Silence is in the Streets: An interview with Christin Washington

Christin Washington is a force. Her eloquence on the complexities of silence left me with a lot on my mind’s plate. As a 5collDH fellow for the year 2016/17, her project was on the theorization and the digitization of Black Silence. Using Black Brooklyn as a lens, she was able to analyze and read the absences. It takes courage and clarity to understand that because things are silent does not mean that they do not exist. For her project Dare to Remember: A Digital Memorial of Black Brooklyn, she uses GIS mapping and 3D imaging to reveal the silences where they are hidden. As irony would have it, Christin and i spent a long time talking about silence in a noisy restaurant. But the noise took nothing away from her passion and knowledge about the intricacies of “silence” (in the context of black life) as an epistemological and ontological concern

Christin: So I’m looking at the epistemological lenses of history making, and saying that silence is okay. Not okay as in “it is okay to be oppressed.” It’s not. However, in my work, I make an epistemological and ontological distinction between “Optional” and “Oppressive” silences.

Sheila: How do you distinguish between oppressive and optional silence?

C: They are so intertwined: In order to understand it, analyze it and theorize it, I created this bifurcated system: Oppressive vs Optional. In reality, however, both are so intertwined. The main distinguishing feature is the idea of force vs choice. In my work, I use real life examples to illustrate where I see the oppressive silences vs where I see the optional silences. For example, I use street names to show how deeply the oppressive silence is embedded into physical spaces because those street names, are often names of slaveholders. And those names don’t really carry the epistemology of “slaveholding,” they are not easily identifiable as slaveholders’ names because in the way history has memorialized such families, they were more likely to be called “major land owners” not “slave masters”. But whose land did they own? And who made sure that property was kept? ….the answers to those questions have been hush hush. But actually, the silenced answer to those questions is “black people.”


In my work, I speak extensively about the generational silence which is present both in the Oppressive and Optional silence: In plaques and monuments, we find generational histories of oppression which we haven’t really been able to acknowledge as oppression/oppressive because it is not written that way in history. When we talk about these wealthy major landowners, why don’t we talk enough about where they got their “wealth” from? For instance, people live on a street called Lefferts without knowing that he was one of the major slave owners. I mean, the Lefferts’ house is well preserved in Prospect Park and when you see that, the first thing that comes to mind isn’t really “slave owner”…it’s more like “important person.” And it’s not just the Lefferts; there are other slaveholding family names. We have families like the Schenks and the Nostrands. I feel it’s even more hurtful when you live in these predominantly black spaces as a black person, and your street has a name that claims those spaces… a name of people that aren’t or weren’t helpful (and more hurtful) to black people. Technically, black people living on those streets still live under the name of a slaveholder. That is what I say when I speak about oppressive silence.

S: And Optional silence?

C: Here is the complicated part: Optional silence can be oppressive or can spawn from oppression. Optional silence is a way to negotiate and choose your life but in that choice that you have, you have to acknowledge oppression. In the documentary, Who Cries for the Black Girl?, Katherine Ponds says in a racist world you have to be crazy to acknowledge something like racism. Which in its own way, explains what I mean when I say, Optional silence may be how you, black person, may choose to negotiate the thin line between being awake and being called crazy in a world that wasn’t built for your thriving

S: So, because racism is the norm, being “anti-racist” is somewhat denying normality? And silence can be a way to deny the normality of racism?

C: Exactly! And in a place where Optional silence exists, the normality is usually that you do not have the option to be silent. So the fact that you have chosen to be silent is an example of your freedom. Choosing that silence- expressing choice when and where you’re forced to have none- becomes a way of bypassing the oppressor. That, is so significant. In such an environment, the act of choosing—even if it is silence— becomes so empowering because you have made a choice to see yourself outside the system.

S: It reminds me of when we were growing up, and my parents would beat us (which was a very normal thing for kids growing up in a Nigerian household). After they were done dishing out their beatings, they would look at us and ask “ do you not have anything to say?” It would always be a moment where you had to make a decision to say something or be quiet. And most times, they expected us to say something which was “I’m sorry.” But by looking them in the face, and saying nothing, you’ve made a statement with that silence. And it always pissed them off. And sometimes, it could even make you get hit again

C: Exactly! It’s a moment where you realize that even after you’ve been hurt, you’re not powerless. Because you recognize that they’ve pushed you to this edge, but you still have some element of choice in that moment of response. That silence says “I know you want me to respond, but I refuse to respond”

S: Yes…and so when they now hit you again, after that silence, it makes them feel a bit worse because they hit you for literally saying or doing nothing.

