Last Fall, I attended the Ruby Woo Pilgrimage (which happens again this Nov. —seriously go check it out)! It was a powerful time of fellowship with so many beautiful, diverse, dynamic women my heart was full to the brim. I thought I knew what I’d get opportunity from an opportunity like this. And in some ways, the most beautiful moments were as surprising as they were transformative.
Here’s how the story ends: one of the speakers offhandedly said something simple that left a lasting impact on my soul. She was speaking past & current acts of violence against black women. The infamous Malcolm X quote may or may not have been thrown out there.
“The most disrespected woman in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.” -Malcom X, 1962.
When she spoke of how she continued to address injustice she stated that we -as writers, activists and speakers- do not use sanitized language to describe nor confront acts of evil. It was a passing statement and a passing moment. There was no standing ovation nor did anyone even tweet it. I wish I had. The moment for me was so pregnant with meaning I just sat dumbfounded, convicted and guilty for crimes against myself.
At the time, I was less than 8 months out from an abusive situation that had been deeply, deeply traumatic for me. As time paraded on and I life normalized a bit, I didn’t know how to begin to describe what had happened to me: in each instance trying to pretty the situation up as much as I possibly could. That’s if I was willing to disclose at all. My fear of what could happen to me if people knew the truth: who I would lose and what the implications would be.
Once revelations come to the surface, a victim tends to be victimized over and over again. Victims of abuse tend not to be believed, gaslit and in a worse case scenario completely discredited and discarded. Even in scenarios that aren’t considered ‘abusive’ per se, black women in particular aren’t believed as often as white women. Whether in the hospital, the courthouse or a police station, black women are perceived in ways that are detrimental to our very life. This is the reason even in nations like the U.S. black American women have the greatest infant mortality rates, heart attack & stroke. In big ways and little ways and every way in between: we are vulnerable.
Up until that point, I wasn’t sure how I would ever come clean about what I’d just faced. If I knew only one thing for sure it was that on some level my survival required me to be complicit in my suffering, quiet or at the very least…sanitized. At that time, I didn’t understand a way around it. I was in the midst of the relief, the stages of grief and the palpable confusion of what happened and what was to come. Trauma, grief and confusion make one hell of a powerful trio.
A light bulb went off in me in that moment. I realized that using sanitized language to describe events that destroyed a part of me was destroying me even further. The conviction was swift because I knew what I’d been saying wasn’t completely true. Sanitized language required me to down play both the actions and their impact. The abuse really was that bad, yet I’d minimized it to myself and others to portray palatable events –in part to keep me safe, to protect my children but for another very sad reason. I sanitized to avoid coming too close to the angry black woman trope. It felt almost as if someone would look me in my eyeballs and ask, “who are you to demand being treated like a human being?”
Once the idea further solidified that I might soon be able to start speaking more freely opened a world of possibilities, but none without a heavy dose of fear. And I do mean heavy.
To be clear, this wasn’t a first time revelation. I’d considered a life of more verbal freedom, truth-telling with reckless abandon so many times before. But I remembered the fall out being too damn high.
For example, a few years earlier, I’d lost donors in my full-time ministry for openly supporting Obama. That’s on the light side. Over the years, I’d become more and more vocal about my support of the Black Lives Matter movement with a slow but steady decline of online friendships and eventually even family members on the white side of my family tree.
For every 20 people in support of me being a black woman willing to speak my mind or reveal the full weight of my anger, I’d have a detractor or two. Some have it much worse. Those scenario’s showed me my voice mattered for good or for evil; it mattered. I’ve spoken out many times and in many ways but I can assure you, I’ve held back 40% of the time. What became clear in the past was that as a black woman, my limits held different boundaries than white women and the consequences can be extremely severe. A sad truth I am literally facing just this week. (To be clear, I am no longer in any sort of abuse situation whatsoever).
What I heard that evening felt like it was being directed toward me specifically: ‘Grace be free to use unsanitized language.’ Confront your demons. Your family. Your abusers. Be honest. Be real. Be kind. Be upfront. Don’t mince words. Don’t give in to the fears. And definitely don’t allow lies to sanitize what is clearly evil. Not towards you. Not towards anyone. Not ever.
I went home with a renewed mind and spirit.
In the coming months I became more and more painfully honest. Unsanitized in every sense of the word. Messy even. It was no surprise that folks stepped right up to admonish me to reel it in.
When I consider the big picture, I’ve been rewarded for my commitment to use unsanitized language in helpless and messy situations: better treatment, more forthcoming relationships, self-empowerment like I’ve never experienced and more emotional freedom to find my place in the world after so much of it felt lost to the wolves.
But on the downside…more loss. pain. confusion. ultimately a gigantic loss of a job opportunity, the loss off more “friends,” and lots and lots of sleepless nights. Life has a brutal finality to it and sometimes there are no other words besides “this is fucking awful.” When I think of children being ripped from their mothers at the border, traumatized and terrorized how can we possibly describe these horrific human rights violations with sanitized language? It is deserving of no such thing.
I sometimes wonder when it took so long to hit my tipping point, why it took 2 decades of adulthood to grow finally tired of policing myself to align in suspected expectations of the exhausting, all-encompassing white gaze. I have my suspicions. The job of living, moving and breathing through the world is more exhausting than non-black women can ever imagine.
Regardless of why, that day came and went. I will never go back. I owe it to myself and every other black woman I know and love to be an example of living authentically…with sobered reality always near.