Your Silence Will Not Protect You

Penn State student Zaniya Joe wears a piece of tape over her mouth that says 'Black Lives Matter' during a Ferguson protest o
Penn State student Zaniya Joe wears a piece of tape over her mouth that says 'Black Lives Matter' during a Ferguson protest organized by a group of Penn State University students on Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2014, in University Park, Pa. (Nabil K. Mark/Centre Daily Times/TNS via Getty Images)

Distressed by current events, I recently strolled over to my book shelf and carefully considered which book I should read or re-read. I wanted to review a historical text that would offer illumination about present day challenges. Like many people, I'd been grappling with the nonstop headlines of unarmed African-American mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, sisters and brothers, daughters and sons who had been killed by law enforcement. I was seeking a framework to understand and respond to the seeming lack of safety for people of color. After several minutes, I narrowed my focus to Audre Lorde's Sister Outsider, a collection of essays and speeches by the late Black lesbian poet.

Flipping through the pages of the book I had initially read some 16 years prior, one section in particular stood out; The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action. Lorde delivered the speech in 1977 at the "Lesbian and Literature Panel" in Chicago, Illinois. The essay highlighted something I'd been considering for some time; the need to continually break my silence and give voice to the issues I am most passionate about: racial injustice and the marginalization of people of color.

I had long considered how boisterously to articulate my concerns about race in America and the collateral consequences for doing so. Up until 2012, when Trayvon Martin was killed for wearing a hoodie while Black, and Jordan Davis was killed for listening to loud music while Black, issues of police and vigilante violence against people of color had largely gone underreported in the mainstream media. It wasn't until the 2013 killing of Renisha McBride, who was shot in the face as she knocked on a neighbor's door for help following a car accident, that the treatment of young people of color was highlighted in the national discourse. Momentum grew and the nation finally appeared willing to talk about the lived experiences, the lived injustices of people of color following the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. and John Crawford in a Beavercreek, Ohio, Wal-Mart.

Against this backdrop, perhaps you can understand why Lorde's essay on transforming silence into language and action jumped out at me, striking me in the face like a splash of ice-cold water. In the paper, Lorde wrote: "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. That the speaking profits me, beyond any other effect." The passage is breathtakingly relevant; what's most important must be spoken.

Tia Oslo and Black Lives Matter organizers and supporters at the recent Netroots Nation conference in Phoenix, Arizona understood this as they challenged Democratic presidential candidates to acknowledge and speak directly to race in America. Even in a progressive space, their voices weren't entirely welcomed and embraced, but that didn't stop them from raising them. Oslo and others were saying "no more politics as usual." If Democratic candidates want our votes, we expect them to acknowledge our pain and publicly speak to our right to live.

They understood that what's most important must be spoken. Sandra Bland knew this as well. She regularly posted YouTube videos and messages on Facebook and Twitter attesting to the victimization of people of color by police. In a video capturing Officer Brian Encinia ordering her to put out her cigarette and threatening to "light her up" if she didn't comply, Bland can be audibly heard expressing displeasure over her treatment by police. Even though we can hear Bland on the video saying that the officer slammed her head on the ground and twisted her arm, some have questioned Bland's response to such abuse, calling her argumentative and stating she had an attitude from the start. Bland had a right to be morally outraged after being pulled over for merely changing lanes without signaling, being yanked out of her car, wrestled to the ground and man-handled. Zora Neale Hurston said: "if you are silent about your pain, they will kill you and say you enjoyed it."

It is clear that failing to acknowledge and speak to racism as a potent presence, doesn't ensure our safety in a world that some say, never loved us. Remaining quiet in the face of a system that has taken far too many lives - Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Jonathan Ferrell, Johnathan Crawford, Oscar Grant - doesn't lengthen or add one jot to our own. Yet there is an illusion of safety in silence. This illusion may be spawned by respectability politics that says if we just pull our pants up, avert our gaze in the presence of police, speak nicely and lovingly, even in the face of violence, that we will be safe. Nothing could be further from the truth.

And so, in the spirit of Audre Lorde, and in remembrance of Sandra Bland (Kindra Chapman and the countless others who have died under mysterious circumstances in police custody or were blatantly killed by police), I urge you to join me and #SayHerName. After all, as Lorde reminds us: "Your silence will not protect you."