“Women have sat indoors all these millions of years, so that by this time, the very walls are permeated by their creative force, which has, indeed so overcharged the capacity of bricks and mortar that it must needs harness itself to pens and brushes and business and politics.”
We talk. Gathered around kitchen tables, in cramped bedrooms shared with children, dealing hands at card tables, in beauty shops, on long lines in grocery stores, to television sets and movie screens, on cordless phones, to the deaf ears of our men, and even to ourselves we talk. At lunch counters, coffee shops, malls. On stoops in Brooklyn, New York, dorm rooms in Minneapolis, Minnesota, pool side in southern California we build our platforms. We confide, explode, dream, grieve, rant. We cannot contain ourselves. Some of us even talk in our sleep. Women. The women I know have never been silent.
We have been shushed, laughed at, beaten, dismissed, ignored, raped, patronized—coerced to believe we must be good, obedient, submissive women. The sharp intake of breath, the disapproving glance, the turned back, the segregated gatherings, the shaming, the stinging slap by society, media, our own loved ones conditioned us. We learned, and at times accepted, that some topics are taboo. We swallowed our words along with our tears and pressed on. We taught our daughters to do the same.
Little girls then, in the early sixties, were best neither seen nor heard. Adults were not questioned. The rules—both spoken and unspoken—were strictly enforced. To survive, I adapted. Sort of. I watched and listened. I morphed into a quiet witness to my virulent Brooklyn environment. The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. played out on our black and white television. At eight years old I could not understand why our skin was hated or why we couldn’t move to the better neighborhood or why Ma worked and worked so hard that she didn’t want to eat a meal with her young daughters or talk to us or look at us.
My head bent, eyes filled with tears, a perpetual weariness overshadowed my childhood. Wherever I looked seemed forlorn, forgotten, lost. My eyes traveled along the time worn streets. Buildings battered by neglect and abuse stood wearily; shadows danced in doorways. Gaping holes in worn red brick, like hollow eyes, stared through me. Tomorrow held no promise as attested by the jobless on Bristol Street, the hungry across the alley, the screams in apartment 1-B, and the bad feeling in my own family’s apartment.
I remember the threats the ghetto shouts. In smells, pictures and sound the message is the same. You can’t. You can’t the ghetto chants. In schoolrooms, it recites You can’t; at job interviews, it announces: You can’t; when you seek new housing it laughs; You can’t; even dreams of being someone are interrupted by mocking taunts—You can’t! You can’t!
But what our ghetto didn’t count on was that mixed in with the day’s despair were the ancient souls of our mothers’ mothers. Women who could not be silenced. These women had witnessed inspiration born in darkest night while terror’s heart thumping, blood rushing, breath stopping theme song whispered in their ears. And yet they spoke calmly to little girls of those who first broke rank, followed the North Star, and blazed the trail. Grandmothers, aunties, teachers, neighbors, sisters rearranged terror’s theme song note by note. They slowed the crazed tempo, raised the volume, and transposed the music from death to life.
We sang. When we couldn’t talk women sang courage, hope, faith, and strength, In harmonic melodies and rich a cappella we swaddled our children and each other in something our desolate world could not touch. When these songs were spent we composed our own. Threading our wants, needs, hurts, desires into a sound track of moans, thumping beats, bass notes, drum solos.
We danced. Our bodies captured by the music of Motown, The Supremes, Aretha Franklin’s R.E.S.P.E.C.T. We writhed, twitched, shook. We slow danced alone and in groups as the lyrics spoke to us and for us. We paid heed to the power of those lyrics.
We read. We read album covers, Ebony Magazine, and books by Richard Wright, James Baldwin. Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison. We discovered new heroes and sheroes. We identified with those from generations before and continents away who felt as we felt. We learned our ancestors carved their story in drawings on the walls that confined them. We, in turn, penned journals. In composition notebooks, scraps of paper, ledger pads, blank books with fancy covers, and on computers we found voice. We experimented with honesty. Untapped the taboo. We uncorked a floodgate of emotions from hatred to exuberance.
We snapped photos. We pointed zoom lenses at the chains and prisons that bound us. We created collages of hurt, painted pictures of despair, molded images of grief, designed and sewed cloaks of oppression, and fashioned them into weapons of purpose which we paraded down Life’s runway.
So now we stand. We stand at podiums—not in obscure shadows but, before Congress, in auditoriums, in court rooms, beside our soon-to-be President of the United States—and speak. In eloquent, articulate language we unfurl a lifetime of survival, growth, knowledge as testament of how far we have come. Our backs are strong. Our shoulders broad. Our heads held high as our eyes survey the land. We recognize the endless potential within ourselves and those who have yet to be set free.
And we write. And we write. And we write.
The women I know will never be silent.
I will never be silent.