Letter to A Past Life: On the Inhumanity of Academia and “Speaking in Tongues”

These places of possibility within ourselves are dark because they are ancient and hidden; they have survived and grown strong through that darkness. Within these deep places, each one of us holds an incredible reserve of creativity and power, of unexamined and unrecorded emotion and feeling. The woman’s place of power within each of us is neither white nor surface; it is dark, it is ancient, and it is deep.

– Audre Lorde, “Poetry Is Not A Luxury

While freshmen at Columbia College, my friends and I read Father Comes Home From Wars by Suzan-Lori Parks, the only text off the Core Curriculum by a black woman, or any woman of color, for the whole semester. However, for my friend Ale, his racist older white man teacher upped the ante, turning his discussion of an incredibly subversive and influential piece of literature into a spectacle of inconsiderate performance. Instead of discussing the work at all, or even stepping back and simply encouraging BIPOC students to shape the discussion, my friend’s professor asked every student, one by one, what they would do if they were enslaved. Ale was stunned. He got up and walked out sobbing. 

It was one of those stories you hear about on social media with outrage and empathy, perhaps with the tenured professor put on temporary leave, and an email sent out to the student body reassuring “mental health professionals are here to help!” From my sardonic tone, I hope it’s discernable that this is usually the “best case scenario” response that predominantly-white institutions are prepared to offer, though even this response effectively accomplishes nothing. Nevertheless my friend got no such response, or even an apology from his professor after he explained why he left abruptly and emotionally distraught. 

In preparation for this email and with consideration of ongoing widespread silencing of Third World Women everywhere, I thought “Speaking in Tongues: A Letter To 3rd World Women Writers” by Gloria Anzaldúa would be essential reading for our March agenda. Not only because it’s Womens History Month but also because it’s Disability Awareness Month, and surprise to no one, Gloria Anzaldúa was both. She was also a profound Chicana lesbian poet in the same schools of thought as other radical queer Feminists as Audre Lorde, Cherríe Moraga, Toni Cade Bambara and many others. Though she died of complications with diabetes, fellow disabled queer scholars and artists today like Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha recognize her death (along with Lorde’s and other disabled activists at the time) was largely preventable had she received accommodations from her places of work and academic institutions. 

Her speech, letter, and essay “Speaking in Tongues” was first published in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color in 1981, a collection that embodies the collective struggles of Third World Women across race, class, sexuality, and disability spectrums. “Speaking in Tongues” intimately weaves across several entries, describing the necessity of writing for all oppressed women, similar to Lorde’s seminal essay Poetry is Not A Luxury, mentioned in a previous newsletter. Both Lorde and Anzaldúa express the almost-mystical empowerment writing provides for the individual and the culture, as writing releases deep knowledges from within that reveal, overturn, make sense of, and complicate our realities. Writing is one of the only ways to express the madness of oppression, make impossible sense of how racism and sexism pulls on our bodies, contorting ourselves to a point where words are the only things to release us, and our rage. (For more information on madness as disability, medicalized racism, and maneuvering through a society that by its very foundation pushes us further towards madness, I would highly recommend Dr. La Marr Jurelle Bruce’s book How to Go Mad Without Losing Your Mind—and Ismatu Gwendolyn’s podcast where they read the first chapter for free!)

At a time when radical writing and unapologetic queer disabled expression is constantly contested—from hundreds of bills passed against queer existence, violent protests against Drag Queens reading to children, literal genocide, and, of course, banning books—I wanted to push myself towards creating something new. Not that anything is wrong with unearthing and resuscitating other great work with hopes you’ll read it and treat it with care. I suppose that’s nice, yet it’s also not the point. With this reading, I urge you to look into yourself, Dear Bi-Weekly Newsletter Reader, and perhaps even create something new. Write a letter to your 13 year-old self. Meditate on when you made the wrong decision and what you would do now. Write a poem from somewhere deep, dark, and ancient inside you. Of course, be wary and cautious, but also allow those feelings, the writing itself, to take you somewhere all on its own. As Ismatu Gwendolyn writes, after Toni Morrison, “If you surrender to the Madness, you can ride it:”

