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Breaking Silence

Interrogating and overpowering the forces and fears that subject us to smallness.

Salma Abdelrahman ’20 shares, “How Does it Feel to be a Problem,” discussing racial tensions in America. She shared her story as a response to the election.

I thought long and hard about whether or not I wanted to begin on the journey of writing another column for The Crimson this semester. By virtue of your reading this, you know what my decision was. Yet the process of getting to a place where I felt comfortable doing this alone, without a partner to parse through ideas, write, edit, and push-back with me was not an easy one. Being publicly vulnerable is terrifying, and can reveal the ugliest parts of humanity. Not writing this semester would have felt simpler, easier, and safer. And yet, here we are.

Throughout the process of making that decision, I’d been thinking a lot about “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action”, a paper delivered by Audre Lorde in 1977. In the speech, Lorde processes her cancer diagnosis as a period of awakening and a time in which she recognizes her biggest regrets in life as the things she had left unspoken and the ideas that she never gave voice to. She asks herself, “Of what had I ever been afraid?”

As I contemplated whether or not I should write this column, I began to ask myself the same question: Why am I so averse to vulnerability? Why am I hesitant to share my ideas, terrified of speaking my truth? Why do I subject myself to silence?

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My answers to these questions are reflective of the same fears that Lorde grapples with. In sections for my courses I find myself keeping my hand down and my voice quiet for the fear that I have nothing new to contribute, that what I want to say has been said before with more eloquence and power. And so, like Lorde, I subject myself to silence for fear that my words are bound to be plagiarized.

However, in “Poetry is not a Luxury”, Lorde offers up the theory that “...there are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt,” and in my journey of overcoming my silences these two sentences have been the most liberating. No longer do I attempt to delude myself into thinking that my ideas are or must be revolutionary or even original — they aren’t and never will be. Every thought in my brain has been thought of before. Every sentence I have uttered is a mosaic of others’ words, theories, and perspectives. My role, then, is to serve as the glue in between fractured pieces, creating something beautiful out of many other beautiful things.

In my time at Harvard my fears have also been informed by real feelings of inadequacy; I continuously doubt my ability to speak confidently (or speak at all) about any issue, especially ones that require some form of expertise like law, sociological theory, governance, and politics. While I have managed to muster up the courage to be vocal about some of these issues, there has always been a voice in the back of my head that tells me I’m not qualified or informed enough to be asserting my opinions. For every op-ed I’ve authored and every statement I’ve made, there are twenty others that have been abandoned in a pool of self doubt, twenty other silences.

And yet, more recently I have found myself often overcoming those silences by first working to understand where they stem from. In conversation with a friend last semester, I found myself qualifying every statement I made around writing and publishing, repeating over and over again that I would have to put in a ton of work to feel comfortable enough to begin putting pen to paper. When I offhandedly said that I would need a degree in law to write about critical race theory, she finally confronted me, telling me that I needed to come to recognize that I would never feel qualified, that as women of color in America, we have been conditioned to constantly doubt ourselves, to constantly strive towards perfection, and to let those fears and doubts consume us.

Something in my head clicked, and I began to realize that the same structures that oppress and subjugate my people, the same structures I have been so vocal about fighting against, had also managed to silence me before I allowed myself to speak. I had given them victory before the fight had even begun. And as I continue to confront and attempt to conquer my silence, I must excavate and interrogate the source of my fears. I remind myself that the world has set my default at mute. In order to ensure that the words I need to give voice to are not left in the dust, I must push myself harder and further into discomfort.

That’s what I’m working on doing this year. I am allowing myself to take up space. I will give voice to the thoughts and ideas I have quieted in the face of fear. No word will be left unspoken, no passions dampened, no excitements contained. Like Lorde says: “there are so many silences to be broken.”

Salma Abdelrahman ’20 is a Sociology concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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