Lessons from Zora

“If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it,” Zora Neale Hurston.

Today is Zora Neale Hurston’s birthday. She was an anthropologist, folklorist, poet, short story writer and novelist, black cultural critic, suspicious of racial integration, a member of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Inc, a pillar of the Harlem Renaissance, a co-conspirator with Langston Hughes, a Black queer woman, and an all-around bad ass. I imagine her to be the ideological mother of women like Audre Lorde and Toni Morrison. She is one of my favorite authors and I celebrate her life and her legacy today.

A couple of my sister-friends are also,  and one in particular has been posting quotes from her work all morning. They are all fabulous, but the one that opens this post hit me square in the chest with the power of its truth.

Too many people – too often I have been in the number – are silent about our pain. We keep our mouths shut for various reasons: to “protect” someone else’s feelings, to keep the “peace,” to maintain “control,” or just because we are afraid of what will happen next if we speak our whole truth – pain included.

But Zora’s truth-telling is liberating. When we don’t share the truth of our pain, we actually surrender control to someone else to author our story. We protect power, oppression, and dominance. We erect an uncomfortable peace, that really is no peace at all. Like the woman attempting to rest on a pile of mattresses, the “pea” of our pain discomforts us, no matter how deeply we attempt to bury it. We cripple our authenticity by holding in our pain, allowing it to rot us from the inside out.

It’s one of the motivations for my research on the college experiences of African Americans and other Blacks who attended elite, small, private, liberal arts colleges in the Great Lakes region between 1945 and 1965. To reveal the whole stories of these young adults, including whatever pain was there, so that others can no longer pretend that all was well with them and they just “enjoyed” it. But this isn’t the only resonance this quote had for me.

Today’s reading in my online devotional run by a group of Jesuit priests (I don’t have to follow all their dogma to appreciate their approach to worship and creating “sacred space”) was from the biblical account in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 4 where the writer tells of Jesus’s early ministry in Galilee, his hometown. In the passage, the reader is told that Jesus healed all manner of diseases and illnesses, that people came from even “beyond the Jordan” (really far away) to be healed. Jesus is reported to have preached a message of repentance and hope: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”

I wondered why all this talk of healing diseases was so central to the author’s introduction of who Jesus was and what he did on earth. You all reading this are probably wondering what this has to do with Zora and her quote. Metaphorically (and often literally), disease is painful. Our pain – physical, psychological, spiritual, mental – inhibits our healthy functioning.  Sometimes the effects are barely noticeable, but left ignored and unspoken, pain begins to affect us more and more until we have to radically alter our daily lives just to be alive. Or it kills us and death comes metaphorically as the quenching of our own fire. We move about, zombie-like, posing as human and devouring other people who get too close.

In order to seek Jesus for healing, they had to be open about their pain: where it hurt and for how long, perhaps what happened to bring about the onset of their pain, the effects of their pain. All this had to be put on display. Even if they never spoke it aloud before their healing (thinking of the woman who was healed touching the hem of Jesus’s garment), they had to acknowledge it loudly to themselves.

Everybody who was ever sick didn’t get healed by Jesus. Not everybody came to Jesus. Perhaps they didn’t come because they hadn’t heard. Or maybe because they weren’t ready to tell this stranger Jesus all about their troubles. Or because they had shared their pain with someone before and been rebuked, laughed at, told it wasn’t that bad. And so they kept their pain to themselves and maybe people around them figured it really wasn’t that bad and maybe that they even liked being that way.

“If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”

This is truth. And. In order to be loud about your pain, you have to ignore the critics, hope past the old rejections, and see – in the first place – that you are indeed in pain.

In honor of Zora’s birthday today (she would have been 123 years old, born in 1891, died in 1960), dare to feel your pain and tell it. Tell it. Tell the truth and shame the devil who tells you that you like being this way, and who at your death will boldly lie and say you enjoyed it.

Happy birthday Zora, happy birthday.

The Official Website of Zora Neale Hurston

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