Tag Archives: justice

The Danger of Silence _ The One-Many (OM) Project

“It was the three things we lived by,” said Oisín: “the truth in our hearts, the strength in our hands, and fulfilment in our tongues.”

Next up in the One-Many Project is Clint Smith’s TED Talk, “The Danger of Silence.” From TED.com: “We spend so much time listening to the things people are saying that we rarely pay attention to the things they don’t,” says slam poet and teacher Clint Smith. A short, powerful piece from the heart, about finding the courage to speak up against ignorance and injustice.

Watch the talk!

I’ve included the transcript in entirety as it’s short, beautifully written, and to the point.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in a 1968 speech where he reflects upon the Civil Rights Movement, states, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”

As a teacher, I’ve internalized this message. Every day, all around us, we see the consequences of silence manifest themselves in the form of discrimination, violence, genocide and war. In the classroom, I challenge my students to explore the silences in their own lives through poetry. We work together to fill those spaces, to recognize them, to name them, to understand that they don’t have to be sources of shame. In an effort to create a culture within my classroom where students feel safe sharing the intimacies of their own silences, I have four core principles posted on the board that sits in the front of my class, which every student signs at the beginning of the year: read critically, write consciously, speak clearly, tell your truth.

And I find myself thinking a lot about that last point, tell your truth. And I realized that if I was going to ask my students to speak up, I was going to have to tell my truth and be honest with them about the times where I failed to do so.

So I tell them that growing up, as a kid in a Catholic family in New Orleans, during Lent I was always taught that the most meaningful thing one could do was to give something up, sacrifice something you typically indulge in to prove to God you understand his sanctity. I’ve given up soda, McDonald’s, French fries, French kisses, and everything in between. But one year, I gave up speaking. I figured the most valuable thing I could sacrifice was my own voice, but it was like I hadn’t realized that I had given that up a long time ago. I spent so much of my life telling people the things they wanted to hear instead of the things they needed to, told myself I wasn’t meant to be anyone’s conscience because I still had to figure out being my own, so sometimes I just wouldn’t say anything, appeasing ignorance with my silence, unaware that validation doesn’t need words to endorse its existence. When Christian was beat up for being gay, I put my hands in my pocket and walked with my head down as if I didn’t even notice. I couldn’t use my locker for weeks because the bolt on the lock reminded me of the one I had put on my lips when the homeless man on the corner looked at me with eyes up merely searching for an affirmation that he was worth seeing. I was more concerned with touching the screen on my Apple than actually feeding him one. When the woman at the fundraising gala said “I’m so proud of you. It must be so hard teaching those poor, unintelligent kids,” I bit my lip, because apparently we needed her money more than my students needed their dignity.

We spend so much time listening to the things people are saying that we rarely pay attention to the things they don’t. Silence is the residue of fear. It is feeling your flaws gut-wrench guillotine your tongue. It is the air retreating from your chest because it doesn’t feel safe in your lungs. Silence is Rwandan genocide. Silence is Katrina. It is what you hear when there aren’t enough body bags left. It is the sound after the noose is already tied. It is charring. It is chains. It is privilege. It is pain. There is no time to pick your battles when your battles have already picked you.

I will not let silence wrap itself around my indecision. I will tell Christian that he is a lion, a sanctuary of bravery and brilliance. I will ask that homeless man what his name is and how his day was, because sometimes all people want to be is human. I will tell that woman that my students can talk about transcendentalism like their last name was Thoreau, and just because you watched one episode of “The Wire” doesn’t mean you know anything about my kids. So this year, instead of giving something up, I will live every day as if there were a microphone tucked under my tongue, a stage on the underside of my inhibition. Because who has to have a soapbox when all you’ve ever needed is your voice?

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For The Protection of Our Children

<Ask a child’s silence to speak
And you will learn truths you’ve never wanted to know.
When will it be time to raise our voices from the dead,
When will it be time to break our silence?

Victims are defined by spaces, behind closed doors.
I survived—formed bubbles under my skin
To trap the pain.

But one day they burst,
And when they did, acid rain
Poured over whole villages,
Turning their sands red.

There is no scissor-curled rainbow for our stories—only blackness,
When will it be time—boom, boom, boom,
Black echoes in an empty room.

We seal up the places where we’ve been marked
By hands like barnacles, wounded<
Against the tide’s rushing out like breath.

So I try to understand how I could have been
Shaken by a nanny who left me blind
An infant no stranger to death.
Aching to be found.

We lock pieces of ourselves in the past
Afraid of our own shadows,
When it's the adults that hurt us
Who are the monsters of their own closets.

When will we shatter the hourglass of secret time?
How do we mend those childhoods broken
By parents who are themselves approaching darkness 
Encroaching on long dreamless nights?

No wonder many do not speak out
Almost killed for our crying
Those who should protect and care for us
Cut us off from ourselves with the skill of a surgeon.

Rise up out of ash, left by the light we were born with
The tears shed then.
Our only hope for oasis
In the desert of the deserted.

Sound is red and raw, who counts the wounded?
The house of intelligible action
Lies, in shambles.

Truth keens across the chasms that remain
Truth keens, keys bleed,
Screams listen,

Silence shrieks in opened doorways.
How do gods determine when justice has been paid?
The bean sidhe will not rest tonight,
Nor will lurking shape-shifters with the beady eyes that glisten.

How dare anyone break a child.
Who among us dare speak a name?
None in this world or the next will claim you:
To harm a child is to will yourself a slave.

You who use and abuse the least of us,
You sign the warrant of your own exile.
Trapped inside your skin, no kin or kind,
Separate beyond ken, your prison is self made.

The time has come to break the silence,
The time has come to raise our voices from the dead,
To seek to put an end to this unconscionable violence,
Until our seventh generation knows nothing of such pain.