I believe in silence.
Growing up in Wellesley, Massachusetts, my playground was the small stone church where my father was minister. I remember riding my big wheel tricycle silently down the blue-carpeted center aisle and that the perfect refuge for hide-and-go-seek was under the altar cloth. Because no one thought I would actually hide there. But it’s the cool silence of that stone church that I remember the most. It was heady and gave me life. It was there that I could escape the scrutiny and expectations of being a child of color and the son of a preacher.
My white father brought his black wife and children to this blue-blooded community in 1968. Our world was changing. My experiences showed me that the attainability of the American Dream conflicted with the reality that my black skin seemed to tell people that I was still a threat, that I was base in the eyes of our free and equal society. I learned to step aside when passing white ladies on the sidewalk even while on my way to the elite private schools I attended.
In the silence of my father’s church, beneath the sun-illumed stained glass, I could hear my own voice—it told me I was smart and helped me dream a life worth living. Outside the church, the deafening discord of society told me I was a subordinated person, and someone to be feared.
As I got older, the noise of our civilization—television, movies, history, religion—began to dictate the way I thought I ought to live my life. Our cacophonous world not only drowned out my inner voice, it told other people how they should feel about me and those who look like me. I’m sorry they saw me as a monster. If only they could tune out the noise to hear my thoughts, the ones at my core, then they might realize how wrong they were about me. And maybe they would be freed to see themselves in a new light as well.
When I was twenty-five, I found the strength to rediscover my inner voice. It happened at the bedside of my dying father. In the soft quiet of our conversations, he told me to be my own man. He helped me to recognize the noise of the world so I could learn to stop listening to it. He encouraged me to see my weaknesses and illuminate my strengths. For the first time since I was a child, I was able to hear the voice of my spirit. It told me what I value and how I ought to live my own life.
I believe in a silence that allows me to stop paying attention to the world around me and start listening to my own heart. In the years since my father’s death, I try daily to hear the silence amid the noise of career, children, war, recession and success. Most days I find it as I walk with my daughters in the woods behind our home. It’s the church of my adult life. I tell my girls about the grandfather they never knew, and the lessons he gave me. I tell them how he saved my life.
I tell them I believe there is a voice inside all of us that needs to be heard.