Silence. The one word that once said, disappears. For many, there is peace in silence. It’s a place of serenity where one is left to their own thoughts and are given time to reflect. It can be an avenue to practice mindfulness and meditation. Yet, silence is also a defense mechanism; a method to process feelings and emotions without the help of others. It’s a tool often used by trauma survivors to cope when the words are unreachable.
In Yaa Gyasi’s novel Homegoing, as the Asante line of descendants cross the Atlantic Ocean, the characters Esi, Ness (Esi’s daughter) and Pinky experience the horrors of slavery, sexual assault and loss, directly taking away any bodily autonomy they once possessed. These three females use silence as a way to endure, to find control and to understand.
Esi, taken from her village at a young age and sent on the grueling path to the Cape Cost Castle Dungeons, was the first of her family line to set foot in the deep South. After being raped in the dungeons, having people piled on top of her in the boat and suffering through the torments of slavery with a young daughter, Esi is a “solemn, solid woman” (70). In her daughter’s eyes, she was strong. Though Esi’s stories were dark and she rarely smiled, Ness learned to understand that her silence was never to hurt her or show a lack of love. Instead, in all that Esi had lost, it was her statement; it was her way to take control in her life when everything else could be taken from her. Even when Ness was taken from her mother, “Esi’s lips had stood in that same thin line,” and Ness recognizes why.
On one of the many plantations on which she lives, Ness meets Pinky, a young slave girl whose mother had passed away. Since the day of her mother’s death, Pinky had been mute. While the rest of the slaves consistently tried to get Pinky to speak, Ness defends her and her right to remain silent “because Ness understood loss, and because she understood motherlessness and wanting and even silence” (77). To these women, in a world where they are seen as mere bodies to conduct manual labor, silence is a way to process the life that they live. It is a space that is theirs’s, no matter what. Inevitably, because of the empathy Ness shows to prove to Pinky that she’s understood, heard, and seen, despite her silence, she speaks. By demonstrating to Pinky that her worth is not determined by her willingness to speak, Ness helps Pinky begin to heal and take control of her words.
Even today, silence is a common response to trauma. Whether it’s for thinking no one will understand or simply not wanting to talk about their pain, silence should be respected. It may be the only logical thing for a person to feel they are capable of when everything else feels as though it’s falling apart. Their silence is powerful; it speaks a thousand words.