“If you don’t have anything nice to say, say nothing at all.” How many of us have heard this over and over growing up? Perhaps it was a southern thing, perhaps it was a generational thing, but I heard it over and over.
Recently when I asked my 92-year-old aunt what she remembered her grandmother saying about her dad’s experiences with his family split on both sides of the Civil War, she said: “I wish I could help you more, but I do not remember hearing Mammam talk about any of this. That doesn’t surprise me. She was one who talked only about nicer things! I do not ever remember hearing her say anything negative or bad about anything or anyone.” My great-great grandfather’s family was a classic brother-against-brother family in the civil war, and no one talked about it? Just astounding.
Looking back now to my childhood, my little girl head was just very confused. Quiet by nature anyway, and prone to figure everything out before I spoke at all to begin with, and now I had to figure out if what I was saying is nice or not before I said it? I just remember being in a social fog in elementary school. It was easier to just keep my nose in the book I was always reading, and more interesting too.
And so, I grew up learning to never say what I really thought, keep the peace, don’t make waves, don’t yell. The “only say nice things” dogma might sound like applying the golden rule on the surface, and therefore a good thing. But the worst part was that not SAYING anything often translated into don’t THINK anything, and that often meant I [MK1] didn’t know how to discern my feelings. We learn so much about life from the stories of those who have gone before us. If we only know the good stories, we are leaving out the most important teachers, where the worst mistakes were made. And then we are likely to repeat those mistakes.
When Amanda Gorman, our new Poet Laureate spoke her mantra last fall, I felt compelled to write my own. She said: “I am the daughter of Black writers who are descended from freedom fighters, who broke their chains and changed the world. They call me.” So powerful. But the first thing that came to me was: “I am the daughter of strong but silent women.”
The silence with the women runs deep in my family. There is no personal writing, no journals from my mother, or any of my grandmothers. I did recently learn my mom’s sister wanted to be a doctor! But for all the others who have died, it is so hard now to try and learn what they really thought, what their traumas were, what were the turning points in their lives, what were their passions, their sorrows? What did they dream of? Most of them were wives and mothers which is PLENTY, but almost none were artists, or did any work outside the home. Did any of them question getting married? Did they want to do something they couldn’t because they were a woman? Did they want to help the suffragettes, but didn’t dare? Were they upset at the slavery in the midst of many of them? Were they afraid during the World Wars, Civil War, Revolutionary War? What atrocities did they see? Did they feel separated from other women or did they find solace there?
My grandmothers generation especially, and those before, were good women, but taught to be silent by their mothers, and their mother’s mothers. They did this to protect their daughters, an instinct ingrained through generations of fear likely still carried from the days of the inquisitions and witch trials, 10 to 15 generations before. My mother line goes back to Germany and Scotland, the two worst places for the witch trials in the 1500s and 1600’s. The fear engendered by these persecutions is in my DNA as well as my cultural history. Women were even afraid to trust each other, definitely afraid to speak their minds, and deeply afraid of being labeled a witch, or of being called hysterical and sent to an asylum or worse.
Another likely factor in the mantra of silence was that many may have become unknowingly complicit in things their families did or stood for, especially slavery. When you grow up with a culture, it is imbedded in you before you learn to discern what is right and true for yourself. And then, when you might start to question it, it feels like it is too late. Your love for and loyalty to your family was too strong to speak up against, especially 150 years ago. And so, you become silent. And say only nice things.
This mantra of silence is another form of scourging. Suppressing our own feelings to make others feel better is a rape of our voices, our desires, our dreams; of the gifts we can bring to the world. It is vitally important to learn to know our own hearts, to speak our own hearts desires, to no longer abandon ourselves; otherwise, we become lost and forget who we are, and lose our spark, our light, our desire for life.
Footnote on the image of the chair: This is a highchair, made by slaves owned by some of my paternal ancestors. I was always told just as a matter of fact, “This chair was made by slaves”. It is hard to write that word owned. That part was never discussed in my family. I keep the chair, so I don’t forget, and so my children won’t forget.