People frequently use metaphors, euphemisms, and deadpan demeanors to “take the heat off” of potentially distressing subjects. So, what does it mean to “beautifully manage” horror? As a Black, white, and Native American woman, I find it easy, if not almost intuitive, to understand the desire to mask the horror that one’s respective histor(ies) performed or experienced (one might wonder, however, What, or who, draws the line between individual and collective history?). My blood and being are derived from the oppressed and the oppressor, from the marginalized and the privileged. (Sometimes, I don’t know whether this aggregate perspective grants more clarity, or more confusion, when used to interpret America’s racialized history.) In Interview with an Empire, M. NourbeSe Philip, makes note of “…the terror of language and the horror of silence” that often tango with the desire to hide, or to expose, one’s history and one’s truth (p. 198).
Yesterday, Brandon Stanton, creator of the infamous Humans of New York project, posted a profile of an adult black woman. She describes a time when she and her black male friend were approached on the street by a police officer. The policeman had been looking for a “5’10” black male” so, naturally, he had decided to stop every black man of average height whom he came across. Her friend began to protest and, in an attempt to prolong his life, she effectively told her friend to keep quiet and “obey” the police officer’s authority and orders, an interaction analogous to one of “slave and master”. Toward the end of the publication, the woman said “…I didn’t want the guns to come out. I didn’t want him to be another hashtag … And I was so mad afterward. Because I’m very pro-black. I go to protests. I’m in a black sorority. But in that moment I couldn’t speak, because I was too afraid of what might happen.”
Clearly, this woman felt torn about her actions: on the one hand, the silence that she verbally forced upon her friend may have saved his life but, on the other hand, she felt defeated and anti-black by silencing him and, beneath the surface, herself. As Ms. Philip states, language is not transparent; consequently, one could ask, did this woman, by silencing her friend, bolster the power of racial profiling and police brutality? Or, by placing more importance on the survival of her friend’s black body than on black rebellion, did she manage to say, implicitly, that #BlackLivesMatter?
From a related point, Ms. Philips says in Interview with an Empire that finding the appropriate form for her letters, words, and syllables is a way for her to partially decontaminate the english language. During my reading of this interview, I (as did, I suspect, Ms. Philips) found it confoundingly difficult to understand what did and did not make a form “appropriate” for its subject material. Under this desire to “decontaminate” I wonder if I, this woman from HONY, and Ms. Philips could ever come to a definitive conclusion on whether our chosen reactions take place in the appropriate form.”
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