My silence is how I've protected myself. But in a twist of cruel irony, it's also how I've hurt myself, over and over again. In my household, where religious values were quite prevalent, my silence was a foregone conclusion. I was of course, a young child, and children were to be seen and not heard. So while on the inside I suffocated under a cacophony of screams, I learned to deftly silence myself, even in the face of injustices directed towards me. The lesson that was supposedly being taught was that silence is a form of respect, but what I learned was that my voice was unimportant.
As a girl, like many girls before me, I learned how to suffer in silence. I learned that not talking back would ensure that punishments would subside quickly. I learned that the boat would stay steady and feathers would remain unruffled by simply keeping my mouth shut. This unfortunate lesson was ingrained in me and I started to operate on autopilot; before I could be silenced, I would simply silence myself.
This was only the beginning. Through keen observation and experience, I eventually learned that a man's voice is superior, and that his word is final. Children don't talk back to adults and no one talks back to a man. Within a few years, I would learn that as a Black person, silence could be a tool for survival. Life would be easier if I actively avoided being the "loud, Black girl". Life would be easier if I spoke softly to those in positions of authority. Life might be preserved if that person in authority happens to be a police officer. Eventually I would become a Black woman, and silence would be my life vest.
My tendency to self-silence became second nature. When I finally decided to free myself of the religious ideologies that I grew up with, I knew that announcing such a thing to my family would make certain people upset. So even if I didn't agree, I would still participate, tight-lipped, in the family prayer before our Thanksgiving feast. For many years, I grappled with my sexual identity. Despite my attraction to both men and women, I could avoid judgment and harassment by simply keeping the latter to myself. So I did.
Don't get me wrong. In the face of injustice, particularly those being faced by other people, I would certainly speak up. Somehow, while learning to silence myself, I also learned how to speak for those who needed to be spoken for. I learned the importance of being there for others, but I never learned how to be there for myself. During my college years, I would become more vocal about social injustice, a deep passion of mine, but quickly I wilted under how personal the backlash would become. My constitution would only allow me to bear the weight of it all for a short time. It was no longer about "my people"; it was now about me, and the only way I knew to defend myself was to avoid confrontation altogether.
And eventually, I choked on this silence. What they say is true, bottle it up and eventually it'll make its way out, one way or another. It should be of no surprise to anyone that throughout my life I've struggled with depression and anxiety, and at the very core of my mental health struggle is all the silences I've built up, one on top of the other. I would only find peace and freedom by living in my truth - my complete and honest truth.
I've been working on getting there, on getting to the place where I'm so free, so comfortable in my own skin that I can wave both middle fingers in the face of others' opinions. I've shut many closet doors behind me, I've have numerous uncomfortable conversations, and day by day, I still grow.
However, old habits die hard. When I decided to go vegan, I didn't hide it. I'm no longer so wrapped up in what other people think that I feel forced to hide important aspects of myself, but I've been nervous. I've been concerned about not being that vegan. You know, the stereotype. But I've come to realize that my constant fear of being perceived as a stereotype has been another way that I've silenced myself, and it has only been to my detriment.
As with anything else, I'm not here to tell anyone what to do, how to live, or who to be. But I can't continue to allow people to stop me from living in my truth. It is from this conviction that this blog was born. From a desire to stop silencing myself, to let my voice ring through free and clear, without fear of whose feathers I may ruffle. I am who I am, and all these various parts of me - my race, gender, spirituality, sexuality, diet and health - all interact in a beautiful, synchronous way to create the complicated being that I am. And I have no reason to apologize for it. This blog isn't just about being Black, or just about being vegan, it's about me, finally breaking the silence.
Call me Niv.