Open Your Mouth (Silence Won’t Save You)
Words are powerful, so I consider them carefully.
* * *
Silence was a luxury I couldn’t afford as a little girl. It’s a luxury that no little Black girl can afford, really. I learned quickly that I either fought with my words or fought with my hands. Sometimes, if called for, I fought with both. Being loud was an act of reclamation, saying, “You’re going to look and listen to me. You’re going to hear me whether you like it or not.”
Being quiet and shy is cute if the girl is white, but since I was Black, my quiet and shy attitude was seen as just that.
Black households are rarely quiet. It was rare that I could go even a second in my home without my name being called. Someone had to announce they were home, someone needed me to come downstairs and hand them the remote, someone wanted me to get up and do something because I’d been in there too long for their liking and an unmoving Black child is a lazy Black child.
* * *
My nickname as a little girl was “Wild Child.”
I was constantly in motion. Running, jumping, and screaming, were my favorite activities. I was a writer even when I was younger, and I would run and scream in circles to create stories and connect threads. I wanted to be seen and heard. I talked to adults like they talked to me and got called “smart” for it and popped in the mouth for it. “Y’all need to be seen, not heard.” But that didn’t stop me from trying to be heard; I just raised my voice and started blocking hits with my hands.
Eventually, my words and violence began to lose their bite, so I was ignored. Didn’t matter how loud I talked if no one looked at me.
How many sentences did I start, and then stop only to I realize that no one was listening. How many words did I waste starting over and over again because someone spoke over me.
Eventually, I stopped letting myself being heard and just let myself be seen.
And then, I didn’t want to be seen anymore.
* * *
By the time I was a teen, I was completely silent. And being silent is being obedient, not loud and disobedient like “those” Black girls, so everyone started calling me a “Good girl.”
At first, at least.
My silence went from being a godsend to my family to an irritation to an outright character flaw. My family used shame and intimidation as if they were my teachers, feeling the brunt of it with my silence. It caused a lot of ridiculous one-sided arguments that boiled down to, “Why can’t you just talk?” And then when I tried to, I was ignored again.
When I argued my case, I was seen as aggressive.
When I got annoyed and quiet, I was still seen as aggressive.
I was a little girl who had to scream her voice raw to be heard. I was a teenage girl who just wanted a moment of silence.
* * *
I turned to writing to find a release for all that energy. Words are precious when spoken out loud, but at least when I wrote them down I could save them.
Whether I write nonfiction or fiction, there are always large, inexplicable silences.
No one speaks, at least not directly. Dialogue often looks ugly to me.
There’s nothing worse than writing a passage as smooth as silk and having to chop it up with quotation marks.
In nonfiction, I avoid writing direct dialogue because memory is imperfect and words can be warped by feelings.
How do I write the story of the argument I had with a family member in an elevator. How do I write about of that family member looking me in the eye, tilting their jaw up and then setting it with the utmost confidence, inhaling to prepare themselves to deliver the blow, and telling me I irritated other relatives because I didn’t talk?
* * *
Sometimes, sitting in or writing silence is an act of resistance.