What are the things you wish to change for yourself? What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What hurt, or pain, or emotions do you swallow day by day? What sickens you, even kills you, still in silence? These words from Audre Lorde’s essay on transforming silence into action are my daily source for life. I highly recommend every woman to read this transformative essay by Audre Lorde. It literally changed my life after an ugly, painful experience I faced last year. It helped me transform my silence into action. It also helped me face my fears even at the risk of being annihilated. I can gladly testify that it helped me understand fully that many people are not suppose to journey with you through life and though that may come with fears of it own when the journey ends, because of this essay, I am prepared to face my fears.
So can I be the face of your fears. Look at me. I am woman. A black woman. A black woman and a mother. A black woman, a mother, and a researcher. A black woman, a mother, a researcher, a grant writer. A black woman, a mother, a researcher, a grant writer, and a story teller. I am me, through it all, fearful or not. I am also a warrior, too, with so many scars. I am willing to do my part, to share them so you change your ways and become the warrior that you are destined to be. Can I work with you to transform your silience into language and action? It would be my greatest joy to journey with you on this journey we both find ourselves so you to find your way to breaking all the many silences you have. This sharp awareness, to the full possibilities of journeys we take, whether in fear or in light, is the keep I am sending out to the world today. Break your silence, transform them and face your fears. When your do, you will live a deeper life, one full of power and awe of the possibilities that flow within you.
Some types of silences help us remember. Like moments of silence. We make the request, ask others to join, and in total silence, remember. Moments of silence are full of purpose, full of intent, full of participation, and full of thought. Those that repeat themselves annually, are full of power. In stillness of mind and power, even time is stilled to strongly engage in remembrance. And we remember because we hear. We remember because we see. Our collective experience, becomes the cornerstone of memory, ushering reverence even in the absence of narrative. The dead of September 11 exemplifies these moments. At the exact hour the two twin towers were struck, those who remember, reflect on that day and join in silence to remember.
Some types of silence have no frame, no moments, no memory, no stillness. These types of silence are hidden, often without speech, without words, without witness, without thought. Even if witnesses for example existed, they may grow old or pass away with time. Even if memory, preserved time or space, amnesia is still inevitable, when the past was intentionally muted. This kind of total silence is thunderous, rooted in a desire to forget, and forgetting is pervasive. What happened to black populations during the pandemic of 1918 exemplifies this total silence. Even the collective memories of the pandemic, effectively silenced and muted black experiences. Names were left out and silenced, sidelined, ignored, and forgotten.
One example buried deep in the archives of the 1918 pandemic is a picture of a ‘colored man’ his two daughters and three Red cross nurses. The historical records say the nurses names are ‘Mrs. Ralph Van Landingham, Mrs. Camson Morrison, Miss Julia Baxter Scott.’ Historical records also etched the agenda of the nurses with their attempts at bringing food to the family, wearing mask while doing so, all to commemorate their empathy even in times of pandemics. But the individuals in need of sympathy, a father with his two daughters and their dead mother, now free, remained forgotten. Empathy is given for the kind act performed by the nurses and but not sympathy to the living or the dead. Our collective memories as with this image is a reflection of what we choose to value, choose to remember, choose to silence, choose to forget.
These unspoken, silenced aspects of the pandemic, with their absent narratives, for example of this family, has etched priorities for me around memories. What happens when we remember? What are the necessary details we should keep so that even in the stillness of time, memories of the moment lingers on, years after witnesses are long gone? Can there be survival even in silence. Perhaps, moments of silence being an example. And so how can we intentionally cultivate moments of silence so we never forget this covid19 pandemic. For where there is silence even with the dead, there can be survival for the living and future pandemics, when we choose to intentionally remember. And I choose to remember.
A dad in his dark pants, with a bright white shirt. His two daughters are dressed in white too. Crispy white dresses adorned their bodies. We were not told their names. Not their first, nor their last, or other names they probably had. Their mother had just died. Even in death, they forgot to say her name. And so we will never know who they are, what the did, and how they lived. For I imagined they lived. Even though we will never know her name, I imagine their mother fought vigorously to live. I imagine the pain in her eyes knowing her fight would be in vain. I imagine this pain in the eyes of her daughters, two of them who must now live without her. I also imagine the toll of her death on their dad. The sorrow he must feel with losing his partner, his wife and the mother of his children. Even with all the sorrow, I imagine freedom for the mother. Like birds flying high in the sky, I imagine white doves raised in the air to signal her freedom. Slavery, racism or whatever may have triggered the absence of their names during these times, tried to erase her existence, tried to make us forget. But I imagine her free now, all of them free, from the duress of these times.
But of all the things that stood out to me with this image (sympathy for their loss being the greatest), three other things keep haunting my imagination; house, food, and masks. Who owned the house? Why bring them food? Why didn’t they wear masks? These missing accounts of this black family, alongside lack of information on who they are or what they loved is the central metaphor of what happens when we forget pandemics. Even key characters are silenced. They call the 1918 influenza pandemic, a forgotten pandemic for numerous reasons, including a shockingly sparse account of what happened to black families, black populations. It is critical to repeat that buried deep in the archives are the names of the Red Cross nurses that carried food to the family. But not of the family or their dead mother. This glaring omission is central to why we must not forget pandemics. If forgetting is easy, then remembering has to intentionally become hard. If silencing the living was the intent, then voicing their stories has to be purposeful, like with moments of silence. If erasing their meaningful place in history was willful, then ensuring we never forget their presence becomes critical. For we have been here before.
