The Sounds of Silence
By NAfME Member Darrin Thornton
This piece was first published on the Penn State Arts & Design Research Incubator
Arts-Based Wellness Activities and Resources guest blog. Reprinted with the permission of the author.
I am a Black man born and raised here in America. Growing up on the edge of the civil rights movement I witnessed the turmoil of growth from a very front row seat if not from within the mix as a guinea pig of psycho-social theory to practice in public policy.
I think of intersections when I consider the two pandemics of COVID-19 and Systemic Racism, particularly in America. The confluence of these two pandemics provides a pointed illustration of what long-standing systemically racist policy can lead to ultimately—disproportionate loss of life and socio-political unrest.
I am moved deeply by sound and spend a great deal of time exploring how musical sound affects our human condition. The craft of ultimately expressing something outside of myself provides deep meaning and fulfillment. Part of that craft requires the ability to listen deeply and critically and to discern my particular role in the sound creation in any given moment. Listening plays such a large role in that process.
Balance is a concept common to most art forms. There are moments of musical sound that involve the absence of sound. This void without sound is a powerful space between moments of sound. We consider how we entered the silence as musicians. During the “rest” we consider the character and purpose of the sounds we will make when we re-enter the sound tapestry.
This concept of silence is a lens through which I have made sense of this moment in time where these two pandemics have collided—in quarantine, physically-distanced. It is difficult and honestly painful to describe how it feels to witness and be an active participant in these moments.
The Traumatizing Sounds of Silence
With COVID-19, there is a historical understanding that people have been pushing against racist policies that hinder access and equity. This is especially true for health care and the ancillary spaces that enhance the conditions of “bad health.” When risk factors for COVID-19 are viewed demographically, those bodies that resemble my own are most “at-risk,” as if the COVID-19 virus is targeting me and those like me most. The numbers are telling the story in ways that are undeniable.
These racist policies are so embedded within our nation’s fabric that it requires excavation to uncover and unpack them. It may be hard to see for people who are not as directly affected by the oppressive ramifications of these policies and practices. Nonetheless, they are still there. They have been there for a long time. People have used their voices, and their votes, and their actions to express these concerns for years—yet the policies persist.
If you are the targeted demographic, over time the persistence of these policies that oppress you disproportionately erodes your sense of belonging. You begin to feel your voice doesn’t matter. That often leads to silence as you stop using your voice, feeling it won’t be heard so what is the point. It feels like you are pushing against a tidal wave of counter story that floods the scene in high-gloss white lights. You and your concerns are erased. A colorblind filter is then applied that drowns you out despite the historical and ongoing evidence of your oppression.
Choked out voices via the oppressive strictures “on our neck” do make it hard to breathe, let alone speak. Then to have the common trope tossed in your face—why didn’t you say something? Or, be in situations within white spaces where you, the oppressed, are to “report wrongdoing” in order to start the process of exploring said wrongdoing. That is a lot to ask of someone within the cycle of oppression who finds it hard to breathe. They aren’t even being seen, and certainly aren’t being heard.
These pandemics collide in ways that illustrate this phenomenon nicely. Racist policies affecting black bodies disproportionately at the intersections is an all too familiar theme. This theme runs through most aspects of our society when we are willing to look, listen, and hear.
I am further disheartened when those like me are not seen, not heard, silenced, erased, and dismissed because the underlying issues are so hard to see and prove; or even harder for some to deal with once they are seen. Why does it take a medical pandemic to show the racial disparity? Especially with many witnessed accounts reported by those experiencing the oppression for hundreds of years in American history.
Those who have the option to not see, not hear, not act are the very ones with the power to enact the changes we all need. However, not until things reach pandemic levels, or until the accounts can be witnessed in living color, do the issues causing the racial pandemics become visible.
Silence during this collision of pandemics actively upholds the racist strictures that pin many bodies down making it hard to breathe. Being erased from a space you call home is dehumanizing. The fact that it continues to happen, and some opt to be mute creates traumatizing sounds of silence.
The Healing Sounds of Silence
The silence resulting from the lack of anti-racist action in both pandemics is felt very strongly. Yet, this moment in time provides a chance to heal as we take it all in.
Anti-racist battle fatigue, the anger and frustrations of discovering Whiteness, the attempts to reach out, the questions regarding what can be done, the outrage for the growing list of names and captured videos, the #hashtag expressions, the media coverage and spin, the newfound spaces allowing expression and asking for perspective—a lot to take in, process, and hear.
