My dear friend Ritamae Hyde, a Belizean Poet, has a poem entitled ‘Mahogany Whispers.’ Its also the name of her book of poetry. It’s one of my favorite poems. It is short but apt with the idea that when Mahogany (and for me, here, the tree) speaks, its speaks not with a singular voice but with a plethora of voices on behalf of all voices. Last night during the Vice Presidential debate, Senator Kamala Harris was like a Mahogany tree.
She spoke from within on behalf of all women, all black women in particular, who know first hand what it is like to be interrupted every time we speak. The exchange was painful to watch, but I watched because I saw myself in the exchange, not once, not twice, but all the times she said the word ‘I’m speaking. Still, she was treated in a condescending tone, as if her thoughts, her experience, even her facts aren’t even worth being listened to. Every time she said ‘I’m speaking,’ she spoke with poise, dignity and grace. Every time she said ‘I’m speaking,’ she shared my deepest fears. Every time she said ‘I’m speaking,’ she spoke to my existence as a woman, a black woman who understands the weight of being silent, the weight of surviving, the weight of speaking no matter the circumstances. Every time she said ‘I’m speaking,’ she fought for me. Every time she said ‘I’m speaking,’ she spoke to me.
Racial and gender dynamics are real. I know first hand what it is like to be told my tone is angry or that I don’t have enough experience. I know first hand what it is like to be interrupted, mansplained to, spoken over or generally ignored for my thoughts or opinions. Like Senator Harris, I have had to tread that fine line between being silent and speaking up. Not because I didn’t have much to say but because silence in many cases is golden. Vice President Pence didn’t listen, didn’t even hear when she said the first ‘I’m speaking.’ Instead, he talked over Senator Harris throughout the debate, interrupted her to the point where she reminded him again and again that she was still speaking.
I watched in awe of her smile, in awe of her silence in some instances, in awe of her restraint in others, in awe of her general will to survive, in awe of her ability to remind the VP that she was still speaking, especially that ‘Okay’ she added in one instance as if to say ‘Damn it, I’m still speaking for the last time.’ That’s how I heard it in my head. That’s how many women heard it too. Still, the VP kept belittling her, kept undermining her, kept treating her like she did not deserve to be on the same stage as him. His behavior, his condescending behavior on full display for the world to see is the number one reason why many Black women choose to stay silent as they figure out how to survive in a system where we are never meant to survive, never meant to speak as noted eloquently by Audre Lorde. We speak so other women, especially the next generation, like my daughter can speak without fear, these 2 words ‘I’m speaking.’
The potential to speak like a Mahogany tree, is our lesson for today, etched in our heart for tomorrow and beyond. Senator Harris’s spoke in defiance of those who tried to silence her. And like a Mahogany tree, not with a singular voice as she is fully aware that she is not a singular being. Senator Harris in sharing her history and experience as the second woman ever to be elected to the Senate and the first black woman ever to become a Vice Presidential candidate, spoke from a plethora of experiences, a plethora of voices on behalf of all women, all black women in particular. Keep speaking, no matter what, black woman, all women, speak, ‘I’m speaking,’ loudly with the poise, the dignity and the grace of a Mahogany tree.