The Privilege of Writing

A few weeks ago, while spending time with a dear friend before an open-mic poetry reading in which she was participating, I learned of her project to archive all of her journals. She is one of those folks who has been writing in journals since her pre-teen years, and now has a collection of material over 25 years in the making. She has started going through each journal, with an eye to re-reading, selecting, and re-writing or adding onto what was there (based on a newer perspective as an almost-40 adult in a completely different headspace). She shared that the project is fulfilling and challenging work.

I was in awe, remarking about the number of journals I kept over the year, and the inconsistency with which I keep up with them: I write for a time in a new journal—usually during some especially turbulent period in my life—then I abandon it. When another turbulent time comes along and I feel the need to write, I usually start a new journal. As I share all of this with her, I realize my serial desire to start writing in new journals after abandoning the old journal, surely has psychological implications. But I am there to spend time with and support my friends; I push those thoughts away.

 “What are the words you do not have yet? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?” ~ Audre Lorde

I love to write, and I hate to write. I suppose “hate” is a strong word, but it gets at the duality I feel whenever I put words down on paper. I’m sharing myself most of the times I am writing, so revealing my personal feelings and thoughts is so very vulnerable that at times it becomes almost terrifying. I am not one of those people who can write meaningful essays about things not connected to me; I marvel at those who can. And yet, despite my sometimes paralyzing terror, I know my writing voice can be clear and powerful, and from this perspective I feel a sense of guilt in censoring myself into silence.

Over the years, as I circle back time and again to the act of writing, I’ve come to better understand some of the external barriers to and implications of me (and other black women) writing more. In my circling back, my phone’s Notes app has become the default place in which I stored most of my musings and rantings about life, injustices, and relationships. I can easily jot down notes, ideas and paragraphs and still keep myself moving through my too-busy life.

And that’s the problem: often times, black women are simply too busy to put our voices down on paper. We are often overwhelmed with responsibilities toward children, domestic life, and work, to find sufficient time to write our thoughts. Writing, especially for a living, becomes a privilege that is rarely extended to us. Most of us do not have jobs that pay us to write, having come through life never having anyone tell us we could or should consider writing as a career. Think about that. Most black girls are never actually told to consider writing as a career. The rare times a black girl thinks about doing more with her writing, she is likely told to see it as a hobby, and that she could never make a “real” living from it. When these black girls grow into women not in writing careers, what does that mean for whose voice gets heard, and whose voice does not?

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” ~ English children’s rhyme

When I was younger, I remember using the sticks-and-stones poem almost like a talisman for warding off hurtful comments. These days, we more clearly see hurtful words between children (and adults) as a form of emotional bullying or even abuse. However, we often think of the harm as coming from words that are actually uttered. But what about the words that are never said? What about the tyrannies we swallow in silence and never free from being trapped in our bodies? How does the abuse of that form of censorship land in and on our bodies?

I recently read a Vox article about conscious practices women in the White House use to ensure their voices are heard. The women are successfully using a technique called “amplification” to repeat and give credit to key points made by other women in the room, which in turn has compelled the men in the room acknowledge the contribution without taking credit for it. The article notes: “For most women in the workplace, this phenomenon [men taking credit for the same thing a woman previously said] is exhaustingly familiar: A woman offers an idea in a meeting, but nobody notices or acknowledges it until a man later says the same thing.”

In reading this article, I consider—as always—the implications for black women. What if we could consciously use the same amplification strategy for the voices of black women in the workplace and our everyday lives? Would that help to bring black women some of the same kind of parity as the women in the White House? What would amplification look like not just in the workplace, but also in our social circles? And even more fundamentally, how do we get black women’s voices (in print and spoken), into those spaces where there are too few of them?


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