The Power of Words

Benita Porter - Clifton Park, New York
As heard on The Bob Edwards Show, August 30, 2013
Benita Porter

On August 28, 1963, Benita Porter went with her mother to attend the March on Washington. It was during Dr. King’s spellbinding message of hope, love, and the universality of mankind that Ms. Porter was inspired by the belief that words—her own words—could arouse passion, change minds, and bring about social change.

Age Group: 50 - 65
  • Listen to This I Believe on RadioPublic

  • Podcasts

    Sign up for our free, weekly podcast of featured essays. You can download recent episodes individually, or subscribe to automatically receive each podcast. Learn more.

  • FAQ

    Frequently asked questions about the This I Believe project, educational opportunities and more...

  • Top Essays USB Drive

    This USB drive contains 100 of the top This I Believe audio broadcasts of the last ten years, plus some favorites from Edward R. Murrow's radio series of the 1950s. It's perfect for personal or classroom use! Click here to learn more.

I believe in the power of words.

A passion for books and the words inside them saved me from ever knowing a moment’s loneliness during library hours. While nestled inside that divine sanctuary, words were my window to the world outside my perch in Columbus, Ohio. For words could express emotions and cravings. Words could explore fantasy as far as the imagination could reach. Words could illuminate deeply-held truths, pose innovative questions. Words could challenge. Words could connect or part asunder.

Afflicted by crushing shyness throughout childhood, I felt nurtured through the words of authors who wrote in the context of their communities, triggering images and memories of extraordinary characters I longed to know and emulate. Yet, as the librarians rousted me out of the Martin Luther King branch each evening, I ached to write words that reflected my life, my belief in the power of words to change minds.

This conviction came to fruition on a steamy August afternoon in 1963, standing beside my beloved mother, Sadie, in the shadow of the Washington Monument. For sixteen electrifying minutes, the melodious speaking voice of Martin Luther King Jr. flowed forth with a cascade of words to lift, inspire, instruct, and transform the world.

I was a mere eleven years old at the time. But as this Baptist preacher narrated the struggles and challenges of Black America and rendered his vision of an enlightened, compassionate society, my own consciousness was redefined forever. Even fifty years later, my tears run as I recall my mother’s arms encircling me when he cried out, “Free at last.” I am filled with the voices surrounding me, speaking in unison, “Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last!”

Dr. King’s spellbinding message of hope, love, and the universality of mankind instilled the confidence that even someone like me, a white-looking black girl with no ostensible power, could create words to arouse passion, insight, and social change.

My early writing voice spewed anger, flailing against the personal injustice of repeatedly declaring my racial identity to members of my own culture and explaining it to everyone else. Words became a valuable tool for analysis, confrontation and redress, my best friend in a fight for justice. Over time, my words morphed into a therapeutic balm, a means to dispel negative thoughts, a way to conjure positive self-affirmations. Humor crept into my pages, allowed me to laugh at the consequences of my own uniqueness. Words allowed me to embrace life, to claim my power as an African American woman, and to challenge ignorance and bigotry.

The words of my mid-life writing voice reveal a more compassionate, understanding spirit. Reading and writing words sustained me when I lost Sadie to ovarian cancer the same year I was diagnosed with a brain tumor at age twenty-four. Words comforted and healed my discontent when I discovered that Brendan, my beautiful first-born son was severely autistic with limited speech. Words consoled me when my husband suffered a paralyzing stroke at age fifty-two.

My greatest privilege thrives in work that allows me to carve away at words, changing and reshaping them until they ring true. Words are my family, my power, my life’s blood.

Benita Porter is the author of the novels "Colorstruck" and "Skindeep," and she is also a mother, a film enthusiast, and an advocate for autism. She is currently at work on a film about the unexpected closing of her son's group home and a fictional book based on her maternal grandmother's family.

Recorded by WAMC in Albany, NY and independently produced for This I Believe by Dan Gediman