This past month I’ve read Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals: one of the books I’ve heard and thought and talked about long enough that I’ve felt a knowing of it, yet never read it. And the timing of reading it now—during a global pandemic, in the midst of winter, and at a time when I’m trying to figure out my relationship with worsening asthma—has felt miraculously timed.
It’s felt particularly significant to read Lorde’s oft-cited quote “your silence will not protect you” in context: in a context of facing mortality and looking at what hasn’t been spoken/written/created yet as potential regrets in life.
Here’s an excerpt where this quote appears:
In becoming forcibly and essentially aware of my mortality, and of what I wished and wanted for my life, however short it might be, priorities and omissions became strongly etched in a merciless light, and what I regretted were my silences. Of what had I ever been afraid? To question or to speak as I believed could have meant pain, or death. But we all hurt in so many different ways, all the time, and pain will either change, or end. Death, on the other hand, is the final silence. And that might be coming quickly, now, without regard for whether I had ever spoken what needed to be said, or waited for someone else’s words. And I began to recognize a source of power within myself that comes from the knowledge that while it is most desirable not to be afraid, learning to put fear into a perspective gave me great strength.
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.”
—Audre Lorde, page 37 of The Cancer Journals e-book, emphasis added
I’ll tell you that reading this contextualized quote (and the full Cancer Journals) has felt like an important call-to-action. I’m sitting on so much writing: drafts and scraps and journal pages and unreported research and partially written essays and teaching materials and thoughts I’m too scared to share and longings and and and …
And I keep affirming myself as a writer and holding space for writing, even while I’m frustrated for the ways I’m holding myself back (particularly when it comes to books). I’m realizing more and more that I’m scared. But what is fear in the face of mortality?
And then, luckily, I’m not only asked to sit with Lorde’s reflections, but I come across these words from adrienne maree brown speaking about fear in We Will Not Cancel Us and Other Dreams of Transformative Justice:
We are afraid of being hurt, afraid because we have been hurt, afraid because we have caused hurt, afraid because we live in a world that wants to hurt us whether we have hurt others or not, just based on who we are, on any otherness from some long-ago determined norm. Supremacy is our ongoing pandemic. It partners with every other sickness to tear us from life, or from lives worth living.”
— adrienne maree brown, We Will Not Cancel Us, page 39
And, oh, again, as with reading Audre Lorde’s words, how these highlight what I need to acknowledge.
How I remember that this fear is about supremacy and oppression and my silence leaves supremacy and oppression unchanged, unchallenged.
How I know that fear and silence “tear us from life,” diminishing the potential of each day.
How I want to move again toward what’s life-affirming: toward living, breathing, and speaking/writing.
(And, yes, I’m writing a lot, but could I be more courageous in sharing it?)
So, how can I break through silence?
One word and another.
Find a pace, and keep going it until it changes.
Then change again.
Find more words. Try again.
One word and another and another.
Share these words.
Then pause for feedback.
Build accountability so I can revise with what’s offered.
Know the difference between an offering and a shutdown.
Know my words will be imperfect.
Yet, they’re needed to break silence, to breathe life.
So, try-try again.
And how grateful I am to be learning—again and again and again—from Black feminists, from feminists and womanists of color, who write with clarity about working with fear, doing it scared, and breaking through silence. I am committed to keep listening, learning, and speaking/writing more courageously.
Again and again.
Before pressing “publish” on these reflections, Black feminist Eric Darnell Pritchard shared with me Maya Angelou’s words: “Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.” It’s yet another confirmation to work with/through fears and to root myself in courage (to stand TALL).
Thank you for the many confirmations, many lessons, many reminders. <3
I (will) always come back to writing.
This post is written by Beth Godbee, Ph.D. for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For posts like this, you might be interested “Do It Scared,” “Speaking Up by Speaking Aloud Embodied Responses,” and “Words Matter: Naming, Inspiring, Truth-telling, Revealing, and Reckoning with This Moment.”