Hearing:Healing by Guest Writer, Sarah L. Webb

In 1983, Alice Walker coined the term colorism as “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color.” 

In 1985, I was born into silence.

 In 2011, I broke that silence by writing publicly about colorism for the first time.

 In 2014, 338 people wrote poems to salve the still open wound of skin tone prejudice. These poets wrote about the damage words had done to their bodies and psyches, and they wrote about the power of language to deflect further damage and heal hurting hearts from old injuries.

Healing sounds like hearing, like listening. 

This essay is foremost an effort to listen to those 338 poets and follow Audre Lorde’s imperative to recognize our responsibility to seek out the words of those crying to be heard, “to read them and examine them in their pertinence to our lives.”

Healing sounds like hearing. I listen, “When people say, the things they say,” and I wait for Hannah’s reply. I wait for Radha’s “words that can blow you away.” Wait for Marlana’s response. For Eric’s answer. Mackenzie’s question: “Why don’t they like me?” And the dialogue beats on like a cipher.

These poems know that some words leave welts and scars on skin. These poems know that sometimes the only balm for word wounds is more language. Their line breaks echo heartbreaks. These poems are stethoscopes, amplifying hearts, beat by beat, with a sympathetic cadence. This poetry is the sound of hearts healing. It sometimes sounds like shattering, like stretching, like scratching graphite across paper. It sometimes sounds like singing, shouting, standing in silence before a mirror—no complaints. It sounds like smiling at your reflection and seeing clearly.

These 338 voices are often lyrical and didactic. They offer lessons on/in language, toward knowledge and acceptance. These poems teach us that language is a primary mode through which people experience colorism as well as a mode for responding to it. These poems tell us that inadequate and inaccurate knowledge is the root cause of colorism and related issues like racism. These poems illustrate the relationship between perception and conception, external surface and internal substance. They lament notions of physical attractiveness in society. They speak of rejection and alienation but also the triumph of self-acceptance in spite of.

These poems make me wonder what my own voice sounds like. I learned the tacit lesson that colorism, the taboo topic in many communities of color around the world, should be silently accepted. It is sustained by silence. Because speaking truth about it is like removing a splinter—the sharp pain of eradication feels worse than the dull pain of resignation.

When I finished writing my first essay on colorism, it took me a long time to press publish. My heart was racing, and I felt nauseated. In the split second it took to finally click the button, I had to overcome decades of indoctrinated fear and silence. The consequences of speaking out did eventually come, but rather then forcing me back into silence, other people’s anger fueled my determination to speak and to make a space for others to sound their voices.

Healing sounds like hearing. I want to hear your heart, hurting and healing. I want to hear your heartbeat over and over again. I want to hear the verbs bleeding from your veins, the language alighting from your lips, the talk tipping off your tongue. I want to hear you so loud I have to shut my eyes.

About Sarah L. Webb:

Sarah is a writer, educator, and advocate currently pursuing her Ph.D. in English. She blogs at ColorismHealing.org and is notorious for her earring collection and random dancing.