C: What you just spoke about, is a huge part of the reversal in that optional silence. For example, I talk about how the Underground Railroad actually ran through Brooklyn which is not really conventional knowledge

S: I might sound dumb, but what is the conventional understanding of the underground railroad?

C: Okay, so often, in conversations about slavery you hear a lot about the north as anti-slavery and the south as pro-slavery. But a lot of people don’t understand that the slavery existed everywhere. And if a slave ran away to the north in search of “freedom,” if found, could face severe consequences. Many of the times, physical violence and mutilation. And so, the Underground Railroad were vehicles of safety placed throughout the north and the south. Literal hideouts in churches and homes and free black communities. It even existed in Brooklyn! And to me that was necessary to know for understanding Black Brooklyn, because one, it says slavery existed in Brooklyn, debunking the common misconception that it only existed in the south. And two, it says as a runaway, no matter how north you were, even after northern states emancipated formerly enslaved black people, you were still surveilled and could be sent right back into bondage. So you needed protection offered by the Underground Railroad.

S: Okay, I see. So back to your example

C: Right, so the example is that kids in those neighborhoods that knew about the Underground Railroad were often told to be quiet about what was happening. And even though some of them lived in a free black community, under no circumstances were they supposed to say anything about a fugitive slave or runaway slave because their non-silence could be risking the life of such a slave. That person would be risking the lives of the runaway slave and their own family. Which then implicates not only the slave, but also you (the non-silent), and your community of people. Which means that in such a place, choosing to be silent may be choosing to be free.

My mum has a saying: “See and don’t see. Hear and don’t hear”; it’s about distinguishing between what you see with your eyes from what you say you’ve seen with your mouth. I used this saying to trace the generational silence. Although the concept was very existent in times where the Underground railroad was active, it is still relevant in recent situations where black parents leave children at home while they go to make some money to survive. In those cases, the kids are always specifically instructed to say nothing to nobody. You have to be quiet in the house and quiet outside.

S: There’s something stark about the image of a child having to keep silent in her own house where she is supposed to be free to do whatever she wants, including speak

C: Yes. And of course it is dangerous for any child to be left alone. But if anyone is going to think about that, that person also has to think: What conditions would force a parent to live their child alone? That reversal, and that particular attention to how certain questions are asked is what we are lacking in the consideration of such matters.

S: I remember watching Mo Better Blues in a spike lee class with Professor Parham and a discussion about “cycles” and repeating cycles started brimming in the class. In the movie, the frame of the last scene is the same frame of the opening scene. And in the conversation, the class seemed disappointed that the repetition of frames, was a metaphor for the repetition of the cycle of a black man’s life. Professor Parham had to slow us down and ask “what is so wrong about the cycle of black life and why are we disappointed by its repetition?” The question was specific to the movie but applicable to a lot of other situations. She mentioned that when someone talks about a white person taking over their dad’s company, people never seem to call it “repeating the cycle.” In that class, she illustrated the invisible preposition hiding in the phrase “Repeating the cycle (of)..” Of what? Of black suffering? Of white capital? Sometimes these phrases get thrown around as commonsensical we never notice their epistemological/ontological weight and so the interpretation/understanding of the phrase as one thing becomes seen as the only thing such a phrase can be….like “repeating the cycle (of black life)”

C: (snaps) I’m strongly nodding my head in affirmation! Yes yes yes. That’s basically how it is…in understanding the whole frame of these silences, there is an urge to truly understand the whole frame and decolonize the frames or phrases that make invisible, the colonization of the frames and phrases in the first place. I look at huge buildings and important people and talk about how they show the accomplishments of people we would consider well accomplished but also, what about the small church that isn’t popular but significantly integral to the abolition of slavery? Or even, what about the church that was not integral to the abolition of slavery but helped them move their ordinary day to day? I talk about the ordinary a lot in my project

S: So, would you say that the things that seem “ordinary” are the things that are most silent?

C: Actually, the crazy part of this is that the ordinary and extra-ordinary of those black lives were still silent. There were black abolitionists and reverends just as active as someone like like Henry Beecher Stowe There’s even a big statue of Beecher right beside the Octagon at Amherst College….which all of a sudden, is now seeming very interesting. Hmm

S: Why? What makes it interesting?

C: The Octagon is a space for black people and it’s interesting that there is a huge statue of a white abolitionist in front of/ beside a congregational space predominantly used for the black community to meet and greet—it’s where the Black Students Union meetings are held. But there is a mural inside that pays respect to the black people who were integral to the development of black presence on the Amherst campus. And even though the mural was probably not as costly as the statue, it is there. Still, I think the juxtaposition of the two is…interesting. I’m stuck on this because Beecher did work alongside a lot of black reverends and abolitionists to do the work of abolishing slavery

S: Oh! Henry Beecher is not black?

