Sticks and Stones

Guest writer Ntombi Hlongwane explains how words have affected her

When I was small, I learned that I was black, and black was a bad thing to be. I could tell from the way people sneered when they said it. This wasn’t one of the happy words that I heard, like love or smile or laugh, this was a dirty word.

I wasn’t sure what made me black. Another of these filthy words I heard was slut, and I knew that to be a slut you kissed a lot of men. But no one told me what you did to be black, and how I could fix myself.

When I was a teenager I learned about black pride. Pride was a word of power, a sword. We wielded it with great care. Say it out loud, I’m black and I’m proud. I wasn’t sure what I was proud of, but the sneer was gone, and I preferred it that way.

When I was at university I learned about black history. Apparently it was a separate thing from the history of the white man. History told me I had nothing to be ashamed of. Science told me I was so little different from white people that it was barely discernible.

Science didn’t walk down the road, listening to the names people called me.

As an adult, I learned that people would use black to mean a thousand different things. One of us. Not one of us.

I learned that when they told us as children that names wouldn’t hurt us, they lied. The names people give you define you in their eyes. And that can hurt you. The names your government gives you can hurt you. The names the media give you can hurt you.

A broken leg, that is something science can heal.

A broken identity never heals.

I learned to be careful with my words. I learned to save the dirty words like ammunition, and only to use them on those who truly deserved to be attacked. That for every “slut” you fire, you don’t only injure the one you attack, but everyone who has been labelled that way.

We have a responsibility. We have so many words at our disposal. So many ways of expressing ourselves. We need to learn new words. We need to teach ourselves new words. We need to stop being so lazy.

Today I learned that “peccable” means “prone to faults”. We are human beings, we are peccable. But we have the power to learn.

And we can choose our words more carefully.

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