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  • Writer's pictureToby

The messiness of names

I read this lovely article yesterday: hub.com/the-question-of-homoeroticism-in-whitmans-poetry/ . In it the auther considers what makes something unspeakable. In Whitman's time it may have been homoerotic desires; desires one shouldn't speak. But the author also makes a point to recognize that unspeakable may mean something which cannot be articulated. As a therapist I deal in wordless experiences constantly. Sometimes things shouldn't be spoken because their too painful. Other times it would make them too real, the word breathing life into the experience, putting it where the world, and speaker, can't help but acknowledge it. But maybe there's another reason not to speak things.


Returning to one of the above author's points, heterosexuality was being defined at that time. To speak of homoeroticism was to put one's self in a new category. I think about this when considering racism. The American form of racism spread to Europe and not the other way around (according to several historians). "Black" was an invention to delineate groups of people, exploiting some and legitimizing others. But there was a time when it was not so. It leaves me to think that creating that name created a category: you are this or you are that. This is what troubles me. Are any of us a this or a that?


In current political times it seems we must choose sides. On the census we must choose what gender and race we identify (although if you are white the census is now interested in what kind of white you are). While naming gives the LGBTQ+ community, all distinct racial/ethnic communities, survivors of abuse, sexual assault, and domestic violence, as well as every other identity community, a way to find their voice and their people, I end up looking to the aftermath. In our categorization we create a delineation to be politicized, never getting us closer to understanding a person as a whole. As with any good thing, the power becomes perversion.


Categorization is lazy, neurologically speaking. Our brain likes the fastest way to process something. What's a faster way to understand something than to say it is either a this or a that? While I'm reading The Yellow House by Sarah Broom I'm struck by how much her search for home and belonging is similar to mine. But I'm not a black woman. I've never lived in New Orleans East. We're so plural, she and I. She doesn't name much in her book. But she sure does tell you. Telling is a lot harder than naming. And it's why I love long form language. Our brain's tendency toward laziness is why I can't stop reading. To me, literature, and some choice television, are the only mediums that force us to squirm in the plurality of our lives. The best books make the this's and the that's shift in just a few hundred pages, sometimes less. All that messiness, cleaned up enough so you can see it, in the characters, and, therefore, yourself. That's where life actually happens: between this front cover and that back cover.

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