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  • In Praise of Silence*
  • John Edgar Wideman (bio)

On a roomsize dock beside a Maine lake where for 30-some summers I’ve gone each morning to write, I often find myself thinking about silence. When I’m writing or, more likely, in the spaces between writing that are also writing—the spaces when words aren’t being scratched on the page, either because one thought is finished or another won’t come or because I’m having thoughts for which no words exist, no words I know yet anyway—when I’m pausing, looking out at water, trees and sky, the silence of my hideaway in the woods meets the silence inside me and forms a horizon as tangible and razor-sharp as the shoreline across the lake, dividing trees from their upside-down reflections on days when water and wind are calm.

Perhaps words lie behind this horizon, but for the moment they are utterly inaccessible and can remain so for what seems like minutes, hours, days, on and off the dock. Some mornings I’m frustrated by the pause, disquieted by a foreboding that no words exist, that even if there are words, they will always fail, that this pause might go on and on, but more often I find myself growing calmer, relaxing, spreading out, breathing deeper because I’m aware of time’s motion, its capaciousness, aware of being inside it, bundled, dragged, gliding along. I never get closer to understanding time than in these moments when inner and outer silence meet: Silence, a medium I enter and feel around and inside me, an affirming vital presence always, whether or not I’m conscious of it.

The more I write, the more I realize how deeply I’m indebted to a communal experience of time and silence, an African-American language evolving from that experience, a language vernacular, visceral, sensuous, depending on the entire body’s expressive repertoire, subversive, liberating, freighted with laughter, song and sigh, burdened and energized by opposition. African-rooted, culturally descended ways and means of speaking that emerged from the dungeon and dance of silence.

For a people who have endured a long, long history of waiting—waiting at the Jordan river, waiting chained in stone forts on the west coast of Africa, waiting for slavery and discrimination to end, waiting for justice and respect as first-class citizens, waiting for prison gates to open, waiting eternities in emergency wards and clinic lines of sorry urban hospitals—silence is an old, familiar companion. Time and silence, silence and time. The silence attending waiting, waiting through times of enforced silence. Silence the ground upon which wishes are inscribed while the endless waiting continues. Silence a dreaming space where what’s awaited is imagined [End Page 547] and, when it doesn’t come, the space where dreams are dismantled, dissolving again into silence. Dreams born and dying and born again in the deep womb of silence, and silence, tainted though it is by disappointment and waiting, also a reservoir of hope.

Imagine yourself disembarked on an alien shore after a long, painful voyage so harrowing you’re not certain you survived it. You’re sick, weak, profoundly disoriented. You fear you haven’t actually arrived anywhere but are just slipping into another fold of a nightmare.

You are naked and chained to others who look like you, under the merciless control of brutal strangers who look and act nothing like you and, much worse, do not speak your language. To you their language is gibberish, the ba-ba-baaing of barbarians. They communicate their orders with blows, screams, shoves, crude pantomime. You are compelled at the peril of life and limb to make sense of verbal assault, physical abuse. You realize you’re learning a new language even as you swallow the bitterness, the humiliation of learning the uselessness of your own. Much of this learning and unlearning occurs in silence inside your skull, in the sanctuary where you’re simultaneously struggling to retain traces of who you are, what you were before this terrible, scouring ordeal began. In order to save your life, when you attempt to utter the first word of...

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pp. 547-549
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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