Silence and Speech

This week, I’d like to talk about a chant–a little ear-worm, if you will–that has been embedded in my mind for decades. It’s an unpleasant puzzle why, when I’ve forgotten other arguably more useful and less damaging things, somehow I still vividly remember this chant. It’s stuck in my head. It is a part of my history. And so, it is also a part of myself.

We were studying North American history in Elementary School Social Studies. I think it was grade 5 or so. And one of my classmates took it upon themselves to extend one of the teaching-tool chants from this unit: “The Columbus Chant”.

Here it is, in case you are unfamiliar:

In 1492,

Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

It’s pithy, has a good beat, and has probably helped millions of students remember the date come test day. But my classmate thought there was more to be said. And, against all odds, the extension of the chant that a classmate of mine came up with is still, possibly forever, in my mind.

In 1492,

Columbus sailed the ocean blue,

He found an island and staked a claim

And now to give his new land a name

West Indies he said, he called it so

‘America’ he failed to know.

There might have been more, but that’s all I can recall. I remember my teacher enthusiastically endorsing this student’s initiative, and all of us singing this together while clapping our hands. I don’t remember if there were children from the Tsuu t’ina nation in that class, but there might have been. A fair number of them went to my Southern Alberta school. But I don’t remember if there were any present that day and I remember no discomfort while singing about Columbus ‘staking a claim’ to land that was already claimed by indigenous groups. If anything, I remember the whole lesson as being rather fun. That, in itself, is upsetting.

Don’t get me wrong. My teacher was a good teacher. In fact, she was one of my favorite teachers precisely because she encouraged us to be creative and to take an active role in our own education; which was exactly the thing my classmate had done by extending the ‘Columbus chant’. This teacher’s embracing of our creativity and her willingness to be playful with our education are still things I remember fondly. So I don’t write this to condemn either my school or my teacher. And I certainly don’t write it to condemn my classmate, who was, after all, ten years old. The fact that this chant was chanted by otherwise kind and well-meaning people is, actually, the whole point. It’s why I’m writing this blog post this week.

I write it because, while reading Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past this week, I was recalled to this classroom in a visceral and uncomfortable way. And I was reminded of the way in which speech can be a tool for silence. And for inaction. And I remember, as uncomfortable as that memory is, that I have unwittingly participated in this silencing. My own speech has been used to silence others. And this was done without malice, without forethought and without even an awareness that I was doing it. I was, of course, not the instigator of this silencing, as anyone who has read Trouillot’s book knows. But I was participating in it. My chant, in elementary school, was ensuring the enshrinement of history. Trouillot tells us, when speaking of Columbus, that the celebration of Columbus day on October 12th is significant. That the United States has reduced Europe’s bloody and prolonged encounter with America to one “single moment thus creates a historical ‘fact’.”(Pg. 114) This fact becomes an anchor from which to understand our present selves. And it becomes transparent. Obvious. Beyond question. Eventually, beyond thought. So easily assumed that my elementary school class could make a nursery rhyme of it, stripping it of all the horror of the original event. (Nursery rhymes do this stripping effectively, after all. Just look at “Ring around the rosie”!)

Whether I knew it or not, I was participating in the creation of history, which means I was also participating in the silencing of what happened. I was participating in the constant “narrativization of history, the transformation of what happened into that which is said to have happened.” (Pg. 113) By repeating the old chant, and by extending it, my class was reaffirming what many elementary school classes had done before. We were reasserting this narrative as historical ‘fact’ and simultaneously denying any possible counter-narrative. No, it was more than denying a counter-narrative. We weren’t acknowledging the possibility of the existence of the counter-narrative. To deny something is, if only tacitly, to acknowledge it. After all, what’s the point of denying something that isn’t there? Through our speech, we prevented the possibility of the counter-narrative from even arising. Our repetition of a chant that had been repeated over and over made it mindless. Self-evident. No denial was needed because no conceptual space for a counter-narrative was given.

We’ve examined the ways in which speech can be used for action, communication, and power in this class. But we haven’t directly looked at the ways in which speech can be used in the service of silence, maybe because it seems paradoxical. The society I live in is one that seems to shy away from silence. My bus ride to work is filled with individuals who, like me, have ear buds on, blocking out the silence with the noise of a podcast, music, or an audio book. We are all encouraged or coerced into participating in ‘small talk’ whose use is mainly to put others at ease by filling up the silence between us with noise. I’ve heard it said, more than once, that my society is one that doesn’t like silence. Silence must be eradicated at all costs. And we have a multitude of tools at our disposal to shatter silence wherever and whenever it arises. The easiest one, and the oldest one, is speech.

But this dichotomy between speech and silence is a false one. Speech doesn’t just eradicate silence. Often, too often, it perpetuates it. And, more frightening still, it can perpetuate this silence effortlessly and unconsciously. Perhaps the question I am left with here, then, is how does one shatter speech? How do I uncover what has happened, when what is said to have happened is comfortably ensconced in my mind?How do I squish my ear-worm?