~ ~

Dear Friend,

I was thinking about memory and regret, or maybe just remembering because while reading, I felt the force of a flashback to when Alejandro’s professor asked him what he would do had he been enslaved and all he could think was to cry. And look for me. Instead, I told him to be quiet, small, and out of my camera’s frame as I joined a Zoom meeting with my professor and tried to impress her with my essay preparation. For how long I kept up my mask? Fifteen minutes turned to 30… I really don’t remember. I don’t even know what my paper was about. If I had questions about sources and citations—would MLA or Chicago be more suitable? It felt like seconds until I was able to join my then-Friend, almost lover depending on the definition, and crawl back into that tiny space he called his heart. For up to 40 minutes, I left him there on the floor, tucked into a ball, hyperventilating and shaking. Or worse, I didn’t just abandon him there, I forced his isolation too. 

While snuggling my blanket off my bed, he sobbed for the first time in years, holding back heaves and chokes so my poor prof wouldn’t be inconvenienced by her colleagues’ damage. I am so sorry to the little boy who could not cry, and to the one that I too scarred. Was it not his father but me, who hit him when he was too loud? Was it not I who yelled at or even shushed his profound yawps of pain and joy? It may have been his father or mother who first opened those cuts, or even racist teachers who asked unanswerable, cruel hypotheticals for classroom debate, but was it not I who clamped his wounds open? Implacable to heal by soft words alone. 

While he hugged my backpack, rocking himself back to regulation, I took notes on Form and the academic investigation of the Problem. While he sweat through his socks, stamping one hand on my bedframe and the other squeezing my hand for reassurance, I resented his big dumb tears. Was I too ashamed to have a heart like his, that I would risk his health, safety, and trust, and my humanity, for a Zoom meeting about an essay? I’m sorry, too, to that overworked, high-masking autistic lesbian that I once was. Why did no one teach you decency? Lest we forget, mercy is an act of courage. Was everyone so busy with invisibly surviving poverty, they forgot to teach you how to love as an action? How to show up without money or time to spare, yet infinite to give willingly and freely? I pray she chooses love. 

When Alejandro had another attack so bad he went non-verbal for almost 60 minutes, I didn’t know what to do. It was no longer fall. We were older and it was early summer, but still late enough into Pride Month that he could go home without feeling guilty about missing the corporate parade. I tell myself now it was too late but it never is. After all, Audre Lorde says, “Only nothing is eternal.” I made him drink water when his lips could not open wide enough for words. I hugged his cold, distant body, no longer clamoring for kinetic connection like it did that time nearly nine months before. Or maybe even less. Is it the professional opinion that nine months is enough for a human being to form, as well as to break down, change in impossible soul-scattering ways? As I laid my weight on that once so-alive boy, I feared it was too late. I felt not even my own pulse, no spark to jump his battery. I lay on a memory.

But I still dream of you. Always turned away. Always younger or older, yet always alive, even if not-the-same or never-the-same-as-when-we-were. He is out there with skin as warm and fragrant as mine, in beds and bodies not unlike mine and ours. 

I do not have such great aching fears of the irreconcilable loss of us, anymore. My subconscious urges me elsewhere. He may not be that boy anymore, let alone a boy at all. One I’d recognize without holding his hand in mine, but I see him without hope or expectation. I see him then and now. I see mi cielo in my most pressing dreams, no matter if shrouded by dark clouds or even kites. For I know he is there, like the wind or the sea. Life still bubbles through him, noise foaming over, flushing wounds clean. Bare.

My love, What binds us to this tree

must demand our relief. 

Take this bark, sink your teeth. 

When it all burns, the ash will stain.

Do not forget the gift of its marking.

Until then, sway sway. The 

Tupelo growls. The wind turns. 

Bending light, we roll our wings upward. 

Ascending, gliding. My string snaps and I cast off

Into that infinite swirling

Spell of air.

Again, I will find you.

I’ve worried for too long. It’s nearly 4am and my cat, Garm, cannot rest without me cradling him. I promise I’ve learned how to hold you. I cannot hate myself for this anymore. But have you learned how to ask to be held? I need lovers with voices, I realize. Goodnight to all who bear the silence. I love you, but no action of love can give you the voice I need to hear. Make peace.

Works that informed this piece: