An elderly woman waits along the sidewalk as the Metro bus full of student swings by to pick her up. As she enters, she holds a number of 99¢ Store bags in hand. She is clearly Hispanic, her brown skin and white hair and her modesty stand out. The bus continues its route. The elderly woman knows her stop is coming up. But she obviously strains to put her words together when notifying the bus driver. Impatient and incomprehensive, he simply ignores her. Seeing this, I approach her. “Is everything okay, ma’am?” I ask her in Spanish. She gratefully smiles and responds “I’m lost and the driver won’t help me.” When the bus arrived at her desired stop, I pushed the button for her and she was on her way. How I felt bad for her inability to speak English. This could have been my grandmother I thought. How will she manage next time? Is silence the mark of social control? Those who are silenced, whether they are slaves during America’s dark past or one of today’s non-English speaking immigrants struggling to learn the native language, may seem to be weakened and lessened. But do the controlling hands of our spoiled society judge whether the silenced are lost and feeble? Absolutely not.
Silence in the form of resistance grows in the individual and empowers him or her to break from the public’s standard. Famed novelists and extraordinary writers Richard Rodriguez, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Frederick Douglass are some of the few who were victims of being silenced by fellow students, teachers, and authority. Yet, they found a way to break past the prison bars placed around them by society’s norm by finding themselves through education and a little strong will. Robert Rodriguez was once a young boy who felt like one with his native tongue: Spanish. He describes his household language as the glue that held him and his family together. It bonded them while facing an outside world where they stressed to cope with and learn the English language. Rodriguez describes his strong connection with Spanish throughout his narration: But then there was Spanish: español… My parents would say something to me and I would feel embraced by the sounds of their words. Those sounds said: I am speaking with ease in Spanish.
I am addressing you in words I never use with los gringos. I recognize you as someone special, close like no one outside, You belong with us. In the family, Ricardo (Rodriguez 28) . Whilst at home, he finds his safe haven. Rodriguez sees English as the noise of los americanos, whom he felt did not belonged with despite the fact of him being a United States citizen. He struggled with hoarding the obligation of learning English in school and at home. The writer feels alienated from the general public due to him feeling that Spanish was not fit enough to be spoken aloud. Rodriguez takes the reader back into his memory, “Nervously, I’d arrive at the grocery store to hear there the sound of the gringo, reminding me that in the so-big world I was a foreigner” (Rodriguez 28). Rodriguez still feels ostracized even after he accepts English in his home. However, as time progresses, he, and the rest of the members of his family, grasp the essentials of English. Unfortunately, the writer mentions that it came with a cost. Rodriguez loses the sense of closeness and family when English is completely accepted in his home. Regardless, he lets his readers know that he makes it and finally feels acceptance from the outside world.
Being outcasted and silenced truly occurs in people in day to day life. However, some would not at first imagine such an occurrence at elementary school such as that which Maxine Hong Kingston describes in her short-story “Tongue-Tied”. Her story takes Kingston to the past where she was a timid and hesitant Chinese girl. She too had an immense hill to climb when bettering her English. In school and was shunned for her incompetency. Kingston remembers, “When I went to Kindergarten and had to speak English for the first time, I became silent. A dumbness – a shame –still cracks my voice in two, even when I want to say ‘Hello’ casually, or ask an easy question…” (Kingston 402). The author continues her story by saying how the speech barrier limited her in school. She spoke to no one at school, never asked to use the restroom, and even flunked Kindergarten. It was clear that Kingston had to speak English to succeed. She broke out of these chains of laughter, embarrassment, and disapprovement.
Iin the final words of her short story, Kingston triumphantly wrote, “When it was my turn, the same voice came out, a crippled animal running on broken legs. You could hear splinters in my voice, bone rubbing jagged against one another. I was loud, though. I was glad I didn’t whisper. There was one little girl who whispered” (Kingston 404). A young and rambunctious Kingston finally musters up the courage to speak aloud in her classroom regardless of her incapability. She makes mistakes, still stumbling to make out her sentences, nevertheless being proud of her now limitless self. Sometime silence could be used as a weapon to lessen and control people by huge numbers. It could be used like a remote control allowing the enslaved only to be shown what the enslavers choose. Therefore, those people dwell in ignorance and will forever not be exposed to the truth. For example, slavery, in the more demeaning and inhumane American past, was not a light subject.
It was regarded to seriously in the sense that slaves were not to be educated for the fear of self-enlightenment and empowerment. Frederick Douglass, who is the most prominent example of breaking free from society’s grasp, writes about his journey in learning to read and write. And by doing so, Douglass lightens up the dark, secret intents and wrongfulness of his slave owner (and all others by the fact of the matter). Douglass describes, “The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers…As I read and contemplated the subject [enslavement], behold that very discontentment which Master Hugh had predicted would follow my learning to read had already come…” (Douglass 348). At this point of his memoir, Douglass growing knowledge has not and cannot be stopped. He has already learned of the immoral enslavement of African-Americans and now seeks freedom. In an encounter with working Irishmen, he would learn of the abolishment of slavery in the North. Although Douglass was only twelve years of age, he had already learned what would change his life forever. Although he did not act upon such information immediately, Frederick Douglass’ freedom was certainly imminent.
Douglass significantly mentions, “The silver trump of freedom had roused my soul to eternal wakefulness. Freedom now appeared, to disappear no more forever. It was heard in every sound, and seen in everything” (Douglass 348). Silence can be, in many ways, a mark of social control as much as it can be a way of resistance from oppressing forces. Metaphorical silence, such as the example of Douglass’ story of learning to read and write, where slave owners implemented an ignorance of the real world proved to be destructive to the black community as a whole during this time. Those people of the South wished to keep the African-American slaves under their rule and under the heavy chains of forever enslavement.
However, in the case of Frederick Douglass, the silence was broken. Through knowledge, he freed himself. Maxine Hong Kingston and Richard Rodriguez also fought against the silence when immense language barriers that interfered with their young lives in school and while growing up. Something thought to be unsophisticated as being unable to pronounce English words, let alone allowing a whole new language in one’s life, can still be intervened by the meddling hands of our cruel, anti-empathetic society. Kingston and Rodriguez both abolished these complications. Our society today has not changed one bit, as I see it with my own eyes. Silence still exists everywhere, in every person. It is up to the individual whether they indulge in the concept of “ignorance is bliss” or whether they choose to stand out, unafraid of the oppressors of our everyday lives.
Rodriguez, R. Hunger of Memory, The Education of Richard Rodriguez: An Autobiography. 1st Ed. New York City: Dial Press Trade Paperback, 1982. Print.
Douglass, Frederick. “Learning to Read”. The Norton Reader, 13th ed. EDS. Linda Peterson et al. New York: Norton, 2012. 346-350. Print.
Kingston, Maxine Hong. “Tongue-Tied”. The Norton Reader, 13th ed. EDS. Linda Peterson et al. New York: Norton, 2012. 401-404. Print.