Speaking is a powerful, controversial activity, and words are controversial, powerful things. This can almost certainly be proven just by logging on to social media for more than five minutes, or turning on a news channel for more than five seconds. As the world evolves, the internet gets bigger, and political and social climates continue to change for better or worse; one thing remains the same. Human beings talk, about themselves.
This is not a bad thing. Talking about personal things that control personal realities doesn’t make a person conceited or full of themselves. It is necessary. The problems arise, when people are discouraged from speaking up.
America has a long history of silencing and censorship, both over and under the radar. This country bans books, limits what can be said on social media, and villainizes nudity, but there is also a prevalent history of censoring people, religions, languages, and entire cultures.
How easy is it to silence people truly? How willing are people to give up their identities, assimilate into dominant cultures, or be indoctrinated? How long are people willing, or even able, to fight? Can voices be bought, and sold, and tamed, or can they only be removed?
That’s what the Chicana academic Gloria Anzaldua asks in her essay “How to Tame a Wild Tongue.”
Wild tongues can’t be tamed, they can only be cut out.
A “wild” anything by definition follows its own rules, but that doesn’t mean it can never be subdued. What it does mean, is that it must either choose of its own free will, or be forced by necessity to abandon its nature before that can happen. Wild tongues cannot be tamed, but perhaps broken ones can.
Anzaldua’s essay is at once about the voices of Chicana culture, which have been stolen, forbidden, and distorted, and Anzaldua’s internal voice. Her very sense of self, which exists despite the continuous attacks on her identity.
The tongue represents the physical voice. Having a “voice,” in a more metaphorical way, is also an important part of having an identity. Voices are the tools we use to express ourselves, whether we talk, scream, write or sing with them. Pretty often, they’re the only way to inform others about the experiences we face.
Anzaldua’s essay is at once about the voices of Chicana culture, which have been distorted, stolen and forbidden, and Anzaldua’s internal voice. Her very sense of self, which exists despite the continuous attacks on her identity.
She begins her essay with a vibrant metaphor,
‘We’re going to have to control your tongue,’ the dentist says. Pulling out all the metal from my mouth. Silver bits plop and tinkle into the basin. My mouth is a motherlode.”
A lot of white men try very hard to control the tongues of everyone who is not a white man. When people on the margins of society speak up and out, scream, demand to be heard, they are reprimanded. Even when minorities use respectable, moderate means of going against the grain of their own oppression; protests, boycotts, and writing articles like this one, they are targeted. When marginalized voices stir things up without a care for how people in power care about it, it’s seen as a threat.
The dentist is cleaning out my roots. I get a whiff of the stench when I gasp. ‘I can’t cap that tooth yet, you’re still draining.’ he says.”
America has tried to evaporate very dreg of culture that does not vibe with it’s Eurocentric ways of seeing the world. Culture, however, is resilient. People do not want to see everything they are taken away. That’s why there are dozens of versions of the same myths, religions and practices like Louisiana and Haitian Voodoo, and remains of pre-colonial languages in the Creoles and Patios spoken today.
In the above excerpts, Anzaldua smells the stink of her own roots. Feels pieces of herself, signified by the metal in her mouth, fall into the trash. Perhaps this represents the unfinished state of her colonization, she is “still draining.” Maybe there’s a metaphor about the fluidity of identity; our culture is not an innate part of us, but rather something that is attached to us, and therefore we are attached to it. However, it can be pried off and replaced with something else.
Anzaldua calls her mouth a “motherlode” and the dentist clearly agrees. “We’re going to have to do something about your tongue.” he says again. By “we’re,” he could mean White America, Spain, the European forces that had picked apart Latin America for hundreds of years. Since before it was Latin at all. He could mean these forces and Anzaldua together, because can one truly tame another without the cooperation of the victim?
A wild tongue cannot be tamed, it can only be cut out.
There is no such thing as taming. There is only convincing and destroying. This brings to mind the story of Kunta Kinte in Alex Haley’s Roots, who had the upper half of his right foot cut off after attempting to run away for the fourth time. He could not be tamed either. His resilience was symbolized as a foot instead of a tongue, but it too, could only be cut off.
I’d like to note that Anzaldua never speaks a word of dialog, yet the dentist is still overwhelmed by her “tongue”. Her presence alone is enough to unnerve him.