C: No, he is white. That, is the juxtaposition


S: Now, it all makes sense…because earlier, I wondered where the “interest” was

C: I know…(sips tea) And the work he did is great, thank you Mr Beecher. Yet, still, the black people did work and sometimes, maybe even more. Not only did they fight for abolition but they lived through the repression of the time

S: So, I’m actually dealing with this thought problem because I recently met a woman was invited to a college to give a presentation on her theater work in African slums. She says she teaches English to kids which helps them pass their exams. And I saw layers of problems in there: As a white woman, you’re coming into Kibera to teach a couple of kids English as a mark of accomplishment? And it’s not that I don’t appreciate your effort, it’s just that I’m not sure your effort acknowledges the layers of issues that you think you’re tackling. not because you’re not smart, but maybe because you haven’t been in the reality enough to recognize those nuances. She spoke on doing theater work in “Kai-bera.” She asked if anyone knew “Kai-bera” And I blurted out “Kee-bera?” She seemed a little taken aback and it made me feel a little hostile but I wasn’t trying to be hostile…I was only affected by the fact that the “saving” of these lives through theater seemed more important to her than the understanding of the people, so much so that she could not pronounce the name of their place/space correctly. You have been teaching in one place for about two years and you cannot bring yourself to say “Kibera(Kee-bera)?” It’s not even a click, or a guttural R. And that may seem like a small thing, but if you cannot even allow your tongue to absorb the pronunciation of a place you’re trying to save…I’m a little worried. She gave a testimony of a girl who overcame shyness through theater, and in that testimony, there lived a conflation between shyness and her very specific African, slum like poverty. And it wasn’t just in her speaking, it was also in the listening of the audience. Shyness all of a sudden became something holding poor Africans destitute, some underlying cause of African underdevelopment that white capital wasn’t responsible for. I was weary about her role in the continuation of “Black people have problems, White people have solutions” plot. I thought Amherst College has lots of shy people that also need healing. And in that moment, my consciousness made me feel ungrateful for her work.

C: (snaps) Yes. And in the context of my project, I relate it to how those black people were the ones who lived through generations of slavery and enslavers. And they are the ones doing the work of living through the histories of oppression and decoding the residues/manifestations of those histories. And so they have double the work YET the white abolitionists enjoyed more representation and more celebration, like their transcendence of the desire to enslave black people becomes more heroic than a black person’s decision to live through slavery and then fight against enslavement. That is a problem.

S: Okay, so let’s bring it back to silence. How does optional silence manifest in your life?

C: Hmmm. Maybe the idea of code switching. It was very prevalent in my high school where I chose to say nothing vs something. Where sometimes, I had to make the choice to step back from saying something so I didn’t have to bear the consequence of being kicked out and ending up as nothing…or, ending up as the expectations they had of me. Cuz what happens if I get kicked out and that induces a spiral that ends up with me not getting a job, and then not earning the income I deserve…and e.t.c. And so, in vocally defending myself, I could have given them reason to put me in the place where they expected someone like me to be. I also chose my sanity instead of doing the draining work of vocalizing

S: But in a situation like that, where is the difference between oppressive and optional silence in there? Because I feel oppressed by the system that makes me prefer silence to expression

C: It’s the choosing to refuse the extra work of vocalizing. The refusal to participate while acknowledging the systems that keep you outside the sphere of participation is where optional silence lives. I mean, we know that a lot of this economy is knowledge based and you have to have the credentials to show that you know something. In order to be accredited in this knowledge based economy, I often had to choose to keep silent so I could benefit from the economy that desperately wanted to keep me outside, or under. If I didn’t get that diploma, would I be able to get into a good college? And if I didn’t get into a good college, would I be able to get a good job?

S: So there’s a risk to taking every environment as a metaphor for the larger context of the system because if you decided to say “If I don’t speak loudly against this thing said about me now, it means that I’m not speaking up against racism at large,” those parallels might be destructive. I’m hearing you say that there is a bigger environment that depends on the impulse of a tired and stressed oppressed black person to express that fatigue and resistance at all times

C: Perfectly said. That’s it. And even when you are speaking, you are deemed the person that does not make sense. And the louder you yell, the crazier they think you are and so the vocalization can become counter-productive to a sustainable resistance. And by me saying that these oppressive and optional silences are important, I don’t ever mean to say that noise is not important because without noise, would we, as black people, have been at the place that we now are? I’m only saying that we acknowledge that the silence was also a resistance and not just a deference

To experience the multi-dimensional work of Christin Washington, please visit her website 

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