We have been erased, whether unintentional or not from pandemics though our presence and our loss was seething long enough for us to deserve nourishment. Their willful oblivion of our names, our stories, our lives, kept us unprepared and continues to keep us unprepared for pandemics not just of the body, but of the mind and it’s intent to keep us permanently locked in duress. Though they tried to keep our place in history immobile, static, even at the depths of our sorrow, the eyes of the dad and his daughters tell a story of a moment when someone will rise and eloquently write back to demand their place in history. That day has arrived.
It may have taken 100 years, but we write back to history to never forget this family. It may have taken another pandemic, still we write back to include our story. They may have failed to prolong their gaze, so we extend it as a moment of silence. They may have failed to even touch, see, or hear their pain, their sorrow, so we see it for ourselves. Through their eyes, we see our eyes. Through their pain, we know ours. Through their posture, we know where we stand. Through words unspoken, we know the power, and deeper meaning of their lives. The absence of their presence is instructive. But even today, we bow our heads down, in a moment of silence to extend our deepest condolences for the loss of their mother. It may have taken over 100 years and another pandemic, but for this family, keep moments of silence in mind so we never forget.
I learnt the other day, the importance of being silent, eloquently. It’s mesmerizing, the audacity of silence. Coming from someone known to be a talkative, being silent is divine. I am learning this day by day. Even my husband would be proud. True story, I remember being whipped in primary school in Nigeria because I talked to much. In other words, talking and nonstop about things I know and may not know is how I have lived this thing called life to date. I have been whipped so bad for it. But I am learning now that there is power with being silent. Power in choosing it, framing it as you like but ultimately, being it. I will be silent.
The prolific author, Bell Hooks, once wrote that ‘we all need to choose or identify spaces where we begin our process of revision…where we push our boundaries…where transformation is possible. This choice is crucial because it shapes and determines our response. Also informs how we speak about the issues we choose.’ I choose silence. It forces me to move out of the familiar. Silence is uncomfortable for me. It’s my space of radical openness, where my mind dances, the site of my anthills and nests. Silence is wisdom for me. Not because I don’t have much to say, Lord knows I can still talk up a storm if need be. I will be silent because the moment needs it, no demands that I share nothing, not a word or even an opinion. Just my silence. If not for anything, then at least for me. I will be silent so I see. In silence, I see reality. In silence, I am sustained. All my hopes and impediments become clear.
And so the hardest thing I will ever do, the hardest I have ever done will be to remain silent. It is harder than giving birth. In labor you scream even in the most difficult pain. The most unbearable pain, demands a response whether audible or not. Not silence. It demands nothing. Except only that you practice it. Say these words if you must; I will be silent. And for me. I seldom take me, my feelings, my thoughts into consideration. But the moment demands that I do. Not because I don’t have much to say. On the contrary. But because my silence, my eloquent silence is the only power that I own. They can’t take what they don’t know. I and not them, choose silence.
In silence, I am able to reflect. In silence, I am able to plan with the right people. In silence I am also able to learn or reflect, to adapt or change if I must or nurture or keep what truly matters to me. In silence, I plan. The next move, the next adventure, the next question, whatever the journey, for I won’t miss my way, when silent. It’s a mesmerizing thing when you practice it intently, when you channel all your talkative energy to being silent, to seeing it as a plan. I am also learning that it demands that I am still and know. I am still as I bask in what I know for sure. They can’t take what they don’t know and I can’t give myself to anyone or anything when I am silent. It is a powerful realization, this thing called silence when you practice it for yourself and I intend to fully keep, eloquently in 2021. For if I can be silent, long enough, effectively, even eloquently, then silence would become me. So, I will be silent. Not because I don’t have much to say, but because in silence, I plan. Keep silence eloquently.
With Georgia quite literally on everyone’s mind this week, I spent the time reading about all the visionaries that made this blue season possible. Almost all of them are black, female and gifted. Like Nse Ufot of the New Georgia Project (here). Not only is Nse a proud naturalized citizen, but she was born in Nigeria and raised in Southwest Atlanta. In the middle of a global pandemic, Nse and her organization worked tirelessly to ensure that all Georgians knew that their voices mattered and that these voices needed to be heard through their vote. She used her voice for power, as a vital necessity for existence. And the result is quite simply sterling. Nse is sterling.
Sterling in silence. Sterling in her ability to be silent, but plant seeds for over seven years, seeds that led to 800,000 Georgians registering and flourishing with their vote in 2020. Sterling in her ability to mobilize young people, people of color, women, all sorts of women in Georgia. Sterling with being a strong leading voice, drowning our misinformation that undermines democracies. Sterling in calling out the incompetence of failed leadership. Sterling in her passion for the pain inflicted by the ongoing global pandemic among the very Georgians who continue to bear its brunt. Sterling in her fight to end voter suppression for all.
But Nse is also sterling in survival. Sterling with surviving the election of 2020 that has Georgia quite literally on everyone’s mind. Sterling in working with other black female leaders (I will reflect on all of them this week) to do the unthinkable with making Georgia, a very red state, turn blue for the first time since 1992, during the most pivotal election of my lifetime. Sterling still, post-election in helping to cure votes since Tuesday night before the Friday deadline. Sterling in turning many Georgians singular vote, their hopes and dreams with it, toward survival and change.
Nse Ufot is sterling. She is also a great reminder of how hard black women work, behind the scenes, for years, to transform our silence into a language of survival. Audre Lorde and all the black female leaders who have gone before us (and the black men too) would be so proud of you Nse. Keep being sterling.