and not race, let us remember that black middle class status depends on the structures of white supremacy. Black middle class acceptance by mainstream society depends on its differentiation and distancing from “non-respectable” blackness.
I'm tired, sad and angry. I am tired sad and angry because no one seems to think that the state killing black people is a reason to grieve or hurt or burn things down. The unconscionability of our humanity is devastating and depressing, leaving me at times without the words to speak.
Yet, silence leaves too many things unspoken, and it will not protect us. “Your silence will not protect you” (Audre Lorde, 1984). No, we must speak truth and unleash ourselves from the “tyrannies [we] swallow day by day.” We cannot let our tyrannies lie rotting in our bellies, festering from the pain we carry in our wombs. No, we must speak.
“And of course I am afraid, because the transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation, and that always seems fraught with danger.”
The Silence Transformation Collective is a transnational, multi-lingual healing space for black women to share their reflections and thoughts on life and survival. It is inspired by Audre Lorde's [1984 (1977)] essay "The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action." There she writes, "I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood." Here, we dare to speak and share, recognizing that our silence will not protect us.