When I was a child, I would cry when I was called names. It didn’t seem like anyone else was getting the same treatment, but in victim mode, one seldom sees anyone else’s pain and misery but their own.
My mother would say that words could not hurt me, and would recite the little ditty that we all were probably told: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
It’s a nice jingle, but unfortunately, it is not true. Words matter; language matters, and while one’s words will not result in a broken nose or limb, those same words can result in a broken spirit which is worse, because it is not easily fixable.
Once a person’s spirit is broken, words that might have rolled off his or her back go nowhere but stick to that spirit, seeping lingual venom into spirit-wounds that never healed. What might have been a casual exchange becomes a trigger for pain that was inflicted with words a very long time ago.
I think about the power of words and language on this, the fifth anniversary of the police shooting and death of Michael Brown and the week in which beloved author Toni Morrison died. Morrison was a genius wordsmith. No matter how removed anyone was from the black community, reading her words brought that community to the reader; it was impossible to walk away from her work the same way one walked toward it.
She talked about words and their power. She said that words “have the capacity to liberate, empower, imagine and heal, but cruelly employed, can render the suffering of the millions mute.” She said that “oppressive language does more than represent violence. It is violence.”
That sentiment leads me back to the August day that Michael Brown was shot. An 18-year-old-kid is an entity unto itself; an 18-year-old who is getting ready to go to college is yet another component of that entity, but an 18-year-old black kid going to college in spite of all odds represents the crème de la crème of a segment of this population which has lived on the fringes of a society which has continually use language to remind him or her of their status in the world.
As a black male, college-bound Michael Brown might have been feeling one thing at the beginning of that morning: pride and a tad of arrogance. He had “made it through” high school and was going to be somebody. He may have done what he was accused of doing in the convenience store, but he knew he wouldn’t do anything more than that. He, again, had “made it through.” He wasn’t going to mess up his life.
But the language he’d heard used against him and others in his community, particularly from law enforcement officers, were in his spirit. He was most likely irritated that he was forced to even listen to police officers and “respect” them in spite of the way they talked to him and other of his friends and family.
We do not know what happened on that day; accounts differ – but what we do know is that that officer used language to rile Michael, language that was at once disrespectful and challenging, language designed to reinforce the reality that in this society, law enforcement officers, no matter how little they themselves may obey and respect the law, have the upper hand. The hearers of their words, which are tinged with callous disregard for their humanity and dignity, are supposed to just be quiet and take the language so that hopefully, they can move on.
That wouldn’t happen on that day five years ago. The officer said something in a way that got to the sore spot of Michael Brown’s soul, the part that was tired of being jerked around by arrogant white cops, and he decided, “not today.” It was the language that was the initial violence, the words that Michael heard, that made him shake inside. He had been through too much and had worked too hard to “make it through” to take this officer’s disrespect.
And so the words escalated into a physical confrontation, resulting in Michael Brown being shot to death. The unspoken words, as police allowed Michael’s body to lie on the hot pavement for four hours while they worked to …get more words, more language, to justify what had happened …were a continuation of the violence that had begun between the officer and the young, unarmed, black man who was going to college.
When Michael Brown was killed, Morrison used language in a way only she could to describe the emotions felt by perhaps many. She said, “People keep saying, ‘We need to have a conversation about race.’ This is the conversation. I want to see a cop shoot a white unarmed teenager in the back. And I want to see a white man convicted for raping a black woman. Then when you ask me, ‘Is it over?’, I will say yes.”
Morrison’s language will keep us connected, will remind us who we are and what we endure as black people, and the tragedy of the murder of Michael Brown will ever remind us of how the violence called language can result in our being neutralized and extinguished by those who have little regard for people of color in this nation and in this world.
A candid observation.