Shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in April, 1968, the high school I would begin the next year held a memorial. Somehow I had heard about it and wanted to attend. My mother was reluctant to let me go, and, after my father convinced her that I was old enough to make my own decision in the matter, she warned me not to sign anything, especially petitions.
She would continue to warn me about signing “anything” until long after I moved out of the home—invoking McCarthyism and the black lists as a reason not to leave a record. It was odd to me that she worried so, as, in fact, she and I had participated in civil disobedience to help protect a tract of native prairie—however, that particular act occurred under cover and with no witnesses, not publicly.
Our disobedience had been to take out surveyor stakes and toss them away, covering up as best we could where they had been. A park authority was seeking an injunction against a builder in order to prevent destruction of a rare native prairie area that was hidden behind some woods. The builder, knowing only that the authority wanted a hearing to preserve a unique natural resource, had bulldozed into the woods and sent surveyors in, hoping to spoil the natural resource just before the hearing. My mother and I went in during the evening and tore out the stakes, resisting their acts, mainly to distract them from going further into the woods and hitting the prairie behind it.
The builders only saw a grassy field, of course. They thought the woods were the resource. They didn’t realize that the tall prairie grass was nearly six-feet tall. The park authority prevailed and the building stopped. The state bought the land from the builder at market price, and the area is now part of a midwestern forest preserve.
However, despite my mother’s willingness to resist—to act to preserve a unique ecological area against destruction—she recalled the McCarthy era and what it cost people. She was afraid, and no doubt the rash of assassinations in the middle of the 1960s gave her pause and reason to worry for her junior-high school aged son. She did not want to leave a record, or, more importantly, for me to have some official record of protesting anything. I suppose some of this was going through my head as I walked to the high school, although not entirely consciously and probably not as sympathetically back then.
I recall a spring rain falling, lightly, as I made my way in the dark. I remember the lonely circles from corner streetlights along the way. And, perhaps in response, in my teen-angst I identified with the words of and started singing The Sound of Silence, Paul Simon’s song that I knew from the Simon and Garfunkel album, Sounds of Silence, the first full-length album I bought growing up. For me, this song still embodies both the need to resist and the need to speak out in silence—
Fools you do not know,
silence like a cancer grows…”
After the lines offering to teach and reach those fools (which some have criticized as “self-important,” so suitable to 13 y.o. hubris), comes these lines—
And the people bowed and prayed
to the neon god they made…”
Perhaps, now, in 2016, we have a neon-orange idol some people have made and cast up onto the altar of the White House. For whatever reason, this song has come back to haunt me in recent weeks. This time, I also find the teaching and reaching lines to be preaching and breaching some sense of communion with others, who are, after all, reduced to “fools” by the persona in the song.
However, oddly, I find comfort from the neon sign’s answering “warning” at the end of the song—
The words of the prophets
are written on the subway walls,
and tenement halls,
and whispered in the sound of silence.”
Now, I must not fall into the mistake of silence. I must speak up and speak out. I must not fear the witch hunts, rather, I/we need to resist them and to stop them. And I/we must see that justice and peace prevail. I/we must listen to the sound of silence, read the writing on the walls and halls, and catch the all-important whispers of those too afraid to speak loudly, who have the most to lose. I/we must resist silence—not by “talking without speaking,” but by listening and hearing, singing the songs written from the silence, and reaching out. Then maybe we will learn (not teach) from our fellow humans.
The Sound of Silence
Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Within the sound of silence
In restless dreams I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone
‘Neath the halo of a streetlamp
I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silence
And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
No one dare
Disturb the sound of silence
“Fools” said I, “You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you”
But my words like silent raindrops fell
And echoed in the wells of silence
And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said “The words of the prophets
Are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls
And whispered in the sounds of silence”
Disturbed — The Sound of Silence (a contemporary version)