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

Home is Where

*EXTRA, EXTRA* This is what I intended to write about for Monday. I didn’t want to put it off until Friday, so here’s a special Tuesday edition of my What Remains blog for your reading pleasure.

Complete this sentence, “Home is where…” Umm, “the heart is?” I know, I thought the same thing initially on Sunday when our rector, the Reverend Liddy Hoster at Trinity Toledo opened her sermon with that not-at-all rhetorical question, and so did she, so she made us dig a little deeper and really consider how we would complete that sentence.

I volunteered with “Home is where you are loved.” Another responded with responses like “where if you go there, they have to let you in,” quoting Robert Frost. Others responded with “where you have secrets,” “where you have no secrets,” “where there is peaceful chaos” from a mom with four children under 5, and someone who has experienced living on the streets said, “Home is where you don’t go because you can’t.” It was getting deep fast and then another response came from one of our teens, who said “Home is where I can be me.” Okay, that hit me right in the chest. I am not really sure I heard most of the rest of Liddy’s sermon (sorry, Liddy) until the very end when she told us that God’s message to us was that we were his beloved ones and that we could come home.

I had been totally absorbed by this idea of home being where you can be yourself as you really are. Home is where you can be authentic, where you can be real, where you can be flawed, where you can be doubtful, where you can be anxious, where you can come with all your issues and your dreams and your funny clothes and funky hairstyle, and be accepted, and loved, and wanted.

What if we carried that idea of home further and considered what it means to not have that kind of home. It caused me to think about homelessness in a different way – not to undermine or trivialize the experiences of people who don’t have a physical roof over their heads – but actually to deepen my understanding of it.

Consider how many of our youth who live on the streets are there because “home” wasn’t a place where they could be themselves. According to some agencies who track these numbers, a high percentage of youth living on the streets are LGBT. They ran away or were put out by parents who couldn’t accept them as they were. They were not free to be themselves. “Home is where I can be me.” In other words, they are now un-housed because they were first made homeless.

LGBT folk and others who have been deemed to be “too much,” to be beyond the confines of normalcy, respectability, and our own provincial familiarity are also suffering from the homelessness of non-acceptance in their families, on college campuses, in their local communities – and in their churches, synagogues, mosques, and other places of worship and fellowship.

Having a place where you can be you is so vitally important to our self-esteem and to healthy growth and development. It’s mandatory for our children. Young people need space to just be whoever they happen to understand themselves to be in that season. I’m not talking about letting children run free without discipline. I am talking about nurturing children’s passions, finding creative outlets for their interests, and supporting their experiments with how they want others to see them (dress and hairstyles), so long as they are not putting themselves or others in danger. This is how we figure out how to create the adults we want to grow up into. Restricting authenticity doesn’t protect our young people, it shuts them down and turns them dangerously inward like a turtle pulling its head into its shell. Growth doesn’t happen in the confines of restrictions.

Are you homeless today? Are you without a space (physically and psychically) where you can be yourself?

Are you creating homelessness for someone else by not accepting them for who they are, inclusive of all their strengths and limitations? Are we creating institutionalized homelessness in our colleges (see this story about Hampton’s business school’s 2001 policy banning male students in their leadership MBA program from wearing their hair in cornrows and locs)?

Are you someone’s home-space, that place where they can be authentic?

Are you seeking to create a home and to push that sense of home into all the nooks and crannies of your life? Are you eliminating from your life those places you call “home” but really are not because you cannot go there, because there is no one who will let you in?

I think these are questions we all need to consider for ourselves and those around us, especially for the young people whose lives we parent, mentor, and educate.


Read more about my thoughts on Hampton’s policy and other institutional policies in this week’s #higheredWed post.