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Swallow

September 30, 2011

Many things have crossed my mind this week. Some of them, I am still not sure are worthy of the space they might take up here or your time. Or this may be a Minnesotan excuse not to share. Or maybe the best ideas came to me on the edge of sleep and I neglected to keep my journal by my bed and they have since been forgotten.

 

One thing I remember from the past week is meeting writer Patricia Anita Young. We met at an informational meeting about a writers’ retreat and workshop to which we are both applying. We are writers, so I guess we talked about stories. Our stories. Stories of our people.

 

I don’t know how we got on the topic, but we spoke of the stories of the civil rights era. She talked about her mother and relatives who lived through the Jim Crow south, and her visits there as a young adult. She talked about the difference between the “Colored” restroom and the “White” one. Not equal, she said. Just like everything else.

 

She talked about how the common story of discrimination and segregation was not one all African Americans wanted to speak. She said that one of her elder’s favorite words was “swallow.”

 

Favorite.” So many of us are required to shut up. Pat spoke of a relative who was raped by a white cab driver with whom she had to work each day. When a white man raped a black woman, what gets said? What could she say? It was a generation and a half ago, in the segregated South. What could she say today? Who would listen? Who would be on trial? Or would her plaint even register as a sound on the tin ear drums of racial and gender injustice with which we still live?

 

Her family elder had words. Not just words, but a scream. I suspect that they were just left as tears on a pillow or a boiling blood rage in a night that had to be turned down in the light of the day in front of the ruling class—in front of the man whose privilege allowed him to touch her most sacred places, a place that is only for her to decide who goes in, not him, not her priest, not a law, not anyone. Allowed him to do it with absolute impunity.

 

She could not say. She had no voice. She had the words, emotions, understanding of what happened to her, what happened to that space that she might share with a love or at least someone with whom she consented to share, what happened to her body, what happened to any sense of safety or security she might have each day when she went to work. Instead, her words were swallowed.

 

But we swallow everyday. Some of us more than others. I spoke of another local African American writer who had a book published a decade and a half ago about her experiences working in a very male, white dominated occupation, as a “lineman” for the phone company. It was supposed to be one of those what-it’s-like-to-be-black-and-female-in-America stories that tells it like it is. Instead, every time she got to one of those places that acknowledged and described what we face and how and why it is hurtful and destructive, she would pull her punch. She seemed to say, well, it wasn’t so bad. That it was just an interesting, funny story, ironic and silly, maybe even absurd. But she would not speak to the substance of what we live day to day that has left us with a caste, apartheid system enforced with terror.

 

She swallowed, just like we do so often. Whose comfort was she protecting? Who do we protect?

 

We swallow, because the hurt and anger of our speaking would hurt those to whom we direct our words that must be said. We swallow, not out of compassion, but for the knowledge of the consequences of speaking that is feeling that rage powerful enough to create that terror and apartheid.

 

We are trained to swallow that mouth full of dirt, instead of spitting it out back to the place from where it came. I do it every day. So do most women and most people of color—people with non-majority sexual orientations, people of demonized religions. And those who will not be quiet often do not survive long, even doing so in the name of justice and self respect.

 

Maybe as we write, Patricia and I will spit out the words that we’ve swallowed for so long, that our foremothers and fathers swallowed, words that we swallow and words that we hope our daughters and sons will not swallow in the future. And maybe the people who care, care about us and care about our society, will get to hear the stories they have longed for.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 30, 2011 8:08 pm

    The words are most definitely worth my time.
    Yes. No more swallowing, ever.
    Thank you for writing this.
    It gives me chills.
    Carla

    • October 1, 2011 3:51 pm

      Carla, suddenly, not feeling as brave as this post, but the need for that bravery might be the thing that made me post it and made me hope for responses like yours.

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