This spring I’m reading Alice Walker’s Living by the Word slowly, mindfully, as part of my “Contemplative Writing” course. I appreciate this book of essays for many reasons, including its title, which makes an argument that we live by the words we put into the world. As a writer committed to everyday living for justice, I am taken with this idea of “living by the word.”
I am taken, too, with Walker’s reflections on her many relations, including with her father and daughter, readers and publishers, ancestors and elders, horses and snakes. Across her essays, Walker shows the interconnectedness of all beings, tracing lineages of trauma and healing as well as fear and (in)justice.
Recently, the essay “Everything Is a Human Being” stood out to me. As a keynote address Walker gave at the University of California, Davis, in 1983 for MLK Day, this piece weaves together reflections on fear and humans’ destructive impact on the earth and each other. I found myself lingering over words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and pages …
In class, several students read aloud from the following passage, one I’d earmarked, as it spoke to my recent blog post on interrogating fear (fear of spiders and people alike).
Here’s a bit of Walker’s reflections on fear, which resulted in a neighbor killing a small garden snake:
“Everything I was taught about snakes—that they are dangerous, frightful, sinister—went into the murder of this snake person, who was only, after all, trying to remain in his or her home, perhaps the only home he or she had ever known. Even my ladylike ‘nervousness’ in its presence was learned behavior. I knew at once that killing the snake was not the first act that should have occurred in my new garden, and I grieved that I had apparently learned nothing, as a human being, since the days of Adam and Eve.
“Even on a practical level, killing this small, no doubt bewildered and disoriented creature made poor sense, because throughout the summer snakes just like it regularly visited the garden (and deer, by the way, ate all the tomatoes), so that it appeared to me that the little snake I killed was always with me. Occasionally a very large mama or papa snake wandered into the cabin yard, as if to let me know its child has been murdered, and it knew who was responsible for it.
“These garden snakes, said my neighbors, are harmless; they eat mice and other pests that invade the garden. In this respect, they are even helpful to humans. And yet, I am still afraid of them, because that is how I was taught to be. Deep in the psyche of most of us there is this fear—and long ago, I do not doubt, in the psyche of ancient peoples, there is a similar fear of trees. And of course a fear of other human beings, for that is where all fear of natural things leads us: to fear ourselves, fear of each other, and fear even of the spirit of the Universe, because out of fear we often greet its outrageousness with murder.” (Walker, Living by the Word, p. 143)
Walker’s words not only touch my heart but also remind me of the deep work I have to do with confronting, befriending, and watching for fear. I notice, for example, that fear of snakes is close-at-hand when hiking. I’m fascinated by and try to learn all I can about snakes, yet I still have much to do to quiet the learned/internalized fear that drives me to keep watch along trails.
Similarly, fear of myself and other humans is never far away. Such fear leads to literal and figurative murder—from police and state-sanctioned violence to dehumanization and discounting others. It erupts in microaggressions and denial of anger and grief. It leads to destruction of the earth, disproportionally impacting people of color. It’s also why we all (and white folks especially) need to strengthen emotional literacies for racial justice.
Fear blocks the ability to see beauty, the potential for human connection, and the work of striving for justice. Fear tears down instead of building up.
In Walker’s words: “[W]e should be allowed to destroy only what we ourselves can re-create. We cannot re-create this world. We cannot re-create ‘wilderness.’ We cannot even, truly, re-create ourselves. Only our behavior can we re-create, or create anew” (p. 151).
With humility, I commit again to revisiting destructive fear and re-creating behaviors aligned with justice. To do so, I see the value of “living by the word”: words of relationality, connectedness, and kinship. Kinship with spiders and humans, snakes and structural change. Kinship linking why I’m vegan with why I’m committed to social and racial justice. Kinship toward blocking destruction and creating anew.
This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For related posts, check out “Do Vegans Kill Spiders? Recognizing Fears and Others’ Right to Exist,” “Refueling with Feminists of Color,” and the series of posts on why I’m vegan. Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!