HAJI MOHAMED DAWJEE: For black women, silence is death [book excerpt]
It takes a long time for women, the majority of the world’s population, to be themselves. It is a process of becoming who we are rather than being born into who we are – that is a gift neatly wrapped and reserved for Caucasian people.
It takes even longer before we can openly express that identity with all its dynamic variables such as what we stand for, how we want to be treated, what our thoughts and opinions are, and selecting when, where and how we will assert ourselves so that we can say the things we want to say … the things we need to say.
Over the years, centuries even, through a process of proving ourselves time and time again – especially in our field of work, whatever profession that may be – things change. We have to change them. And we change. We start to claim our space because we know what we faced to get where we are. We know the challenges we have overcome to prove ourselves. We know what it feels like to face adversity and take on structural systems that are built to spit us out and that have caused so much trauma – we have shown that we can stay and rise above it all and take up space. We have proven we can "perform" – but here’s the thing, even if that performance is better than anyone else’s, even if we have the confidence to outskill and outlast any of our adversaries, the world has been taught to keep us on the back foot. In a way, we are always set up for failure. This we must un-teach. And the only way to do that is to speak up.
STOP HAVING BOUNDARIES DRWAN FOR US
For a black woman, silence is death. When we are quiet, no systems change, we are kept in place, in "our" place, chained, challenged and still. Just the way the world likes it.
In her autobiography,I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, one of the biggest and most influential voices of our time and many times to come, Maya Angelou, established her voice at the age of 41. Four decades. That is how long it took for her to break the silence and become the loudspeaker of memoir for anyone who would listen. In the book, Angelou tells the story of how she had once actively chosen silence as a child. When the famed and respected author was eight years old, she stopped speaking. Angelou says that she silenced her voice because she believed her very voice was what led to the death of a man. For five years, someone who had much to say, said nothing.
The man in question was her mother’s boyfriend at the time, Mr Freeman, who raped Angelou. The young Angelou testified against him during his trial. He was convicted, sentenced and later released. Then, a mere four days after his freedom, he was murdered. In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou implies that it was perhaps her uncles who killed him. The price she paid for his death? Her silence. The author was gagged by her own guilt. She was thirteen when she found her voice again. Twenty-eight years later, she made that voice heard and for several decades after that first publication, she continued to speak her truth and tell her stories and the stories that reflected the experience of many a black woman, young and old, around her.
Like Angelou, we all have a story. And like Angelou, there is some- thing to be learnt from those stories, not just for us, but also for the people around us. Whether we choose it or not, whether the fact that we keep quiet in the face of the world is learned behaviour – which it is – we are constantly trained to think that no one likes or wants a loud black woman. We are all silenced for a time, while the caged bird sings because it "dares to claim the sky". The caged bird sings for freedom. The caged bird sings to be heard, because it knows, intrinsically, what it means to be free. And so must we all.
Every lived experience, past and present, is an opportunity to school the system around us – to stand in front of a crowd and force them, if necessary, to unlearn how they are used to treating us, dismissing us and refusing to hear us. Trust me, the "headmasters", the ruling parties of our existence will not like it, may not like it, but it doesn’t matter. Today is the day they learn. Today is the day they listen. Today is the day we stop being spoken at. Stop having the boundaries and lines drawn for us. Today is the day we decide. Today is the day we see through the bullshit, through the games people play. Today is the day the stories people tell us about who we are and what we are capable of become clear. And today is the day we demand, at least, an effort.
If we are going to be systemically challenged, as we have been historically, if we are going to be set up for failure so that another black woman can take the fall, then know this, we see through it and if you are going to lie to us about it, at least make an effort to come up with a better lie; one that makes it more difficult for us to prove you wrong because we will. Because today is the day we break our silence and choose life over death. Today is the day we choose freedom and our voices. Today is the day we sing our way out of the cage and rattle the systems that imprison us. This is the time in our lives when themes of searching for our identity and finding the strength and courage to outwardly represent who we are, carry deep resonance and we must treat this as a power we can exercise, that will carry an impact on every single woman who looks like us, long after we have gone.
You will see us rise. You will see us live. You will see the tables turn and you will face our questions and assertions. And you will bear witness to our right to live alongside you, above you and next to you – at the conference table, at the meeting, in the boardroom and whatever gathering you choose.
I watched a video the other day where a black woman was prancing through a field of golden wheat and above the sound of the windswept reeds a voice rang out. The narration said: "You can’t truly call yourself peaceful unless you’re capable of great violence; if you’re not capable of violence you’re not peaceful, you’re harmless".
I did not know how much I needed these words until I heard them. You see, I have this funny thing I say every morning and to my close circle of women friends quite often, especially when they’re looking for advice on how to deal with white privilege and entitlement, and that is: "Choose violence". I don’t mean this literally. But when we say what needs to be said, a black woman will always be seen as aggressive or arrogant, instead of confident, unafraid and assertive. These things are seen as violent acts within societies that have, over time, drilled into us the ‘peacefulness’ of keeping quiet. Taught us that it is better for us. That life is easier that way. But choosing the easier path doesn’t benefit me, harmlessness does not benefit me. I choose violence. And the expanded version of what I mean by that is in the aforementioned quote.
We will never have peace unless we are capable of great violence. Without the ability to act, we will never truly be okay with ourselves; the only acceptance we receive will be from the outside. From the others who have already othered us. This is not peacefulness. It is harmlessness. And I am not harmless. I, in fact, have the potential to inflict great harm, great change, and great impact – as do we all – as long as we stop shutting up.
I shared the video with my circle of black women friends because it empowered me with the language to express what I mean when I say: "Choose violence". And these are now words we choose to live by. They resonate so deeply and so inspiringly. I read those words every day. And I live by them.
There is an expectation, or several expectations, placed on the heads of black women as soon as we are born. And that is that people have an expectation of who they think we are. We have to fit into the box of who they have decided we must be. How we should behave and conduct ourselves. And all the ways we are expected to fail. But we will exceed those expectations. I cannot count the number of times I have been tested over and over again. Especially in my work. As soon as one expectation is exceeded, along comes another, and another and another. And I will meet these expectations every time. It does not matter how many times I have proven my adequacy as a professional, as a writer, as whatever project manager I choose to be, I will always be questioned. And I will still exceed the expectation. But as soon as I do, as soon as there is nothing left to throw at me, the response becomes: "Who does she think she is?"
SILENCE IS DEATH
Let me tell you something, the time of having my life defined for me, of dictating what my life should be, where I should live, how I should behave, how I am expected to perform – is over. Your expectations have nothing to do with me and everything to do with your definition of me. And if anyone asks who I think I am, well, then they should prepare themselves for an answer, because I have one, and the time of that question being rhetorical has long expired. I simply cannot afford to not have the answer to that question anymore. I cannot afford to not voice it. Because without it, without speaking my mind and questioning the treatment I receive, or the doubt or the inequality, what chance do I have?
Here is an illustration of how important saying something is. It was so clearly pointed out to me over coffee with one of my closest friends, who said: "If the best athlete the world has ever seen, Serena Williams – a black woman who has written herself into history and in her own time – had to and is still fighting for her legitimacy, has to raise her voice over and over again, even with all her records and achievements, and her pure power, just for recognition, then imagine how much we have to do it.
Because without it, what chance do we have?
For a black woman, silence is death. Choose violence, and speak to live another day.
Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a South African columnist, disruptor of the peace and the author of Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a brown woman in a white South Africa. Follow her on Twitter.