Spoken Word: Challenging the Ease of Silence

Guest post by Sami Sumpter

It’s scary how easy silence can be.

Silence is easy when you’re tired. It’s easy when you aren’t directly involved. It’s easy when you convince yourself that it’s better to mind your own business, or to keep your head down. Silence is easy when speaking means appearing trivial or bitchy or oversensitive.

The danger in silence is that it is perceived as mere absence—an absence of words, an absence of thought—and thereby carries with it no perceived impact. But silence isn’t simply an absence, and it isn’t divorced from consequence. Rather than conceiving of silence as the mere absence of speech, we should think of the two as opposites, like any set of contrasting natural forces or Platonic ideals. Of course, this alone does not necessitate a clear value judgment. But consider the dualism from the standpoint of physics: much like Newton’s Third Law, each silence carries with it an impact equal and opposite to the potential impact of speech. Thus, silence is not passive—it is an active decision, and it produces real consequences.

In her essay “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,”Audre Lorde says of silence, “…what I regretted most were my silences…I was going to die, if not sooner than later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.” Silence is not a cloak, protecting us from the consequences of speaking. Rather, in choosing silence over speech, we do real damage. In choosing silence, we enable those problems most troublesome to us.

Like Lorde, my biggest regrets are my silences, and I remember all of them. I remember every time I should have spoken but decided not to do the work. I remember every time I decided to put precedence in the ease of silence, rather than honoring the value of my words. Speaking is work—and it can be dangerous, terrifying work—but it’s work that should not be undervalued.

This, I think, is one of the crucial values of spoken word poetry—it provides an outlet for this kind of difficult work. It offers a medium for voices to be spoken, to be heard, to be deeply felt. Furthermore, spoken word provides space where speech and action come together—it is the publically witnessed activation of thought, in as free an expression as possible. Particularly within the context of feminist spoken word, this is a critical point. With feminist spoken word, we clearly see the liberation of voices that might otherwise remain silent, addressing important issues of gender equity and the lived experience of feminist work.

Last week, the UI Women’s Center espoused such ideals by hosting the F-Word Live! Poetry Slam, an event dedicated to feminist spoken word. A number of artists bravely offered their words to the audience, confronting difficult issues from a variety of perspectives. Among others, Thomas Elder insightfully addressed the dilemmas of being a male feminist, Virginia Solan and Renee Hill shared their challenging experiences with the darker side of love, and Jackie Sandmeyer presented her insight into queer love and sex with heartfelt humor.

In particular, Sandmeyer’s work demonstrated an especially powerful union between feminist thought and action. Her second piece, “Tales of a Third Grade Love Story,” presents a sincere and humorous portrait of love. In it, she says, “…when people tell me that she’s way too pretty to be a lesbian, I just smile and tell them that she’s too pretty for a lot of things, including me, but that love ain’t one of them.” Here Sandmeyer speaks to building a definition of love that goes beyond predetermined standards; she champions the worth of the individual, both in thought and practice. This honest, straightforward conceptualization of love is not a hard one to get behind.

Last April, I was fortunate to see Sandmeyer perform at the Northwest Women’s Studies Association Annual Conference. In contrast to the overt humor of the pieces she performed at F-Word, “Ten Fingers, Ten Toes” takes a more serious approach. In describing coming out, she directly addresses the silence-speech dualism: “No matter how many times I’ve been assaulted for my words, they still flow from my mouth, determined to create and conjugate this proclamation of emancipation…Hate is spread at an exponential rate, and yet we stay silent.” Here Sandmeyer beautifully places a number of the concepts I’ve argued for within her own narrative. Not only does she specifically reject silence—despite the difficulties brought on by speaking—but she even calls attention to silence as a dangerous enabler of hate. In making such a claim, Sandmeyer proposes a deep sense of empowerment that comes from holding yourself accountable—to your thoughts, to your identity, to the very act of speaking.

It becomes increasingly apparent that our thoughts can only truly be considered valuable if they are expressed—if they are activated, so to speak. We can all take a lesson from Jackie and the others who performed at F-Word; they successfully undermined silence simply by speaking courageously and honestly. Indeed, when it comes to successfully disrupting harmful silences, there is but one necessary and sufficient condition: if you have something to say, say it.

It has taken me my entire life to accept such an incredibly simple conclusion. In convincing myself of the importance of speaking, I have primarily had to overcome the worry of being deemed a killjoy or—more graphically—an irrationally angry, man-hating “feminazi.” And, to be true, this is probably a valid concern. But this concern cannot take precedence over addressing important issues, even when they appear trivial.

So, you call me angry?

Hell yeah, I’m angry! Oppression is downright infuriating. Aristotle called it righteous anger, and (in case you were wondering) he considered it a virtue.

You call me a killjoy for speaking out against your “harmless” sexist joke?

Go ahead. If you truly take joy in sexism, I will happily kill that joy. Now that I’ve killed my silence, your ill-begotten fun should be a piece of cake.

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