I’M WRITING THIS not to get you to take sides. Instead, I invite us all to take a pause.
Two weeks ago, my PDN column was about a spoken-word poetry workshop I participated in with Naa Akua, a writer of African heritage. The workshop, part of the Juan de Fuca Festival, filled me up with admiration for Akua. Here’s an excerpt of what I recalled about the experience.
“We all wrote for 10 minutes. Akua asked whether we wanted more time, then provided another five. She invited us to read — “no pressure” — then listened, her eyes alight. When each person finished, Akua waited a beat, then said ‘Yeah,’ in her chocolatey voice. That, I thought, is what affirmation sounds like.”
I went on to describe another part of the Juan de Fuca Festival weekend, the street fair, and how good it had felt to be out talking with vendors again.
The day after the column ran, I received an email:
“Hello! I just wanted to draw your attention to a word you chose to describe Naa Akua in your article, ‘Festival, street fair return a relief’ from 6/2/21. You used the word ‘chocolatey’ to describe Naa’s voice. Naa is black, and using that word is very problematic. I would suggest apologizing to Naa, and even to your readers. Take care, Lindsay States.”
First: I apologize. In my effort to describe Akua’s rich, deep voice, I chose the wrong word. For that, I am sorry. Language has power to harm and to heal, and I do not take that lightly.
I wanted to know and understand more about what had just happened. “Chocolatey” could be called a cliché, so I should have avoided it, but obviously there’s more going on. So I wrote back to States and to Akua, in an email and in a Facebook message.
“Hello again Lindsay, I’ve sent an email to Naa to ask for her thoughts, as I’m trying to learn as much as I can about this. Can you also tell me more about why the word is very problematic? I’m all ears. Thank you again.”
“Dear Naa, I attended your spoken word workshop last Saturday, May 29. I also wrote a column about it for the Peninsula Daily News in which I described your voice as chocolatey. I meant it in a positive way, but now a reader has suggested I apologize to you for using the word. What are your thoughts about this? Thank you so much for sharing them with me, if you are willing.”
No response has come from States nor Akua. I could speculate about why they didn’t write back. I could also contact friends who are Black and ask what they think. But that would be like asking them to speak for Akua and/or States, or even to speak for Black people in general, which is inappropriate.
I did tell the three women in my weekly writing group about this sequence of events. They are white women, all older than myself, and wise. Nora, Deborah and Beth observed that I’m distressed because, as they put it, there’s been no resolution to the exchange.
On this and just about any topic, what I hope for is dialogue. The purpose of opinion pieces in the newspaper is, after all, to put out there a marketplace of ideas for civil discussion.
Absent this, I went to my bookshelf, and Resmaa Menakem’s “My Grandmother’s Hands.” The book’s subtitle explains its contents: “Racialized Trauma and Pathways to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies.”
I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It doesn’t address the issue of word use in particular, but Menakem writes eloquently about our need to belong, to be part of a culture — and to heal from intergenerational trauma.
This is a supremely complex undertaking, of course. But in the spirit of Juneteenth this coming Saturday, I’ll cite some of Menakem’s healing practices to do with people we trust: Sing together. Take a silent walk together. My favorite, though not easy: Simply stand and breathe quietly together.
Jefferson County senior reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3509 or [email protected] Her next column will appear July 7.