Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Importance of Listening: in the wake of bfp

I returned from the Race Sex Power Conference in Chicago with a great sense of wholeness. The presenters, attendees, artists, and volunteers who created the event inspired in me the desire to not only continue this blog but to make my feminist, anti-racist, anti-ablist, and queer-positive efforts more visceral. I returned wanting to go to law school to pursue a degree specializing in gender identity law, to volunteer with Sylvia Rivera Law Project, and to in all other ways support the voices of the people I love.

I also returned to find that one of my all-time favorite bloggers, the woman who inspired me to bring my thoughts to the table, has retired her site. BrownFemiPower, La Chola, Woman of Color Blog…a blogger who inspired so many people in her amazing resilience, beautiful prose, and commitment to speaking her truth to power.

I don’t know bfp personally. Maybe she’ll be back to blog again, or maybe we’ll see her collected works published sometime soon, I certainly hope so. I also don’t know exactly why she departed. I know about the surrounding circumstances but I could never speak to the exact and personal history of continued violence (and here I mean mental, emotional, and physical violence) that the voices of women of color face when they dare to mention their own strength and beauty. I know the damage that unexamined white people can cause in safe spaces for women of color, and I know the destructive ability of white women not listening. But I do not know the exact thinking in bfp’s head when she decided that enough was enough. The blogosphere became too violent and too unsafe for her to tell us in her own words. She could not be sure that white people listening in would be respectful and understand the circumstances. She could not be certain we - white folks - would actually listen.

I have also been a white woman whom did not listen, and I have been a white man who did not listen. I have assumed that everyone entered a conversation on an equal ground and that my presence was in no way threatening or violent. I was wrong to think those things, and I learned that by listening to the people of color around me. I listened and then read the articles they suggested, I listened and then didn’t attend when they told me I wasn’t ready, I listened and took time out to examine and learn about my history – the history of whiteness. Finally, I returned to conversations with people of color and I was able to keep listening and learning, but also to contribute and challenge.

The importance of listening cannot be underestimated. Last Wednesday my partner and I attended a Saul Williams concert. There were many amazing and inspiring things that happened at the concert but I want to write about one particular disappointing moment. Saul was reading one particular and amazing poem “Sha Clack Clack”* where the line “I am that nigga”** repeats in the chorus. A young white woman behind us was reciting the poem out loud and replacing that line with “I am the ‘n’”.

This poem is about the experiences and histories of black men in the U.S. If you feel uncomfortable saying a word in the poem it is because you are not supposed to say that word. You are supposed to listen. This one poem - it is not about you. Half of the history of poetry taught in U.S. schools is about being white (and male). But this one poem, this poem is about race and Blackness, and when it is being performed white people must listen. Don’t recite it in tandem, don’t hum or sway, don’t even think about checking your text messages. When a person of color decides to tell you about their life, lets you in on fictional or historical stories of race relations, you listen.

This is not to romanticize the stories of people of color. For every astounding artist like Saul Williams, there is a person who is better at math, or childcare, or creating sculptures. But listen anyway. Listen because another human is telling you something that is both unique to them and indicative of a larger social structure that you are a part of. Moreover, they do not need to tell you these things. There is no obligation for people of color to educate white people and there is no reason for them to share their work in a space where we – white folk - are present attending a Saul Williams concert and memorizing his poetry to repeat over his own voice does not impress on anyone that you are antiracist. It shows that you missed the importance of his voice telling his stories. Standing still and listening, now that is a beginning towards anti-racism.

Thank you so much, bfp. Good luck with everything you do in the future. You do not need me to tell you this, but you are an amazing, motivational, brilliant force who has inspired more people than you can ever know. Take care of yourself.


*This poem is included in the documentary The N Word that I have yet to see but want to very much. Also featured in the movie Slam.

**Many white bloggers would choose to write “n*gga” instead but I think representing Saul’s words in their entirety is an obligation I have to him as an artist. One of my personal irks is when white people, when reading the words of other people, don’t fully say “nigger”. Without saying the word, I don’t believe the context of the harm of that word, or the reality of how ubiquitous it is in our culture can be understood. I don’t advocate saying the word joyfully or outside of quotations. I don’t advocate for it said in any other context. But when an artist chooses to use it, there is a reason for that choice, and when you want to impart the historical harm of the word you need to be able to say it.

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