Updated: Jul 18, 2022
By Molly Murfee
“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”
― audre lorde
I had already hiked to the highway when I realized my name tag was missing.
For most attending a conference, this wouldn’t be a huge deal. As an author, it felt like everything. People must know my name to target my articles, buy my books.
I hiked back up the country dirt road and the single-track path in the woods to the cabin where four-time Pulitzer Prize winning poet Robert Frost penned many of his famous lines. I was at the Bread Loaf Environmental Writer’s Conference, a place Frost taught for decades. His lines were an anthem for me at a young age in diverging from the norm.
I found my name tag looped over a boulder in front of the screened in porch of the cabin, circling it back around my neck, wondering at the metaphor of it all.
Frost was the descendant of English and Scottish immigrants, coming over in the 1600s to settle in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. In these regards, his story and his heritage are like mine. He’s white, a product of European settler culture. I can easily gaze on him and see the possibility of publishing myself. “Help me out, Robert,” I whispered, before turning to leave for a second time, “It can be hard getting noticed.”
The next morning, I listened to a talk by African American author Morgan Jerkins. She spoke of descending from slaves, of tracing her ancestry … but only to a point. Whereas I have a genealogy chart dating back to 500 A.D.; whereas I can trace my ancestry back to a certain Edward Doty who came over on the Mayflower in the 1600s; whereas books include my forefather William Murphy who immigrated in the 1700s, Morgan’s ancestry was intentionally erased. She speaks of pointed efforts by slave traders to not record the names of the people they forced from their homelands. When I asked her what her sense of “home” was in a land holding so much violence for those of her heritage, she replied, “In my people.”
Later I would read of the hundreds of Native children buried in mass graves near the Indian boarding schools across the nation, where administrators tested them for malnutrition and starvation—intentionally imposed. Their names—never recorded, their familial descendants—still searching.
That evening, author and translator of Korean literature, Anton Hur, read a scathing tongue-in-cheek piece of “The Great White Cancelling.” The undercurrent of frustration, from his voice, and many like his, being passed over in favor for a “white voice,” even if the caliber of writing was mediocre, was palatable. Everyone around me was laughing. I wanted to crawl under my chair. I felt called out. Conspicuous. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
For the last evening of the conference, I signed up to read a chapter from my book in progress. I was meticulous in the time slot I chose, practicing my piece over and over. When it came my time, someone else was called to the podium. Confused I consulted the online sign-up doc. My name had somehow been erased. I had been passed over. I was sure it was just an accident. Nevertheless, I would not be reading. My heart pooled in my feet.
The simple fact of my whiteness has given me a life of privilege. The systems are set up in my favor. Through these very small, truly insignificant occurrences at the conference, however, I felt the slightest twinge of the experience of my voice being overlooked, my name lost, my existence ridiculed. I took a tiny step towards understanding what it felt like to have your name, your people, both present and past, constantly cancelled, even violently erased.
We did a lot of this in our colonization of this country. In our quest for our own freedom we intentionally squashed a lot of others, attempting to cover up the tracks from the horrors we committed—and continue to commit—in the process. Women. Black people. Native people. Gay people. Asian people. Muslim people. Poor people. And so on, and so on, and so on …
In a triage situation you treat the patient bleeding out the most. And this, now, is correct. It was uncomfortable to hear Morgan’s story of her erased ancestry, uncomfortable to read of the unrecorded names of the deceased Native children, uncomfortable to listen to Anton’s anger and resentment. Yet, this is what we must do in order to gain a broader understanding, to deepen our compassion. It is uncomfortable. There’s a lot of hurt out there in the world.
In the long run, however, it is not the story of violence we need to perpetuate, and which group gets to execute it. It is not the swing from one extreme to the other, not the putting down of another as we all clamor to teeter on top of the pinpoint pedestal.
Patriarchal systems build hierarchies, triangular structures where there is only one top, and it is tiny. I prefer circles, where all voices carry equal weight, equal importance. Where every voice can be heard, every face seen. We are all spinning on this great globe together. We will not survive its trajectory unless we listen to the stories of others, no matter how difficult. It is inclusion, not erasure, that makes the circle complete.
Place-based author Molly Murfee is a recent finalist of the Annie Dillard Award for Creative Nonfiction and a contributor to the Bread Loaf Environmental Writer’s Conference. Molly has taught environmental literature and creative writing with Colorado College, Colorado State University, the Audubon Expedition Institute, and Western Colorado University. She is at work on her creative nonfiction book, The Adventure of Home, re-membering our indigeneity to this Earth by unraveling the destructive foundations of colonialism, and reweaving mythologies of a sacred wild. Sign up for Molly’s Earth Muffin Memos Blog & Newsletter for more on her book, field-based writing and nature connection workshops, online advertising and syndicate column opportunities, and freelance writing services at www.mollymurfee.com.