In Chinua Achebe’s novel, THINGS FALL APART, Okonkwo, a proud, hard-working, albeit quick-tempered tribesman living in the village of Umuofia, fires a gun at Ekwefi, one of his three wives, almost killing her. Chielo, a widow with two children, who also serves as the priestess of Agbala, Oracle of the Hills and Caves, asks Ekwefi, “Is it true that Okonkwo nearly killed you with his gun?”
Ekwefi replies, “It is true indeed, my dear friend. I cannot yet find a mouth with which to tell the story.”
I love Ekwefi’s turn of phrase as she responds to Chielo. Shaken, distraught, and outraged over being shot at by her fiery husband, she “cannot yet find a mouth with which to tell the story.” That’s exactly how I feel these days.
Ever since the November 2016 national election, I’ve been outraged by the lack of decency displayed by many of our elected officials. Our current, indecent political bent is not new, yet it does seem to have reached new depths while, at the same time, it has emboldened racist, xenophobic, and misogynistic voices that reflect policies geared to retain white, elite, heteronormative men in their positions of power, shaping the country into their own ugly patriarchal image.
Attempting to take away affordable health insurance from struggling Americans and instituting tax “reform” (code for protecting the assets of the wealthy) are but two indecent initiatives supported by Congressional leaders. The tsunami of indecency from those with political power seems to have broken down barriers (albeit tenuous barriers) in many citizens. I can’t recall ever hearing in my lifetime, “Jews will not replace us,” publicly chanted as was done at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, August 2017. These days, feeling assaulted from many angles, I find myself looking for a mouth with which to tell the story.
I cannot yet find a mouth to tell the story of our frequent mass shootings and subsequent governmental inaction. Here are some gory statistics. After one of these recent mass shootings, America’s president said, “This isn’t a guns situation.” What is it, then? People are dead because a man—in this case, a man with a violent past—used a gun to kill lots of people. How is that not a “guns situation?” Why do any of us believe such nonsense? Guns are made for one purpose—to kill. Perhaps we are not outraged enough about people and animals, senselessly killed every day, to effectively address our “guns situation.” Worse yet, perhaps enough of us feel that guns give us “a leg up” over others, and we refuse to forfeit that deadly power.
I cannot yet find a mouth to tell the story of the many men who have been exposed as having engaged in predatory sexual behavior. Scores of women (as well as some men) have come forward to report the sexual abuse they endured from men occupying positions of power—in schools, in the workplace, in communities of faith, and in the family. As a result, a few men were fired (or have resigned) from their jobs. And yet, America’s president, accused by several women of sexual assault and caught on tape talking the talk of a sexual predator, retains his powerful position. (Recently he said that may not have been him speaking on tape even though he’s already apologized for his behavior “caught on tape.”)
Many men nowadays seem confused about women speaking up about their experiences of sexual assaults—assaults that may go back decades. Why are they coming forward now? What took them so long? Why didn’t they speak up when it happened? Those questions indicate to me that many men haven’t a clue about women’s experience of sexual assault and its aftermath within our social system, patriarchy. Because men are taught and expected to dominate within this system, aggressive and bold behavior seems natural and right. It can take some time for women to realize a man committed a crime against them. It can take even longer to garner the strength to endure (possibly) the kind of “grilling” Anita Hill endured when she accused Clarence Thomas of sexual assault.
I cannot yet find a mouth to tell the story of deportations—families broken up as either a parent or child have “to go back where they came from” in order to secure our borders so that “bad hombres” have no access to “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
I cannot yet find a mouth to tell the story of “collateral damage” (euphemistic phrase for the deaths of civilians and destruction of property) done by American drones in countries caught up in endless war fueled, to a large degree, by governments (including ours) that profit financially from such an enterprise.
I cannot yet find a mouth to tell the story of fake news fed to us in order to keep us off balance, confused, and ultimately unable to hold on to words as their meaning slips through our fingers much like water through a sieve.
Seems like every day brings news about events for which I cannot find a mouth to tell the story!
But, a goodly number of people have told their stories dealing with lack of medical care (no insurance), sexual assault, separation from loved ones due to deportation, and the devastation of losing family members and livelihoods due to endless warfare. What my mouth cannot yet find is a way to talk about why these poignant stories—stories that would evoke empathy, compassion, and succor in a decent society—fall on the deaf ears of our leaders.
Every day, I feel my values assaulted by acts of terror and hubris. Every day, I feel as though a bullet narrowly misses me. Like Ekwefi, I cannot yet find a mouth with which to tell the story.
Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry.