14 The Words You Do Not Yet Have

Sarah Van Ells

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In this essay, Van Ells explores the value of audience engagement by discussing the ways in which certain illness narratives can be illuminating for the reader when they feel involved in the piece. Referencing Aurdre Lorde’s work, Van Ells focuses on the power of direct questions, ultimately concluding that this approach of challenging the reader to grapple with their own silence, needs and identity plays a role in the enduring significance of Lorde’s work. The outcome for Van Ells is a period of self-reflection followed by a  renewed investment in using their knowledge of and strong opinions about animal cruelty and issues with dairy production to affect positive change.

Sarah Van Ells


ENGLWRIT 112: College Writing

Day Month Year

The Words You Do Not Yet Have

In her paper “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” Audre Lorde awakens any reader or listener with a personal call to action. Through her own experience, Lorde effectively convinces her audience that they must not stay silent any longer, as silence does not mean safety. I personally had a very emotional response to this text, and though this paper was given at an academic conference in Chicago well before I was born, the integrity and universality of Lorde’s voice make it relevant to any reader, no matter the time or place.

In the opening of her speech, Audre Lorde reveals that just a few months earlier she was told she had a malignant tumor in her breast and would need surgery. Though the tumor turned out to be harmless, this health scare required her to think critically about her own mortality and about the impact of her silences on her own experience. “I was forced to look upon myself and my living,” she says, “with a harsh and urgent clarity that has left me shaken but much stronger” (40). Lorde comes to the conclusion that although she faces adversity as a Black lesbian poet, she cannot afford to remain silent anymore, and, perhaps more importantly, neither can we. Lorde insists that her audience feel the same urgency that she does, whether or not they have experienced something as severe.

Prior to reading this essay, I had always been turned off by authors using their own near-death experiences to try to invigorate me. I understand why people feel the need to share those stories; they definitely can change how one views the world. However, I have always found them nearly impossible to identify with. If I, an eighteen-year-old college freshman, have never had such an experience, how am I to wholeheartedly believe what you have to say? The issue here is accessibility, and for many people in my position, the circumstances of this scenario are not exactly relatable. Since reading Lorde’s essay, however, I have discovered that this type of narrative can be very effective when used tactfully.

In the “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” Audre Lorde does just that. She beautifully weaves in and out of personal narrative while keeping the audience not only engaged in the text but involved. She hooks you in with a poignant introduction, which very plainly and concisely states that she believed for a period of time that she did not have much longer to live. She never leaves the reader or listener out of the equation and uses some direct as well as some subtle language to show this. For example, after a paragraph of describing her personal experience in depth, she adds, “My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you” (Lorde 41). In this moment, just when you might disengage or stop identifying with the content, one sentence reminds us that her purpose is not to justify her own actions, but rather to help us see how we might change ours.

Whether she uses a subtle reminder such as in the previous example, or a more direct interrogation, Audre Lorde brings the reader along with her in a very deliberate way. She asks the audience, “What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?” (Lorde 41). By coming right out and asking these direct questions, Lorde gives you absolutely no choice but to engage with her words and make them personal. She goes on to identify as a “Black woman warrior poet” doing her work, and then challenges her audience once more, asking: “are you doing yours?” (Lorde 42). This challenging language is what I believe has kept this piece and a lot of Lorde’s work relevant into the present day. These essential questions are always worth revisiting, especially in times such as this when political and social debates are at the center of our culture. Now more than ever, we are forced to make these questions personal and seriously consider how our own voices are being used.

After engaging with this text, I had to ask myself: What is my work? What am I passionate about? What can I do about it? After spending some time with Lorde’s words, I was able to identify several things about which I feel very strongly and do not speak about. For example, I have strong opinions about animal cruelty and poor meat and dairy production practices, particularly in the United States. I am a vegetarian, but I rarely talk about it unless I am actually eating with people or am prompted by others. I used to be more outspoken about this issue, but my words were usually met with disagreement and disrespect, occasionally with indifference. The most common response I get when I tell people that I am vegetarian is: “So… what do you eat?” I got tired of constantly defending my position, so I just stopped talking about it altogether.

I first became vegetarian almost five years ago, and I stopped telling people why about six months after that. However, after reading Lorde’s paper, I am feeling more empowered to speak up. As time has gone on I have only sunken more firmly into my beliefs and have decided that now is the time to start using my knowledge and passion for this issue as tools for positive change.

Coming to this kind of conclusion about how and why to speak up is not always a matter of courage or strength, but rather one of vulnerability. Admitting to yourself and others that you are dissatisfied, upset or angry about something can be difficult, especially when you expect to be met with disagreement. This paper is the first evidence, in years, of my passion for vegetarianism, and it was honestly challenging to put into words. However, I believe that this very process is, in essence, what Lorde is encouraging. Turning internal discomfort into external expression and language is, according to Lorde, how we can properly affect change.

Turning again to Lorde’s text: I am not a Black lesbian poet, nor am I necessarily an activist, but I am a human. That alone is my justification for speaking up for what I believe in, and should be yours too. As Lorde states in the conclusion of her paper, we must not “rob ourselves of ourselves and each other” (Lorde 44). Whether it is fear of humiliation, adversity, or other forms of dissonance, we must not let that fear prevent us from turning our own silences into language and action.

Works Cited

“The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, by Audre Lorde, Crossing Press, 2015.

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