March 19, 2008
I’m in an awkward position. On the one hand, I’m a member of the media. What that really means, I still don’t know. So far I’ve gathered that it has something to do with writing and making decisions about what other people read. Take this here, blog-a-thon, for instance. I’ve been
harassing encouraging people for almost two weeks to tell their stories of how violence impacts their lives and communities.
Midway through sending out a mass text message, I started to have second thoughts. It’s not easy to get people to write about anything, much less something as personal as violence. And then I began to reconsider what I would write about. I had made the decision long ago to write about topics from a distance, especially those that were closest to me. It was a decision based more on personal protection than journalistic objectivity, and it’s always easier to write about something you’re removed from. I was going to google some statistics, quote some song lyrics, maybe make a reference or two to The Wire, and then write about it all in some vague, circular way, make sure all my links were on point, post, and then peace out.
But that would make me a hypocrite. After all, I can’t ask anyone to do something I’m not willing to do myself.
My older sister was murdered on the streets of San Francisco when she was 15 years old. I’ve always had a fraught relationship with the media because of it. Journalists were the ones who used my family tragedy as their newsworthy story of the day. They asked questions, got answers, then left. They printed my sister’s name so that some ambitious young politician could use it as political fodder for a campaign against crime. On every poster, in every story, she was reduced to a mere footnote, a statistic without a smile, a favorite song or a family.
Even though they never got the story right, it was usually the journalists who did all the talking. For the rest of us, my sister’s death was shrouded in silence, a memory too painful to talk about.
Growing up, I didn’t know how to talk about it with my family, but I knew exactly what not to say to spark an ill-advised trip down PTSD lane. Every year, the rules were the same: birthdays and holidays are somber occasions. No violent movies. Never protest a curfew. Never ask the police for directions, ’cause if they can’t find your sister’s killer, they surely can’t be of service.’ Don’t question mom’s forlorn gazes. People whispered my sister’s name like they were afraid of it. Most times, it seemed like the people most impacted by violence are so wrapped up in fear, hopelessness and isolation that silence becomes their only safeguard against a litany of meaningless words and empty rhetoric.
As an adult I’ve become a cynic, not by heart, but by trade. Hopelessness was taught to me in a city where security dangled precariously from trolley bus lines. When my sister was murdered, I didn’t immediately see it as my first lesson in the injustice of growing up poor and Black and female. I felt it most when my mom was stuck in bed for days and I had to figure out what to eat for dinner at night. I was trained in the art of frustration. Forget trying to tell a story, I was looking for something tangible that I could hold on to and show people when words weren’t enough. I wanted my get-out-of-awkward-life-situation-free card whenever someone asked how many siblings I had, or when friends and lovers complained about my less than stellar communication skills. Who do I talk to? What do I say? What’s the safe part of the story that I can tell? What parts will I have to omit?
It would be easy to say that we’re desensitized to violence, but I don’t buy it. Today we’re marking the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, where millions have been killed, traumatized and displaced. At home, kids are still being murdered on our streets. But behind every image is a family, and behind every family is a story. Yet the people most impacted by violence aren’t often given the opportunities to tell their stories. What we really lack are honest and effective methods of talking about it
I don’t know how to talk about my sister’s death, and that’s the problem. It’s a process, and it always will be. My trauma manifests itself in different ways, from being the little girl who was afraid to leave her mother’s side because I knew that death could come as quickly as a smile, to the angry college student who was dissatisfied with the bell hooks-approved vocabulary used to list my privileges and oppressions. After all, a firm grasp on “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” might make for a good term paper, but at the end of the day, it didn’t help ease the tension of family reunions or explain the sudden panic attacks I have around large groups of other families. I need a language that adapts to the complexities of pain. Something that’s more than just questions and answers, periods and exclamation points. I want to talk about not being able to talk, and just like this post is meandering and detached, the conversation won’t be perfect at first. In fact, it’s probably going to be filled with long silences and awkward exchanges. But it’s a start.
Jamilah King is a WireTap contributing editor. She is also a founder of Grits and Eggs collective blog.