YM Blog-a-thon: Our Silent Majority

March 19, 2008

(Editor's note: Youth Outlook and WireTap are kicking off the second Youth Media Blog-a-thon. This month's topic is violence. Check back frequently for updates and feel free to join the discussion.)

I'm in an awkward position. On the one hand, I'm a member of the media. What that really means, I still don't know. So far I've gathered that it has something to do with writing and making decisions about what other people read. Take this here, blog-a-thon, for instance. I've been harassing encouraging people for almost two weeks to tell their stories of how violence impacts their lives and communities.

Midway through sending out a mass text message, I started to have second thoughts. It's not easy to get people to write about anything, much less something as personal as violence. And then I began to reconsider what I would write about. I had made the decision long ago to write about topics from a distance, especially those that were closest to me. It was a decision based more on personal protection than journalistic objectivity, and it's always easier to write about something you're removed from. I was going to google some statistics, quote some song lyrics, maybe make a reference or two to The Wire, and then write about it all in some vague, circular way, make sure all my links were on point, post, and then peace out.

But that would make me a hypocrite. After all, I can't ask anyone to do something I'm not willing to do myself.

My older sister was murdered on the streets of San Francisco when she was 15 years old. I've always had a fraught relationship with the media because of it. Journalists were the ones who used my family tragedy as their newsworthy story of the day. They asked questions, got answers, then left. They printed my sister's name so that some ambitious young politician could use it as political fodder for a campaign against crime. On every poster, in every story, she was reduced to a mere footnote, a statistic without a smile, a favorite song or a family.

Even though they never got the story right, it was usually the journalists who did all the talking. For the rest of us, my sister's death was shrouded in silence, a memory too painful to talk about.

Growing up, I didn't know how to talk about it with my family, but I knew exactly what not to say to spark an ill-advised trip down PTSD lane. Every year, the rules were the same: birthdays and holidays are somber occasions. No violent movies. Never protest a curfew. Never ask the police for directions, 'cause if they can't find your sister's killer, they surely can't be of service.' Don't question mom's forlorn gazes. People whispered my sister's name like they were afraid of it. Most times, it seemed like the people most impacted by violence are so wrapped up in fear, hopelessness and isolation that silence becomes their only safeguard against a litany of meaningless words and empty rhetoric.

As an adult I've become a cynic, not by heart, but by trade. Hopelessness was taught to me in a city where security dangled precariously from trolley bus lines. When my sister was murdered, I didn't immediately see it as my first lesson in the injustice of growing up poor and Black and female. I felt it most when my mom was stuck in bed for days and I had to figure out what to eat for dinner at night. I was trained in the art of frustration. Forget trying to tell a story, I was looking for something tangible that I could hold on to and show people when words weren't enough. I wanted my get-out-of-awkward-life-situation-free card whenever someone asked how many siblings I had, or when friends and lovers complained about my less than stellar communication skills. Who do I talk to? What do I say? What's the safe part of the story that I can tell? What parts will I have to omit?

It would be easy to say that we're desensitized to violence, but I don't buy it. Today we're marking the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, where millions have been killed, traumatized and displaced. At home, kids are still being murdered on our streets. But behind every image is a family, and behind every family is a story. Yet the people most impacted by violence aren't often given the opportunities to tell their stories. What we really lack are honest and effective methods of talking about it

I don't know how to talk about my sister's death, and that's the problem. It's a process, and it always will be. My trauma manifests itself in different ways, from being the little girl who was afraid to leave her mother's side because I knew that death could come as quickly as a smile, to the angry college student who was dissatisfied with the bell hooks-approved vocabulary used to list my privileges and oppressions. After all, a firm grasp on "white supremacist capitalist patriarchy" might make for a good term paper, but at the end of the day, it didn't help ease the tension of family reunions or explain the sudden panic attacks I have around large groups of other families. I need a language that adapts to the complexities of pain. Something that's more than just questions and answers, periods and exclamation points. I want to talk about not being able to talk, and just like this post is meandering and detached, the conversation won't be perfect at first. In fact, it's probably going to be filled with long silences and awkward exchanges. But it's a start.


