One of my oldest memories growing up in Haiti under an authoritarian regime is the sound of the phrase, ou konn ki es mwen ye? Whether uttered in a whisper, loudly, with sustained bravado stretched over every syllable, or with a chuckle, the meaning was clear. For the question was simply, do you know who I am? Honestly, I had no concrete sense what that meant until years later when I became conscious of the small ways I was taught what power is, how it operates, who has it, how it was wielded, who abuses it and who dared to challenge it.
There was an ongoing joke among some adults when presidential election results were announced which favored the dictator several millions to one. Who was foolish enough to cast that singular oppositional vote? Everyone knew these numbers were a sham. Some openly voiced their contempt and paid a severe price; many creatively subverted as others remained totally quiet. Daily survival, we knew, depended upon when and how one traded their most precious commodity: silence. It had use, sign, and exchange values that could be accrued.
I was shy, and more often than not, dutiful. The fear I embodied was visible as I bowed my head in the presence of grownups. There were codes by which we all lived knowing the difference between responses that were appropriate and the ones that were not. Some words, once spoken out loud, were not only directives that provided no guarantees of whom would not disappear, or get food to eat, but could also be evidence of troublemaking that no one wish would visit their home.
In the aftermath of migration to this country (also founded on dissent), I began to relish in expressing my freedom to speak. Out. Loud. Part of it surely was teenage rebellion, another was my education — indoctrination by an English as a Second Language curriculum that sold us the American Dream. I bought it and was lucky enough to have also learned this dream, as the great poet Langston Hughes wrote, had been deferred for many — including Black minorities whose ancestors came to occupy this hemisphere by way of slavery. The system, as it were, was stacked against us. As the unstoppable human rights activist, Ella Josephine Baker so rightfully put it, “we who believe in freedom cannot rest until it happens.” I use to imagine I was old enough to join the March on Washington wondering what it would have felt like to be there standing somewhere in that big crowd listening to Mahalia Jackson and being inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech.
I often say I have a difficult relationship with silence because I grew up under a dictatorship. So, I never took it for granted that as unequal as we may be in the eyes of others and especially the law, ancestors and elders fought and died for us to have our rights, even though we are still treated unjustly when we use them. Since protest is as American as apple pie, it was in this American spirit that we continue to exercise that right. As fraught as life has been in this system, it remained distinguishable from living under a ruler that demanded total allegiance and loyalty. Though it wasn’t structurally possible for everyone, one could still strive towards individuation and achieve it. As long as we understood “we have as much freedom as we are willing to pay for” according to McArthur genius, choreographer Bill T. Jones. Indeed, the possibilities of participation, at least existed. For democracy, as the old saying goes, is not a spectator sport. It took work. Civic engagement is more than a marker of citizenship, it is manifestation of a sense of duty to self, community, and country.
When the Black-ish episode clip about the recent presidential elections started to circulate days ago, I began to remember how I learned my fears of silence. I grew up in a time and in a country where girls and women were supposed to be quiet. As I meditate on the meaning of MLK today, in this country that I now call my own, I can admit I speak out precisely because silence is a structure of power that I refuse to recreate. I am reminded of his wise words, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Given our history, we must consciously resist impulses that threaten to further incarcerate us in states of negation.