On December 28, 1977, the prominent Black lesbian poet and feminist author Audre Lorde delivered a paper entitled “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.” In it, she tells the story of a three-week period in her life after her doctors found a tumor that had a “60 to 80% chance” of being malignant in her breast, and before she found out that the tumor was actually benign. During that period, faced with her potentially imminent mortality, she talks about being forced to look upon her life with “a harsh and urgent clarity” that left her “shaken but much stronger.” In her quiet moments during this agonizing time, she realized that, above all, she was called to end her silence, to speak out and to act.
Why are we silent when we could tell people close to us how we really feel? Why are we silent when we could share our common struggles and in so doing, ease the burden of others? Why are we silent in the face of injustice and persecution? In one short word, the answer is fear—fear of rejection, of our own persecution, of saying the wrong thing, of looking stupid, of being human, or of dying.
When she thought she might die much sooner than she had imagined, Lorde’s spirit was sustained by all different kinds of women, “Black and White, old and young, lesbian, bisexual, and heterosexual, and we all shared a war against the tyrannies of silence.” She goes on to ask, “What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?”
And yet, she writes, we find so many excuses, so many reasons to stay silent. “’She’s a white woman, what could she possibly have to say to me?’ Or, ‘she’s a lesbian, what would my husband say, or my chairman?’ Or again, ‘This woman writes of her sons and I have no children.’ And all the other endless ways in which we rob ourselves of ourselves and each other. 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.”
Today, on what would have been Martin Luther King’s 93rd birthday, I hope that each of us can begin to break our silence and to share our unique stories as a way to understand and empathize with the stories and struggles of others. I pray that each of us can summon the courage to speak out when we see someone being bullied or treated with disrespect. I wish, in King’s honor, and as he did throughout his life, that we could bridge our differences by speaking out the “many silences” we keep, silences that so desperately need breaking. Dr. King spoke out fearlessly, often, and profoundly, despite the many threats against his life. He was one of the best role models in all of history when it came to the bold and necessary breaking of silence. Sadly, he knew he would likely die young, and more importantly, just as Audre Lorde realized as she faced a disease that would eventually take her at age 58, Dr. King understood that death would be his “final silence”. So he spoke out fiercely, courageously and constantly. To honor him on his birthday, let’s all begin to break our own unnecessary silences before it’s too late.
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