The first time I heard those words, they came from my family’s unbelievably strong matriarch—who, even as she nears her 80th year, still has kept her wits about her. Known to those in her Spanish Town neighborhood as Mrs. Watson, my grandma is known to me and my cousins as The One Who Does Not Play.
Usually, Mrs. Watson utters the phrase when one of us has told the neighbors that she was home when she didn’t want to talk to anyone, or when we have talked our “family business” in a public setting. She never says it too loud, just barely more than a mutter—but with all the fortitude of a threat, and the clear understanding that you would never say more than you needed to again.
While my grandmother’s West Indian scolding may not be what we all grew up with, all women have heard some version of this reprimand. As much as I hated it when I was little, Mrs. Watson’s trademark phrase is one that smart Black women seem to be heeding more and more.
Take, for instance, the old Michelle Obama. Remember the old Michelle? The one who made “60 Minutes” anchor Steve Kroft’s eyebrows sprint off his face when she said, “. . . as a Black man, you know, Barack can get shot going to the gas station.” Or the one who gave Glenn Beck material for days during the 2008 presidential campaign when she asserted that, for the first time as an adult, she was “proud of my country.” Since then, Michelle hasn’t provided the right-wing media nearly as much material as they would’ve liked. And they’re not the only ones disappointed.
According to The American Prospect, feminists are becoming increasingly fed up with Michelle’s meeker image as First Lady. Sure, she’s taken on issues to champion, but compared to the last Democratic FLOTUS, Michelle has not been the lightning-rod figure that many expected. Focusing on mentoring, military families, and pushing children to get off the couch are issues no one could argue against, definitely nothing close to Hilary’s pick of healthcare.
And while it may seem like Michelle could be using her political capital for more than jumping rope in kid’s gym classes—the numbers suggest that her newly revised meeker image is paying off.
The latest numbers show that Michelle’s approval rating has gone up 20 percentage points since she campaigned by her husband’s side two summers ago. Even after her much talked about trip to Spain, FLOTUS remains sitting pretty with more than half the country still enamored with the job she is doing.
But before you head to the comment section to note your outrage at my seeming endorsement of the suppression of the Black woman’s mind—note this: as the election season heats up, the White House will be deploying Michelle as a regular fixture on the campaign trail. According to one GOP pollster: “If this is a chess board, they’re putting their queen in play.”
As I look at her, I have to think that this new Michelle is onto something. While the meeker image isn’t one for which Black women are known, does some suppression make for good strategy? The answer to that question seems to lie in the title of my favorite Hall and Oates song, “Some things are better left unsaid.”
Last week, I decided to make my life a living experiment to test out this theory. I didn’t decide that it would be a good week to go lie down in the road of life and get run over, but I did choose to bite my tongue if I could help it. It didn’t mean I strayed from the tough conversations, but it meant not running head first into a minefield when I needed to keep pushing along on my path.
And the results of my restraint? Besides my own teeth marks firmly embedded into my bottom gum, the permanent changes are hard to count. But there were some little sparks of lovely that I wouldn’t have caught if I was preparing my sharp and epic response.
Choosing the simpler way seemed like I was denying myself a challenge. I felt like I wasn’t using all of me—like I was built to be complicated, varied, to be more. But in the simple tasks, I found boundless possibilities and unexpected answers to the things that had seemed tangled before. I found that when I felt something too strong to ignore, my words struck chords instead of blending into the sounds of all I had said previously.
Denying the urge to voice every word can let us hear notes we hadn’t before. It can let us show wisdom over insecurity, love over pettiness, and power over impulse. Some may say it’s a cop-out—a safe choice to be stifled and not heard. And while it is less hostile than the battlegrounds we are used to, it’s a place where our battles are made clear.
Maybe this space is what Michelle has found too, where my grandma has always dwelled. Where not voicing every objection does not make you a victim, and laying down your will does not make you less strong. I think that, for all our might, we are all looking for a place where putting down your guard does not make you less than a woman. It’s where, in the words of Corinne Bailey Rae, you lay upturned in the palm of God.
Maybe it does take some restraint to get there, but I think Mrs Watson knew all along—that it’s here where we realize what we could never hear before: in this simple space, with our controlled thoughts, we are more powerful than ever before.