Life and Death

Image Credit: Ellen Nugent

'Stream of Consciousness

I have always been fascinated by words. I was raised on the doctrine that life and death are in the power of the tongue. Essentially, the fact that words could kill or save lives was not something that was lost on me. However, I never took the statement literally. It remained as an allegory and a reason why I couldn't just say whatever I wanted. Recently, I’ve been thinking about the weight words carry as life and death dance between each letter and syllable. 

I think a lot of people underestimate the power of words, thus the power of lies. It seems so arbitrary to give a lie power over a truth. We are conditioned to simply ignore lies as they go unchallenged. “So what if they got it wrong?” “Why should you care what they think?”. 

I’m trying to think of the biggest lie I believed growing up and nothing malicious comes to mind. Santa Claus, The Tooth Fairy. None of these ‘lies’ were inherently evil. Arguably, they were quite the opposite. For a lot of children, these myths cradle their imagination and give them a sense of joy and intrigue. Maybe the white lies we were told by our teachers and parents to preserve our innocence weren’t so harmful. 

However, these myths changed a lot for me, even against the constraints of my premature cognition. I recognise the fact that my entire worldview hinged on the existence of these myths. During 10 out of the 12 months of the year, my belief in Santa was just a subtle and quiet truth that was tucked away somewhere in my memory. The other times, these beliefs were illuminated and set a precedent as the weeks leading up to Christmas involved ‘Santa’ at the forefront of everything I did and said. Regardless of the space these myths occupied, it's clear that words infiltrate our worldviews and spill out over everything we do. 

It is hard to ignore the violence inflicted by words through lies. Throughout history, we’ve seen the damage that propaganda has caused to individuals and communities. We see it even now in recent times with conspiracy theories and fake news. These lies hamper people’s existence but seem to often go unchallenged.  

I’ve seen instances where people's lives have been endangered by lies, and for a lot of Black people this is a recurring theme.

On the 30th of December 2020, the word ‘thug’ took the headlines and after very little information and verification, lies began to spread rapidly. It became easy for people to assume George Nkencho’s identity because of this word. What sparked outrage for a lot of people in the Black community, besides the fatal shooting of a young man, was the damage so irresponsibly and unapologetically caused by this headline. I strongly believe that the harm caused by this single word is unexplainable. It was a stark reminder that words do kill. I watched how easily misrepresentations of his character spread and how his memory was killed before people close to him got the chance to process what had happened or even mourn. It so quickly became a fight to dispel lies and protect his memory and this should have never been the case. 

Even when records proved that a lot of what was circulating had been fabricated at the expense of the grieving, the lies persisted. It reminded me that while these lies were so loud there was also a quiet and subtle undertone to them. Though tamed, the lies about Black people and biases had been long embedded in people's minds. This, to me, is the only plausible reason for why people upheld their belief in the lies that had circulated. I know people wanted them to be true.

Not only was it dehumanising for George Nkencho to be tagged a ‘thug’, it was also dehumanising that his family, friends, and the people who knew him best, were robbed of the agency to speak about his legacy. 

It’s dehumanising for strangers to uphold lies and to treat death as a source of entertainment or something to gossip about. It became clear that people didn’t care enough to decipher fact from truth simply because it goes against agendas but at whose expense? 

So much died on that day and the subsequent days following. Not in my childhood allegory way but in a very literal and intense way.

Language is never neutral. “Aggressive”, “loud”, “violent”, when we’re classified as these dehumanizing terms the definition and connotations of each word are often traded for real human beings. We’re human beings with passions, dreams and emotions who shouldn’t be desensitised to the death of people from our community. Our response shouldn’t be tone-policed and we shouldn’t have to disprove lies in life or death. 

Rest in Peace George Nkencho.