And How are the Children..?

The Power of Words and Voices (#BlackLivesMatter, Frederick Douglass, and Who is Broken?)

Posted on: April 28, 2015


As an artist, and educator and a writer, I have immense respect for the power or words. As a professional, I choose my words very carefully each day as I communicate with my clients in writing. They are the tools of my trade. My existence is wrapped up in ways of making meaning, and how words are used to relate experiences, and to motivate our actions in the world.

Yesterday I got into a debate with someone I respect very much about whether or not it is productive to publicly refer to the young men in Baltimore who are breaking things as ‘broken.’ (If you know me well, you know that I argued against that kind of labeling). This ‘brokenness’ was referenced in the context of the popular Frederick Douglass quote about ‘repairing broken men,’ which was also posted.

11008518_10155446821975696_5344724502122833224_nWhile I heartily agree with this sentiment, I disagree with the use of that quote to condemn those people in protest, and I disagreed persistently with the use of the language ‘broken.’ We went back and forth, and if you can imagine, neither of us changed the other one’s mind.

I have been reflecting on that conversation deeply since last night, feeling conflicted.The point she was making centered on how property damage and attacks on local businesses should be held to account. I certainly don’t want my car smashed – that would make things incredibly hard for my barely stable situation. I’d hate to see our neighborhood shops in flames. I want young people to be reading books, playing games, not needing angry uprising to be the way they engage in their communities. I agreed that property damage is a problem, but in the context of devalued human life and abusive systems of authority, not the best way to frame these events. I think focusing on rioting over systemic violence in a conversation about how to help those young people approaches the problem from a deficit model. During that conversation, I was told that I was angry, that I needed to review my understanding of deficit models and strength-based practice (professional lingo – this was a grad school acquaintance), and that my persistent focus on the ‘broken’ language was unfortunate. While this was hurtful, I chose to take it as an opportunity for me to really reflect on what I was trying to express. Which ultimately, is this:

‘Broken’ can mean many things. It has spiritual connotations, it can reference physical and mental health, and often is taken as pejorative. To declare one’s self broken can be a powerful act. It can lead to seeking help, and healing, and transformation. To declare someone else broken is a different thing. Especially if you are a person who holds power and privilege and you are referring to marginalized people who have been oppressed as a way of life. That, too, is a powerful act which I think does more harm than good. It reinforces the infrastructure that says we (black people, people of color, poor people) need to be controlled instead of supported. It echoes the refrain of demonizing the impoverished. I will not support that. I will not use my privileged voice to declare powerless people broken. I won’t participate in telling that story, because it isn’t true, and yet that is among the stories told most often, most loudly in our nation.

I look at little black boys in the classrooms I work with. I have often seen how they are starting to be treated differently from their peers by the adults who care for them and manage their days. I have heard teachers begin to talk about them and their parents as though they might be broken, without volunteering any language about how to fix anything. I think we do children, families and communities a disservice with this kind of talk. Because the way we talk about people reflects both how we think about them, and how we treat them. My argument is that not ‘broken’ does not necessarily apply, but that the history and political baggage of that term loads it in such as way that it cannot be used in that way without participating in that story. Sometimes (usually) history is more powerful than our personal, individual intentions. This is hard when we mean no harm, but do harm anyway. For those of us who are called to do work that lifts people up, this is an ongoing risk of our service. To get lost in our good intentions, straying from our understanding of historical context and what our power and privilege mean to those we would seek to uplift.

So, if you find yourself in a situation where you are about to publicly declare what is wrong with someone, I encourage you to take pause. I encourage you to think about  and study what is the root cause, and whether or not you can do anything about that. If you can, I encourage you to talk about that instead. If you can’t do anything about it directly, find someone who can, and amplify their signal. Make that the loudest thing you do with your voice.

Having said that, I will leave you with another Frederick Douglass quote (thanks to Kelly Hayes​):

“Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” – Frederick Douglass

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