Meanwhile, Black bodies are dying in the same fashion every day. Those bodies not caught on camera, and the body count of those MOST “at-risk” by COVID-19. It is a lot to take in, process, and hear.
We have entered into moments of silence as we have been forced into quarantine and social distance. That distance has its effect on us as we consider how interconnected we are as humans—this unnatural distance accentuates that reality.
Like in music, this pause in the ongoing sound provides an opportunity for us to consider how we have entered this silence and how we will emerge from this silence when we begin to engage together more fully again. The degree we are active during this silence gives me hope in ways I have not felt hope in some time. These sounds of silence are a healing balm.
Though I don’t have answers, I do have hope that humankind will find ways to ACT from each of our individual positionalities to make real changes that lead to healthy outcomes for all of us.
How Am I Coping?
When asked that question, I point to the goodness and kindness I do feel surrounding this moment in time. I point to those who are becoming more aware, and to those who are struggling yet reaching out to do all they can to be well.
I count my many blessings for the privileges I am afforded and endeavor to do my part to erase racism and to assist those most affected by COVID-19. I pray and am mindful of my surroundings and my particular place within these spaces. I listen; music is a comfort for me always but especially during these times.
The meanings within musical expression have always moved me deepest. I have leaned into musical expressions and shared those when possible. I’ve been reading and revisiting great expressions of Black people both from the past and the present.
I’ve been engaging with those who have questions and concerns and wish to know how they can help. Not engaging with answers as much as holding space to walk with people through these phases of awakening as they walk with me through phases of pain, healing, and further awakening.
Sharing and learning all at once in this process of making sense and meaning from this particular moment in history is healing. I consider how we will emerge from this “grand pause.” I remember the swirling sounds that existed before the pause and imagine the sounds that will return as we re-enter what is to come.
I grew up hearing Lift Every Voice and Sing. It was first written as a poem and later set to music. I encourage you to read the lyrics of the poem/song and consider the relevance and meaning of those words today, and offer one of my favorite arrangements for orchestra and choir arranged by Roland Carter.
During this time of COVID-19 and heightened awareness of Systemic Racism, I have reflected on the many position statements and our nation’s history. I have landed on these three take-away C’s as a hopeful way toward healing:
- Call—call out racism and break down the policies that bind us to its ugliness.
- Claim—claim our individual role in the racist structure (own it).
- Commit—commit to ACTION, doing our part to break the silence with purpose.
It is my hope that enacting these three C’s will provide pathways for ALL of us to erase and silence systemic racism.
The strength of our nation is the degree to which we can Lift Every Voice—and Sing—Together!
Resources that have caused me great comfort and deep reflection during this time:
Inspired by the death of Eric Garner and in solidarity with the Movement for Black Lives, India.Arie presents BREATHE. India sings this song to grieve those we have lost while powerfully affirming life. The song was co-written and co-produced by India.Arie and Aaron Lindsey.
History and original lyrics: NAACP | NAACP History: Lift Every Voice and Sing
A month ago, we decided to record Lift Every Voice and Sing to inspire young Black musicians who don’t often see representation of themselves in orchestral music. Instead, here we are again mourning senseless loss of lives and fighting for justice. This recording is for every protester, every freedom fighter, everyone who needs to be lifted up and to honor George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and the numerous others whose lives have been stolen by police violence.
On March 31, 2019, the Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra (TSO) partnered with the Morehouse College Glee Club and Florida A&M University Concert Choir for this powerful performance of Joel Thompson’s “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed.” Dr. David Morrow of Morehouse College conducts this piece that laments the untimely deaths of seven unarmed Black men. Following the performance is a panel discussion about the work, led by Leon County (FL) Sheriff Walt McNeil, which includes composer Joel Thompson and two TSO board members—Byron Greene and Patrick Slevin.
Word: Spoken and Written
This analysis was originally published by the Center for Public Integrity.
“Did this live, and wasn’t gonna post. A friend convinced me otherwise. So here it is. #irunwithmaud …”
About the author:
NAfME member Darrin Thornton is Professor and Interim Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Architecture at The Pennsylvania State University. He believes music plays a universal role in our humanity and everyone has the ability to be musical throughout the course of life. His professional career has focused on teaching toward lifelong musical engagement in the public schools and providing leadership for musical opportunities that foster the musical engagement of adults from college students to retirees.