No Words?

When something terrible happens, this phrase pops up: there are no words. Well, yes, there are. Whoever proclaims this has used words to say there are no words. Instead, how about no words yet. Or words will be coming. Getting thoughts and feelings into words is a major way that our world moves forward. We search for the right words, and recognize them when we speak them, hear them, or read them.

Even words that express a small step toward finding the words move us forward. The murder of Philando Castile by a Twin Cities police officer was unspeakable, but only for a moment. The phrase “I stay woke” had been recorded in a soul song by Erykah Badu eight years earlier, its meaning at that time unconnected to racial justice. But “stay woke” picked up steam as Badu and others recast the phrase to mean a wide-awake awareness of racial injustice, earned by vigilance. Simultaneously, Black Lives Matter took the phrase viral in protest of Castile’s death and the deaths of so many other black people at the hands of police. The tragedy became speakable. There were words.

Consider the ordinary phrase “me, too.” In 2006, civil rights activist Tarana Burke ended a harrowing piece about a young girl named Heaven with the words: “me, too.” Heaven had confided to Burke a story of sexual abuse, unspeakable until she spoke. “Me, too” in itself reveals nothing of Heaven’s story, nor of Burke’s, for that matter. But the stories implied were many. And when, twelve years later, the film actress Alyssa Milano added a hashtag and called for a tweet storm, the phrase traveled the globe.