The Depths of Black Silence – Patrick O’Shell

The panel at the San Diego City Library on February 20th, 2020 featured Dr. Channon Miller along with Dr. Cory Gooding, both professors at University of San Diego. During the panel, speakers analyzed Michele Norris’ autobiography titled The Grace of Silence: A Family Memoir.  During this panel discussion the panelists defined “black silence” as well as explained the implications of silence in their fields of study as well as their personal life through moderated questions. By defining black silence, the professors provided the audience with a tool to understand the processes that shaped African American history. In African American history, discrimination can be tracked through political institutions and organizations as well as in interpersonal relationships, with both being direct results of hostility towards African Americans. “Black silence” is an aspect of this subjugation. This is important because it can be used to explain why there is racial inequality, and why conscious raising has been prevented. 

Interpreting the words of Dr. Miller and Dr. Gooding, “black silence” can be defined as the result and on-going process of a history of discrimination against African American people exhibited on a personal level throughout the greater community. Along with this silence comes shame, which further denigrates human emotion and makes the mountain of oppression to climb even steeper. This silence and false sense of shame is a “systematic form of oppression,” specifically fostered by the state, and meant to “create a culture of discouraging discourse on personal struggles.” To be succinct, black silence mutes the community, and resultantly limits black participation in the United States. Black silence is cyclical, catalyzed by racist oppression derived from slavery.

One of the key forms of black silence is the discouragement of black people sharing their personal stories of struggle, which all have a shared theme of white societal repression of equality. For example, say a black homeowner feels that his/her loan for housing was unfairly leveraged and that government support was withheld. This same person sees their white neighbor comfortably living in his/her house with no debt. This same person then sees Ronald Reagan talk about how he/she has to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps.” If  this person is unable to share their story with people in a similar situation, they will have a harder time identifying the cause of their inability to equally participate in society. With shame, this person will blame themselves instead of discriminatory practices. This limitation of public discourse is the start of black silence. One can see this theme develop during the Reconstruction period, where the condition of African Americans was blamed on African Americans. The constant shame and limitation of shared stories inhibits the ability for any kind of organizing around those issues, either through legislative action or other civic action groups. In other words, in any struggle for freedom it is essential to bring a compilation of stories into one common narrative, and in order for this to occur there needs to be an encouragement of people telling their stories.The importance of narratives in forming race consciousness is highlighted in the Combahee River Collective Statement published in 1977, where an organization of African-American feminists sought to provide power to the black community as well as other women of color. In this statement, it is said that “In the process of consciousness-raising, actually life-sharing, we began to recognize the commonality of our experiences and, from that sharing and growing consciousness, to build a politics that will change our lives and inevitably end our oppression.” (Combahee River Collective, 1974) The Combahee River Statement illustrates the importance of cultivating a shared narrative, and the necessary steps for the community to overcome black silence. The collective gathering of life stories is imperative to grow the freedom movement. 

Another result of black silence is the disfigurement of other human emotions, such as happiness. Happiness becomes a “social survival tactic”, as said during the panel. Emotion as a whole must be regulated for the allowance of participation in society. Anger is deemed unjustified by the white community, as respectfulness becomes the gateway to a life of a normal citizen. This delegitimization of black emotion serves as a mechanism to further constrain the African American community. One anecdote during the panel particularly illustrates the pressure that the delegitimization of emotion creates. Michele Norris describes how her father, a black man, woke up earlier than everyone else when it snowed to clear his driveway, not for his own sake, but to look good in the white neighbors eyes. This anecdote illustrates the personal mental strain of the need to meet unreasonable and illegitimate expectations. Withholding emotion is unhealthy on a person to person level, but it has negative social ramifications too. As Dr. Miller said during the panel, “tears get in the way of pulling up bootstraps”. The neutering of emotions is structurally designed to limit societal participation. Although black silence is meant to be a limiting factor, it can be reversed and thus more empowering. This is exemplified by the Civil Rights Movement. During the Civil Rights Movement, grassroots organizations recognized not just the value of combined narratives, but also how using black silence against the white population could be advantageous for achieving the movement’s goals. The main idea of black silence is the self suppression of black emotion in the face of overt oppression. This black silence when visualized creates an obvious tension between races rather than the passive black silence that perpetuates inequalities. This is the key to nonviolent protest. As Dr. King said from Birmingham Jail, “nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue”. (King Jr., 1963) This is an example of reversing black silence to African American empowerment. It worked to create legislative pressure as well as shift public opinion. The devaluing of human emotion serves as a deterrent to real social change and an enforcement of an unequal status quo, and the exception of the Civil Rights Movement non-violence proves the rule of black silence. 

Black silence can be used to explain society’s subjugation of African Americans throughout American history. The Grace of Silence: A Family Memoir as well as the panel discussion on the book both served to illustrate how this is a historic phenomenon that continues through today. The effects of black silence can be seen throughout African American history and through the Black Freedom struggle within America. It has served as a mechanism of the state and society to prevent black people in the country from being equal citizens to white people, and can be used to explain why there is racial inequality. The imposition of black silence prevents the conscious building needed to fight for equal societal participation, as well as warps human emotion/interaction within the country.

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