The Long Memory of Silence

17 01 2012

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies,

but the silence of our friends.”

                                                         – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Snow’s coming down hard at our house today. Flocks of varied thrush have moved down from the mountains to swarm our feeders. Bear the Boat Cat appears content in her off-season role of house cat; she hasn’t left the comfy chair by the fire all day. I have 10 pages to write for tomorrow’s memoir class, but am distracted by thoughts as heavy as the snowfall.

Martin Luther King Day has long been a powerful day of recognition for me, but January’s third Monday gained heavier baggage some years back. I’d taken a winter job at a blue collar business that definitely did not commemorate Dr. King’s legacy. We worked that day. And all day, I heard white men mock “N***** Day.”

I’m ashamed to tell you that I didn’t turn in my coveralls on the spot, when the first n-word hit the air. I didn’t even speak up. I worked in a back room, avoided my coworkers, and wondered who the despicable coward wearing my flesh was.

That night, I stuffed a check into an envelope, written for the amount I’d made that day. You didn’t earn this, I sneered, and scribbled a note to Seattle Education Access, asking that they direct my donation to an African American male student. This didn’t make me feel better. Exoneration isn’t available for purchase, after implicitly condoning a great man’s denigration. The envelope glue tasted unusually bitter.

That job included other gems, for sure. At one crowded morning meeting, my boss seethed about a woman demonstrating on a street corner: “Fuckin’ anti-war cunt!” The room suddenly airless, six pairs of men’s eyes immediately swung to me, the only person in the room with the genitalia inspiring our employer’s wrath. But I sat in the corner, face down, and didn’t meet their stares.

I usually made it home before crying.

This isn’t to say that my workplace sucked. It didn’t. As if I was a zebra among a field of horses – of the same genus, yet clearly Other – my coworkers treated me with indulgent bemusement. Being hard-working, amiable, and white helped.

Neither did that job present uniquely offensive experiences. Before signing on with Cap’n J, I worked for captains who taught me what a really challenging work environment looked like. Discovering 40 miles off-shore that your core beliefs are diametrically opposed to those of your companions, people you’ll work, eat, and sleep next to for weeks, months, without reprieve. Mentally mining every conversation for safety, only to find that the truly devoted will imprint hate on even the most benign topics. Becoming intimately aware of that burning knot in your throat, the one twined out of every Why do you say that? that you swallow, each What do you mean by that? that never makes it past your lips. Knowing that you’ve cashed in your values for the comfort of getting along.

Every Martin Luther King Day, the weight of these encounters settles over me again. Over time, all but the most outrageous comments have faded from my memory. And just as Dr. King warned, among all the offenses, my own silence rings the loudest.

In the time I’ve taken to write this, Bear doesn’t seem to have batted a whisker, while the birds – chickadees, nuthatches, and juncos – swirl into a feathered tornado around the sunflower seeds. Outside, the snow continues to fall.

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