For my first blog post, I thought I would explain why I entitled my novel, In a Silent Way, (about a young teacher activist in urban America) since this is a question that is often raised. In fact, my publisher was understandably concerned that it would come off as too flat and not powerful enough. This was a real concern, so friends and I explored a range of viable alternative titles, most of which, it turned out, had already been taken.
But if truth be told, In a Silent Way remained my first choice because I felt it was the one most closely aligned with the spirit of the novel. The novel reveals the great value of silence and the importance of subduing one’s controlling ego in teaching and grassroots politics in order to bring out the marginalized voices of both students and the community. Yet it also uncovers the grave danger of silence in matters of the heart, how involvement with powerful movement men often submerges activist women, young and old, black and white, into silence and isolation, at times almost destroying them. Silence, then, is a two-edged sword.
Music is also important to the the lead character, Jeanna, and In a Silent Way is a breakthrough album of that time played by Miles Davis that she receives as a gift from the only person who truly understands her, her grandmother. The novel's essence is embedded in the following passage spoken by her grandmother, when they were talking about why she had never formally pursued her music.
“......And, my dear, you never were one to push yourself forward.”
“Is that what I should do? Push myself forward? My students have been telling me the same thing.” She thought there was some truth in the criticism, but doing such things also felt like a transgression of her very being.
Her grandmother stopped for a long moment and beheld her.
“Like everything else you do, I think your music will speak for itself someday. As for now, I like, I love, the understated you. You’ll never make a big splash, but in your own silent way, you’ll cut to the core.”
In this sense I think the title reflects the reality of many young women who are struggling to find their way in a world that that does not honor their quieter way of being as they seek to learn and grow, yet is busy silencing them when they are, hesitantly, moved to try to express themselves.
We live in a culture in which scoring points in caustic debate, rather than mutually respectful dialogue, is the accepted mode of communication. Listening attentively and respectfully, empathizing with and appreciating what another human being has to offer are qualities often seen as signs of weakness and disempowerment. It’s far more important to show how much we know, how right we are, and how effectively we can control the agenda, than it is to truly share differing perspectives-- which could hold the promise of arriving at a higher level synthesis, a better outcome for all.
New teachers who want to create a genuine learning community are told to “control their classroom and show the students who’s the boss”, while managers and leaders are celebrated when they declare their own uniquely inspired vision, exude the charisma to get others to ‘buy in’, then forge ahead to make it happen, rather than facilitating the wisdom of the whole. In love, one seeks to learn how to love and support the other, while the other simply expects and accepts that love and support as their due.
These differing ways of being, one tending toward well intentioned, often benevolent dominance and control, the other towards mutual respect and collaboration, unfold in the novel as they unfold in our lives today. Which way we lean may determine the future of our world, the world we all help to make and remake every day of our lives.