The Power of Silence and the Power of a Yell

In August, I was in Ferguson Missouri to mark one year since the shooting of unarmed Michael Brown Jr. I was attending Rev. Traci Blackmon’s church and they were honoring some of the parishioners who had been serving faithfully behind the scenes for the last year. It was really beautiful. At the end of it one of the women came and stood at the front of the church.

“It is our duty to fight for our freedom.

 It is our duty to win.

 We must love and support each other.

 We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

 She would call out one line and the congregation would echo it back. As each line progressed her voice grew louder. She finished the chant once and began again. Her voice was loud- yelling, which I rarely hear in church. And as she repeated the chant a second time- tears were pouring down her face.

By the time we got to the end of a second time we were yelling back at the top of our lungs. WE HAVE NOTHING TO LOSE BUT OUR CHAINS.

This was the first time I had heard this chant and came to learn that it is commonly used among activists at protests.

What moved me, and has stuck with me, was all the history and emotion and courage that was held in that chant and in that women’s passionate outcry.

Black women, who have led on the ground in BLM,  have been pushed to the margins of our culture in so many ways. By race. By gender. Often by class. Their voices were marginalized in the feminist and suffrage movements. Their voices have often marginalized in their own communities. Their sexuality has been fetishized and distorted. Their beauty disregarded. Their point of view repeatedly pushed to the side. I can not do it justice in a few sentences. But knowing that history, I was moved to see this woman cry out. To yell out. To demand to be both seen and heard in the midst of all that mariginalization- that was a powerful act of dignity and courage.

In the face of violence, systemic oppression, harassment and fiscal exploitation at the hands of the police and the justice system in Ferguson- to cry out, to not lose hope, to fight tirelessly on the streets for a year. That was a powerful act of dignity and courage.

To put her heart out there, to reveal the pain, the tenderness, the fatigue, and to renew a vow to continue in the work. That was a powerful act of dignity and courage.

The moment encapsulates some of what I find profound, beautiful, powerful, and courageous about the women leading on the ground in Ferguson and in other parts of the BLM movement across the country.

In my culture, and in much of East Asian culture there is another tool. And it is silence.

This is captured by a look that I see on the face of older Asian women. A pause, a moment with eyes closed, clenched fist, a breath in, and then steady onward movement.

I see this in the face of Japanese American women who were sent to the internment camps. Stripped of dignity, humiliated, caged. When they walked out of those camps, to rebuild lives, holding the pain of that experience- they walked in silence. That was a powerful act of dignity and courage.

In the face of my own mother, who spent many years as a caretaker to my aging father. Staying with him, when many said she should divorce him because he was too old. She spent much of her youth caring for an old man, in silent suffering. Keeping our family together for my sake. That was a powerful act of dignity and courage.

In the face of immigrant women like my aunt, who had respect and place in her home country, but day in and day out is treated like she is stupid and less than because she can’t speak English very well. The way she carries on- bearing and carrying countless indignities to give her children a better life. That is a powerful act of dignity and courage.

I share this reflection because I think that there is so much misunderstanding between the Asian American and African American communities- the two communities in which I am most vested. One thing we share is women of great dignity and courage who sacrifice profoundly for the next generation. And yet when Asian Americans hear the yell- sometimes they miss the beauty and sacrifice and courage behind it. And sometimes when African American women see the silence, they miss the beauty and sacrifice and courage behind it.

Someday I hope we will realize we could be sources of each other’s healing.

We will realize that neither group of woman is comfortable talking about their pain.

That we have let the heavy fog of white supremacy lay like a blanket over us and our interpretations of each other. That we have believed lies about each other.

Maybe as we choose to see each other as we really are and hear each others stories, the fog will lift.











10 thoughts on “The Power of Silence and the Power of a Yell

  1. Hi Erna,

    I was one among the 16,000 students who attended Urbana and I was really inspired by all the words and songs from that week. As an Asian-American myself, I can relate to a lot of the things you write and say, so thank you for sharing your heart with the rest of the world. You have inspired and touched the lives of many. Blessings!

  2. Thank you so much for writing about this. As a second generation Chinese American, I have often been bothered by how my parents, particularly my mother, react in anger and towards injustice. I wish she would shout and vocalize her feelings, but she keeps them bottled up all the time, and for whatever reason that makes me angry to see. You have provided a new perspective on what I’ve been viewing as weakness and defeat. Her silence is deafening and uncomfortable to be in, but I have never seen it as a form of power. Planning to share your post with her later today. Maybe it’ll open up further conversation.

      • I ended up sharing your post with both of my parents. My mother said that she has been yelling in her own way, I just haven’t been listening. Maybe she’s right. Maybe I just didn’t really know ‘what’ to listen for, if that makes sense. She cried, I cried. For what it’s worth, she says that you “get her” in a way that I’ve never been able to. He didn’t say much but I can tell that my father is moved by the “powerful act of dignity and courage”. I’m trying to listen now. So much respect for you. Thanks Erna.

  3. Erna–
    You got it! This is one on the tension points in between communities which can cause much misunderstanding. Cultures communicate real feelings differently. It takes a long time of doing life together to learn cultural nuance and deeper meaning. Sometimes even the most discerning, the most skillful cross-cultural observer or friend still can’t ‘get it’ all. It’s as if we see through a mirror dimly, still, even after we’ve wiped the fog off, time and time again. I’m reminded of the hymn writer who penned,

    I cannot tell how He will win the nations,
    How He will claim His earthly heritage,
    How satisfy the needs and aspirations
    Of east and west, of sinner and of sage.
    But this I know, all flesh shall see His glory,
    And He shall reap the harvest He has sown,
    And some glad day His sun shall shine in splendor
    When He the Savior, Savior of the world, is known.

    Thank you Erna for capturing the mystery and naming a cultural difference which can be misunderstood by both cultures. May God help us to stay engaged, to respect, to listen and to learn from one another.

    PS Although my health stuff prevented me from going to Urbana, I was your fan girl via live stream. You led with humility, strength, joy and from a deep well, connecting you with Jesus. Well done good and faithful servant. I’m so proud of you!

    • Jeanette,
      Thank you for your encouragement and affirmation. I so appreciate it.

      Thanks for reading and for your honest reflections. It is a long and complicated journey.

  4. Pingback: Parting Joy | HeIstheMakness

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