When City Press editor Ferial Hafajee said in an interview with Ruda Landman that she teaches female journalists under her employ that they can speak up, nothing will happen to them. My heart skipped a beat. I replayed the tape and listened again and again then thought to myself: nothing will happen to you? Seriously, is she for real? Are you for real?
That for me, was a radical statement!
I was intrigued. Then I started to wonder if all the times when I did speak up and something happened to me as result, was all just a fragment of my imagination. If I created the consequences of other people’s reactions to my words? Her words brought to mind an essay penned by the late African-American Poet and writer, Audre Lorde called “The transformation of Silence into Language and Action” in it she said:
“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 most 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 had only betrayed myself into small silences, while I planned someday to speak, or waited for someone else’s words. I was going to die, if not sooner, then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.”
When I first read these words I thought I understood what she meant. That faced with the final inevitability of death – it was natural and perhaps even essential for one to speak up – to say your truth since, in that context nothing else matters, more, there is, in that reality nothing left to lose. But without the clarity which imminent death brings to bear, what incentives do people have to “speak of what is most important, to make it verbal and shared even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood”??
I never questioned this idea that something would happen to me if I spoke up, particularly in my practice of journalism. I had never for a moment thought that I could speak up and nothing will happen, that I won’t die, be killed, starved, robbed of opportunities, ignored, fired. Silenced. That I wouldn’t be labelled as crazy. I lived in acceptance of the fact that there would be some degree of negative consequence to anything I did. This extended to the very core of my entire awareness, as a black woman, sister, child. I was a negative consequence of my mother’s mistake. If my mother had done it right the first time, I probably would not be alive, so as a result my existence in this place (earth) was a burden, a load on my mother’s shoulders which it was my sole duty to alleviate and to make light.
I thought of all that I was afraid of in the words of Audre Lorde: “contempt, censure, of some judgment, or recognition, of challenge, of annihilation. But most of all, I think, we fear the visibility without which we cannot truly live.”
And this is where I made this startling discovery. Something which I had never considered when I first read this essay. This discovery was that I was not, as I had convinced myself in all these years, afraid to die. No, no,no, no I was essentially and ultimately, quintessentially most afraid to Live. Because life is uncertain, unpredictable , risky and in the infinite multiplicity of ways beyond – my control.
It’s only now that I realize what she meant when she said “And of course I am afraid, because the transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation, and that always seems fraught with danger. But my daughter, when I told her of our topic and my difficulty with it, said, “Tell them about how you’re never really a whole person if you remain silent, because there’s always that one little piece inside you that wants to be spoken out, and if you keep ignoring it, it gets madder and madder and hotter and hotter, and if you don’t speak it out one day it will just up and punch you in the mouth from the inside.”
Imagine speaking the truth, telling it like it is all the time, and have absolutely nothing happen to you! I have never, not even once in my life considered that to even be a vague possibility in my lifetime. Why we’ve seen leaders, activists, ordinary, nameless people do the same and some died because of what they said, yet many more lived which is why we know of them today.
I never quite realized that by speaking my truth ( even though I thought it was a reaction to my fear of death – or even a desire to die) I was in fact – living, being alive. I never realized that it is the very thing which has kept me most alive. That with the possibility of dancing, again. And again.
It was quite something to come face to face with a look of fearlessness encapsulated in Fariel Hafajee’s simple statement, ” you can speak up, nothing will happen to you” which at first seemed so ridiculously radical, it was unreal. And yet , that is indeed the only way to live, to be free.
It is a stunning reality to wake up to every morning.
The face of freedom!