A Black woman transforms conditioned silence into language: How Audre Lorde induced my rebirth
The fear to speak is pervasive among Black women. We have become comfortable with our fears and have befriended silence.
Editor’s Note: April is Black Women’s History Month. Throughout this month, Black Youth Project is celebrating Black women. This month is also National Minority Health Month, Autism Awareness Month, Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Child Abuse Prevention Month. We are interested in publishing works that address these topics and the things surrounding them.
By Breeana Nykole
“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.” — Audre Lorde, The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action, delivered at the Modern Language Association’s “Lesbian and Literature Panel” in 1977.
I meditated on the moments in which I chose silence. I considered the various tones of voice I applied in my speech. I reflected on word selection. I deliberated on whether the times I chose to act were positively aligned with my thoughts, my emotions, and my true self. I discovered that too often I swallowed, whispered and shrunk my words for the comfort of an apathetic audience. Fear of inadequacy made me play small in order to stretch the space for others to become the centerpiece of my life. I shrunk myself out of conditioned and socialized habit.
Determined to find the source of my silence and begin the process of transforming it into language and action, I dug until I hit the root of my quietness. I realized that the seed of silence had been planted by the women who raised me, my family, my friends, and my self.
I had been programmed to exist only within strict, societal structures. I was designed to bend my will, to swallow words, to whisper, to shrink, and to play small. This design was intended not just for me, but also for my ancestors, the women who raised me, the women around me, the women who will come after me, and the women I have not met and will never meet.
This patriarchal world was designed without considering the voice of women. Without consideration for the success or survival of Black women in particular. Within our communities, some of us were taught from an early age that we lack privilege. We do not have the privilege to ask for help. We do not have the privilege to speak about our pain or about our traumas. We do not have the privilege to speak to each other.
The fear to speak is pervasive among Black women. We fear that we will not receive validation for our thoughts put into words. We fear that we will be ostracized for expressing vulnerabilities and hurts. We fear being “bruised or misunderstood.” We have become comfortable with our fears and have befriended silence.
In order to discover my voice, I had to kill my silence along with my perception of self that lacked agency. I had to release the pain and fear that I harbored, and abandon the idea that outside forces defined Me. I had to forgive myself for holding onto the habits that programmed me.
Lorde asserted, “To question or to speak as I believed could have meant pain.” I too carried this belief. In my case, to simply speak would lead to abuse, physically, emotionally or mentally. This belief entrapped me, convinced me that there is no space for my voice, that my words were invalid — that I was invalid. For me to commit to this uncomfortable and unfamiliar journey of discovering my voice, I had to unlearn these fallacies, unlearn these ways that were instilled in me by my taciturn mother.
I recognized that those ways of being sprang from her pain that she received from her mother — a pain inflicted on many of us as a by-product of oppressive concepts and systems. I learned new methods to organize my thoughts in a positive manner. I wrote them down on paper. I read my thoughts aloud and became familiar with my voice of confidence. I allowed my words to resonate and lost the fear that kept me from sharing my words with others. I adopted a stance of relentlessness until I felt that my truth had learned how to defend itself from being “bruised and misunderstood.”
My transformation moved me to speak to other women of color about their relationship with their voice. Some found their voice. Some struggle. Some continue the journey. Some are oblivious that our dormant voices carry weight.
In these conversations, we discussed our battles, our moments of fatigue, our moments of anxiety, our unsuccessful attempts to be heard, the feeling of deliverance when we acknowledge the discovery of our voice, and the new places that our voices have taken us. Our dialogues allowed us to unearth the common factors that plague our quest for the inclusion and consideration of our voices. We identified that our turbulent journey to be heard must involve working through our relationships with the women in our lives, the pain in our lives, the prototypes we resist.
Among the numerous jarring accounts delivered by Audre Lorde, two statements resonated with me; “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 sicken and die of them, still in silence?” and “while we wait in silence for that luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.”
She was interrogating my silence, and somehow knew that I had grown weary with choking myself, weary with observing other Black women suppressing their words till those same words pierced them from within.
The words I withheld became heavier than the risk of speaking. Lorde’s message served as a catalyst for the discovery of my voice and inspired me to initiate conversations with the women in my community, which led to spirits of solidarity. These women taught me that my story is not my story alone, and that the words that I have been called to write and speak are not only for me, but for all of us. Our voices ignite the spark of light that motivates us to save ourselves and each other.
Breeana Nykole is the founder and editor for SYLA Journal. As a curator, writer and organizer with a passion for art, culture and activism, she is devoted to the amplification of marginalized voices, concerned with the interconnected nature of race, class and gender and aspires to dismantle societal constructs and reframe marginalized identities while stimulating conversation, healing and community.