Hearing the Silence

My grandmother’s mother, Mary Salter, is a mysterious fruit on our family tree, not quite shaded in. We know very little about her; she died around 1930, leaving two little girls under four who would torture themselves, for the rest of their lives, trying to remember her face.

Family lore suggests that Mary was a street musician, playing the guitar and singing on street corners for coins. No one knows what songs she sang, when she was born, or what killed her, only that her life was brief and hard. We don’t know how she felt about that. We can only wonder what she would have said, if someone had asked her.

Vowing to “give the voiceless a voice” has become a cliché, and it’s not surprising. Any given member of a historically silenced group, given a forum to do so, feels an almost oppressive responsibility to air the grievances and suffering of those who could not or cannot. There are many hidden ellipses in the history books, places where the marginalized were glossed over or ignored. The more you read, the more you see them.

I recently read an interesting book (African Queen) about Sarah Baartman, a woman you might better know by her stage name, Hottentot Venus. Brought to Europe from South Africa in the early nineteenth century, she was exhibited to confirm intellectuals’ assumptions about deviant African sexuality and physiology; her body – too exposed, too voluptuous, too alien – became a legal and political battleground. Despite Sarah’s celebrity, despite all that was written about her, none of her own words remain: we can choose between interpretations and translations of her court testimony or a few contemporary newspaper articles with their own agendas.

This disappointed me. After all, I’d picked up the book to discover Sarah’s story from Sarah’s perspective. The number of times the author suggested we imagine “what Sarah must have felt” eventually depressed me, once I realized we would never know. It wasn’t the author’s fault: the words aren’t there. At the center of the controversy over Sarah’s brief life and swift death, even over the repatriation, hundreds of years later, of her very bones, is a silent Sarah.

I can’t stop thinking about Sarah and Mary, this week. After a year or so’s hiatus, I’m reading up on “the feminist blogosphere” (another cliché) and the same argument that was going on when I left is still raging. Feminists from traditionally silenced backgrounds — in this week’s case, the editor of an academic work about redefining feminism to include the silenced — are still feeling marginalized and ignored, and other, more “mainstream” feminists are still feeling put-upon, still coming up with responses that scream Why do they get upset when it even looks like they’re being silenced? Don’t they know how much work we all have to do?

There is a very simple answer to all these questions. We all know our history; we all know about the ellipses and the gaps. Stories get left out. Our stories. And, here’s the thing: history is being written right now. Every time a new book doesn’t get written about, every time a discussion refuses to acknowledge the diversity of female experience, there’s another gap, another silence. One day, future generations – the little girls all around us, steadily growing up — will look back at what we wrote, looking for all the stories. What will we tell them?