The dentist finishes: “I’ve never seen anything as strong or as stubborn.” He seems angry and frustrated, but why? Because women are not supposed to be strong or stubborn. Especially women of color, Black women. Women who aren’t white are supposed to suffer and toil in silence, according to men like the dentist in the Anzaldua’s essay. Women are not supposed to speak with any sort of intensity. Despite this fact of life, we continue to be both, strong and stubborn. And angry, and fierce, and tired, and intelligent. That upsets the white men who make up the rules.
I’d like to note that Anzaldua never speaks a word of dialog, yet the dentist is still overwhelmed by her “tongue.” Her presence alone is enough to unnerve him.
Anzaldua’s history is very different from the black women I am descended from, the theft of black identities went about in a different way. In “How to Tame a Wild Tongue” Anzaldua talks in depth about her relationships with her many languages. She spoke different Spanish dialects, spoken in different regions of North America. I cannot relate to the struggle of fighting to retain a language, or defend my right to speak my own language. Yes, dialects like Ebonics face unfair discrimination, but it is still an English dialect.
The native languages of African Americans were ripped away long before the birth of my great, great grandmother, who was a slave. I am not multilingual, or even bilingual, as she is. And, arguably, besides Native Americans, there is no one in this country who is more American than a descendent of American slaves. So I personally have never felt “un-American,” as so many of my friends have told me they’ve felt, being children of immigrants or immigrants themselves.
Still, all human beings share similarities in their stories. People can be nothing but people, and the parallels in life reflect this all the time. Black people can relate to the feeling of being separate from the dominant culture, I know I can. I have never felt a need to assimilate, or a desire, but there are repercussions for refusing to assimilate into mainstream American society.
In the essay, Anzaldua speaks about her “Indian, Spanish, white” voices, and I understand this sort of internal segregation. She speaks about her own identity with a passion that runs rampantly across the pages, and I mean that as a compliment.
We are all at once many things. Black women are women, and we are Black, which is a combination stricken with complications and hardships. As the 1982 anthology edited by Akasha Gloria Hull, Patricia Bell-Scott, and Barbara Smith, states in its title “All the Women Are White, All the Blacks are Men.” To be a Black woman is to live at the intersection of the two most hated groups in human history. Throw on top of this, the hundreds of different ethnicities which sometimes also intersect, and the plot only thickens.
Black, African American, woman. Here lie my three voices, they go with me everywhere. Sometimes they argue, but they are inevitably united. They cannot exist on their own. Without one, I would not exist.
Something everyone can get from Anzaldua’s work, is the importance of knowing each part of oneself, as intimately as can be stomached. When people dont, it’s easy to feel lost and confused. Lost and confused voices are a lot easier to destroy. That is why the influence of colonized and enslaved peoples all over the world is still powerful. It’s why there are conversations about cultural appropriation, and just plain stealing at the hands of the same White men and women who once tried to extinguish the same cultures at all. People of color have strong voices, and powerful tongues. They’ve had hundreds of years to build them up, after all.
None of this is to say that there’s something wrong with those who need more time to figure out who they are; or dont feel comfortable writing think pieces on their identities. That’s perfectly fine. But it is good to want to understand ourselves, even if it’s just for oneself, and never shared. Knowing oneself lessens fear, and plants feet deep in the ground when the Earth is shaking. Even if what you know is that you don’t know anything, that’s a great start.
Black, African American, woman. Here lie my three voices, they go with me everywhere. Sometimes they argue, but they are inevitably united. They cannot exist on their own. Without one I would not exist. Just as they did to Anzaldua, people try to silence me each day through personal encounters or the belittling of whole groups of to whom I belong. Which it is does not matter much as one might assume. My tongue has often been deemed too strong. Too stubborn, too loud. A woman could whisper the truth and be deemed angry. Just as she can scream about the truth and be deemed the villain, or somehow equal to the villain. As though exposing an evil is the same as committing evil.
My Blackness is often judged and silenced in the same way, as well as my African Americaness.
Voices are the parts of people easiest to hate by silencers, because they are the parts that are used to tell the truth. Lots of people would prefer that stay hidden. Either because they don’t want to be exposed, or they don’t want to face it, or both. Voices cannot be tamed; they can only be broken, and then cut out. But a voice is not like a foot, which can be chopped off. It is metaphysical. And it exists, wild as ever, even if you were to snip the very tongue out of someone’s mouth. That is why the dentist was so angry.