In a recent blog post, “Legs That Breathe Snake Venom: On Silence and Speech,” I reflected on the experience of driving through the desert in the American West, negotiating the territory of being a person of privilege witnessing landscapes of oppression for many immigrants entering the country. The dynamic of “privileged reflecting upon oppressed” is both troubling to me and an escapable characteristic of my experience: if I’m going to have my neck in the game, that neck is privileged, but how do I speak from privilege about oppression without overstepping my bounds?
Speech is both necessary (for total silence is complacence and acquiescence) and absurd (for whatever I say, conditioned by my social location, approaches one facet of truth only while repelling others). The multifaceted quality of truth only catches the light when multiple voices, speaking from their various social locations, contribute. When I forget that I am not a voice crying out in a vacuum, that my one perspective does not stake an exclusionary claim to truth, the sense of absurdity needles me, illuminating the empty spaces where other voices would speak. This tension emerged in my earlier post:
I recently listened to an episode of the Slate podcast on linguistics Lexicon Valley wherein the hosts, Bob Garfield and Mike Vuolo, went back and forth about the use of the word ‘illegal’ to describe people living in the United States without authorization. The thought kept occurring to me as I listened: where are the so-called ‘illegals’ themselves in this conversation? It started to seem kind of ridiculous that I, in my privilege, was sitting around listening to these two linguists analyze the linguistic significance of word choice, as if it mattered more for the sake of language than for the people that language represents.1
“Where are the so-called ‘illegals’ themselves in this conversation?,” I asked.
Since writing “Legs That Breathe Snake Venom,” this question has lingered with me and pestered my attempts at speech. I have been unable to shake the sense of uncertainty around my speech, the realization that my speech–to borrow from Augustine’s definition of sin–so often “misses the mark.” Even when my speech seems to hit the target, there are so many more it has missed. In what ways have I co-opted the agency of others in my speech? To what extent have I spoken instead of them, coloring their experience in shades of whiteness/norteamericana/privilege/me, rather than serving as a megaphone for their othered experience? Who, ultimately, does my speech serve: them or me?
I know that these are the risks inherent in speaking, especially when negotiating otherness across lines of privilege. To find the courage to speak, I must remind myself: “The multifaceted quality of truth only catches the light when multiple voices, speaking from their various social locations, contribute.” In other words, my conversations cannot just be with myself, nor with others like me. Nor can I always be the one initiating and directing the conversation according to my agenda of understanding. Having the courage to speak is also, if not primarily, about learning to listen.
The following passage from Chris Pramuk’s book Hope Sings, So Beautiful offers me guidance and courage when I ask myself just how I ought to come to the conversation:
Hope sings, so beautiful, when we find the courage to remove our masks, shed our pretenses, and allow ourselves to love and be loved in communities of storytelling and song. Hope sings sideways, not from above to below but from person to person when we take the time to share our stories, traumas, disappointments, and dreams across the color line.2
I recently stumbled upon a website that nourishes my need to listen, and intensifies the provocative insight that “hope speaks sideways.” (Un)documenting is an internet community seeking, “in conversation, through art, through political action, through working to survive and exist outside the system which denies us full participation,” to elucidate a counter-narrative about immigrants “to ensure that stories about us are being told by us, directly from our lived experiences as people affected by lack of legal status.”3 Through storytelling, (Un)documenting strives to give voice to the plurality of experiences both among undocumented people and within the lives of individuals who are undocumented.
I invite you to explore the manifesto of (Un)documenting and to immerse yourself in some of the art they have posted, allowing it to serve as an entry point to conversation across the color line. Below I have posted a video featured on the site by poet Yosimar Reyes, whose entry on (Un)documenting opens with the following excerpt:
I’m a poet now. I tell stories. My Abuelita still can’t believe people pay me to speak to them, to tell them of where I am from. It amazes her that so many people follow my work so she believes it’s a blessing that people want to hear about our lives. I tell her that she is a poet too, that she is the reason why I write but she does not think much about my silly words, for her the only thing that matters is that I am a good person and do my part to help others.4
1Anna Robertson, “Legs That Breathe Snake Venom: On Silence and Speech,” Raids across the Color Line (blog), entry posted July 31, 2013.
2Christopher Pramuk, Hope Sings, So Beautiful: Graced Encounters across the Color Line (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2013), 14.
3“Why Undocumenting? A Manifesto,” (Un)documenting (blog), accessed September 18, 2013, http://undocumenting.com/post/61425652984/why-undocumenting-a-manifesto.
4Yosimar Reyes, “From My Block to Your Classroom,” Yosimar Reyes (blog), accessed September 18, 2013, http://yosimar.tumblr.com/post/46440392060/from-my-block-to-your-classroom.