Witness.

“Memory is a tough place. You were there.” 
― Claudia RankineCitizen: An American Lyric

This week my timeline was filled with two words: “me too.” I read post after post of women I am close with and others I only know from the worlds we engage with on social media share stories of assault, rape, harassment and the struggles, shame, anger, and sadness that come along with these moments of violation. As I read them, I was angered at this mass outing of ourselves as surviving (We are alive – it is surviving enough – we will get to living. I know we will.), when it should be the assaulters. And while #metoo is not in itself a movement, I chose to sit in it as a moment. It was a moment to stand and witness. And it’s a reminder that we can and are often called to stand witness for that which our own eyes have not seen, but our bodies have borne, whether in this life or another.

I have often thought about what it means to witness and the role of the witness, as part storyteller and part affirmer. John the Baptist was a witness for Jesus, awaiting his arrival while speaking of him and affirming his heavenly ancestry. The documentary, I am Not Your Negro, directs us toward James Baldwin’s words on being a witness. Baldwin writes that he “was to discover that the line which separates a witness from an actor is a very thin line indeed.” Baldwin says he was troubled by the passivity required of witnesses. Yet Baldwin’s thoughts on witnessing feel much like the unfinished manuscript the documentary is based on. It feels like no small coincidence that much of the notes from the documentary are from this unfinished manuscript entitled Remember This House. We are forced in life to remember that which we lived, where we lived, what has marked our lives. Acts and moments of witnessing.

Black women smile readily and warmly at one another. Perhaps to say that if you disappeared, if you are harmed, I have not only seen you, I have felt your very existence in the depths of my being. But it has also been our tradition to take the role of witness and move fluidly through the lines of witness and actor. We have learned to protect one another – time is not bounded for us as we remember witnessing on the plantations.

Earlier in the year, when I attended a meditation retreat for black women, we talked about a tradition of humming for black women. Humming was the beginning of expelling pain and grief from one’s body. But it also developed into a way of humming new things to one another as we witnessed the hardships of life. At the retreat, we practiced humming joy and peace to one another. And I think now of all the stories that are told and not told and untold, and I reach my hand up to necks close and afar to hum into them peace and joy and truths beyond moments.

 

 

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