Jamilah King is WireTap's contributing editor. She is also a founder of Grits and Eggs collective blog.


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Comments

Jamilah: The details of aftermath that you talk about here are the things that get lost when we talk about statistics. I have some young people working on similar personal stories and I hope others will respond with the same. Thank you for your honesty here.

First of all, I&;m floored by the honesty in your piece--and not just in terms of what you revealed about your sister, but your realness about how vulnerable you&;re able and willing to make yourself right now. Unfortunately we live in a time where there&;s pretty much a standard procedure in dealing with violence--often with good intentions but full of motions that have been exercised so many times that they&;ve become polished, routine. It&;s the moments of awkwardness, confusion, and despair that make room for the humanness in our dealings. <br />
<br />
I think silence is often one of the more underrated and even problematized assets in dealing with violence, whether one is the victim or is affected by a loved one being victimized. There&;s a consensus to constantly need to "take action," dragging every murder, rape, and act of violence into the barrel of statistics before the affected are even able to deal with it on a personal level. How much easier it is to organize a candlelight vigil than to personally listen to someone piece together their trauma, or even sit with them in silent company. Campaigns to spread violence awareness are important, but can&;t always encompass how people need to deal with things as <i>people.</i> <br />
<br />
As contradictory as it may seem to the academic/activistic handbook, I feel that when someone attempts to break their silence, sometimes the best thing a listener can do is just listen--with no agenda to find a solution, or segways to apply their own relevant experiences. No workshop can be facilitated to teach a mother how to be less mournful of a lost child, and no bank of sociopolitical vernacular can decipher how each young individual deals with their first experience with violence. While one unearths their sadness, disillusionment, and self-realization--whether vocally or non-vocally--for others to simply respect the necessary silences can be the most valuable asset for the time.

I admire you for talking about something that most people probably wouldn&;t want to talk about. <br />
<br />
I agree with you, getting people to talk about violence on a personal level is almost like pulling teeth. It is hard to pull open those closet doors we shut so long ago. But I think it is really important to share stories like yours because it not only shows that &;yes, this is happening and yes we do need to talk about it&; but it says that there is a discussion to be had.

Jamilah, you are incredibly courageous for being so honest and direct about your feelings about violence and the media. It is really tough to publicly share with the whole world the tragedy of your sister&;s death and family&;s pain. Every family has a story, and by sharing your story, people will know they are not alone if they have experience (or currently are experiencing) a similar story to yours. <br />
<br />
Thanks for getting the dialogue started on violence and for being so real with us all.

Jamilah,<br />
<br />
Bearing one&;s soul is something few journalists do and, yet, there&;s something in what you wrote that&;s going to sit with me longer than almost any other article I&;ve read all year. Thank you and here&;s my hope that you continue being so honest and giving in whatever paths you pursue.<br />
<br />
Adrizzle, you&;re so right. That we could all take the time to listen and take care of one another, rather than only looking far enough into things to see how the support whatever argument we want to take on.<br />
<br />
On that note... peace.

Thank you for your articulation of living with that "extra world" of nearly unspeakable pain and memory. I am sponsoring a free, all day workshop in May titled LIVING WITH ONGOING PROFOUND STRESS and the nearly total silent response to the notice of it occurring is nearly deafening, like people maybe just "can&;t go there". This is one of the risks of profound stress, that we both aren&;t allowed to speak of it but also can&;t speak about it. And sometimes writing about it is less traumatic, but any sharing requires some sort of recognition of what has been shared, I believe, for there to be some alchemical movement forward from there. May you find this in your life, perhaps through the sharing of this excellent article, for starters. I also think we are now, many of us, dealing with another level of PTSD, which I&;ve coined as PrTSD---PRESENT TRAUMATIC STRESS, notably represented by relentless ongoing new stressors so frequent that one never really has time or safety to recover from the previous ones. Low to no-tech skills need to be learned for rapid coping/processing, and that is what our workshop is going to focus on. Anyone interested in attending, contact me at welaware@merr.com.

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