Academic journal article Afro - Hispanic Review

Silence and False Starts in Times of Disaster

Academic journal article Afro - Hispanic Review

Silence and False Starts in Times of Disaster

Article excerpt

What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?

-Audre Lorde (1977)

How do you put such a thing into words? When the ground doesn't hold. When the back of an invisible hand, unimpeded, sweeps the landscape and all that is above it. When loved ones, alive and talking and loving a minute, a hour, a day before, slip, suddenly and silenced, beneath the rubble?

-Paula J. Giddens (2011)

It has been over two years since the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti that became yet another unthinkable moment in history. So much has happened in my own professional and personal life since then, as if the earthquake marked the start of a new chapter that once again connects me to my native homeland. As a writer and scholar, I have yet to draft this chapter and am only now beginning to break my own silence. And by silence, I mean the inability to put words on paper and share them publically with the world, or at least with those who care to read them. I also mean the emptiness and anxiety a writer feels when he/she is unable to manifest new narratives in order to understand what has happened, and what is still happing today.

Silence, for a Haitian-born black woman writer, scholar, and activist, is oftentimes deafening. Of course, this perspective of silence is shared among feminists who view the act of speaking, of coming to voice as a tool of resistance, of refuting the institutionalized subjugation of women's voices and narratives made invisible by patriarchal knowledge. For black women feminists scholars and writers in particular, breaking silence means foregrounding the oppression of women along the lines of race, gender, sexuality, and class. It also means unearthing invisible and unknown narratives of the lived experiences of everyday women. When I am sometimes confronted with my own silence, I hear the words of black lesbian feminist writer Audre Lorde: "Your silence will not protect you" (41). She, like so many black women writers, scholars, and activists who paved the way for voices like mine to be heard, insisted on the need to break all forms of silence that immobilize us and prevent us from speaking the truth, telling our stories, expressing our deep desires, and confronting the fears that cripple us from necessary action. Indeed, silence implies inaction, and passivity. This we also learn from political and human rights activists who have fought for justice and called for us to be centered in our humanity through our actions. During the Civil Rights Era, for example, when African Americans were treated as second-class citizens and blatant racial discrimination was prevalent, Martin Luther King gave a number of speeches that relegated silence to betrayal. In one of his speeches, King states: "History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people" (45).

History itself is also full of deafening silences. For Haitians, the silencing of the Haitian Revolution is history's ultimate betrayal. All serious scholars of Haitian Studies, both young and seasoned, know this and owe a debt of gratitude to Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot, who died on July 5, 2013 at age 62. His seminal book, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, exposes the ways in which the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804, the only successful slave revolt in history, was silenced by historians of the period, and continued to be systematically effaced in history books (Trouillot). Trouillot made us keenly aware that Haiti in the era of revolution is very much ingrained in history regardless of how history is rewritten to silence this fact. Knowing this, our task as Haitian scholars is to un-silence the voices in history that have been marginalized and erased. …

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