The Power of Words
I once heard Maya Angelou say, “Some day I think we will be able to measure the power of words. I think they are things. I think they get on the walls, they get in your wallpaper, they get in your rugs, in your upholstery, in your clothes, and finally into you.”
Friday July 29th was like any other summer night in New York City… it was hot.
Yet the occasional cool breeze pushing it’s way through the grid convinced me to walk to Union Square that night. I walked the thirty blocks from my apartment to 14th street, with a book in hand.
The usual suspects were all there, enjoying the start of the weekend as they best knew how.
A group of men sat on the south side of the square in their regular spot. They had their chess boards ready. Each tried his best to rope in players for a five-dollar game, challenging the tourists as they passed by.
A few teens practiced their skateboarding skills. They attempted different tricks, jumping off the railings with little regard for the possibility of injury. They were as they should be at that age, seemingly invincible.
A group of women sat nearby eating ice cream. All were keenly focused on finishing their cones before their cold treat melted away into a puddle of goop.
Some people on the benches nearby simply talked the hours away. A few shared a hearty laugh. I didn’t know what they were laughing at, but I didn’t need to know.
I smiled as I plunged myself into the book I had brought, leaving the spectacular world that surrounded me just for a short while. It was a perfect summer night in New York City.
Then, around 1AM, I got in a taxi to go home…
My cab driver, who I will refer to only by the name Mahmoud for privacy purposes, asked me how my night was going. It was the opportunity to make conversation, and that evening I gladly took the bait. We talked for the entire ride.
Mahmoud was originally from Bangladesh, but he’d been living in Queens for over 25 years. He was gleeful when I mentioned that I had traveled to Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital, just a year earlier on a work trip.
I learned that some of Mahmoud’s family remained in Bangladesh, and that he flew home to visit whenever he was able to.
Mahmoud was happily telling me that it seemed to be an unusually busy night in the city (since in the summer many people flee the heat by driving out to the beaches). He seemed to be so happy that his passenger was willing to chat. I was glad that he was going to make some good money that night.
After making small talk for a few minutes, Mahmoud asked me if I’d “watched the politics” this week. I looked in his rear view mirror and found a stern looking face.
“Yes, I watched both conventions,” I replied quickly.
Instantly I could tell that he hoped his passenger had a similar political stance to his own. He then asked who I was voting for.
Perhaps Mahmoud was playing the odds, knowing a great majority of the left-leaning city was backing Hillary. Perhaps he just wanted to take his chances that the conversation would continue.
Adhering to the advice my parents had given me as a child to not talk politics with strangers, I answered with as much brevity as I could allow myself.
“I’m voting for Hillary. Trump’s racist commentary is not something I can understand or support.”
Perhaps it would have been better to stop at, “I’m voting for Hillary”, if brevity were my actual goal. Truth be told though, I made an assumption Mahmoud would appreciate what I said about Trump. My instinct was correct.
He thanked me twice for saying what I’d said. It seemed a bit odd. He didn’t need to thank me at all; I was simply saying how I felt about the election. Still, his emotional response was moving.
Mahmoud continued, “Bangladesh, where I come from, is primarily a Muslim country. I came here as a Muslim. When I hear Trump say ‘ban all Muslim immigrants’, it is very hard for me to hear.” Mahmoud started to choke back tears. “Very hard. Very hard to hear.”
At that moment, part of me wished that I could feel what he felt and take some of his pain from him. The other part of me was selfishly content that I was fortunate to not have to feel what he felt.
Although I couldn’t put myself in his shoes, my heart sank for him. Two complete strangers had made a bond in a span of thirty blocks.
We arrived at my building and I swiped my credit card. I bid Mahmoud goodnight after he thanked me again for conversing.
My mind was restless as I rode the elevator up to my apartment, remembering the faces I’d seen earlier in the night.
People of all different backgrounds, of all different faiths, had gone to Union Square to enjoy a night out in New York City. They were living among one another… eating ice cream, playing chess, talking, and laughing.
I wished that Mahmoud did not have to hear anything that threatened the America that I knew; the America that he had left his home for. Yet, he was hearing it.
He was hearing horribly racist things from a presidential nominee. Whether or not Trump means or believes what he says about different groups of people (which I think he does), he’s made these racist comments nonetheless.
The fire of fear had been stoked, and Mahmoud was just one of the victims I crossed paths with.
As Maya Angelou said in the quote I included at the beginning of this post, words are “things”. Trump’s words are things too, and they are dangerous. His words are weapons used to bring in more votes.
Those words drove Mahmoud to tears. Those words caused a man to be overcome with emotion. If that isn’t a way to measure the power of words, I don’t know what is.
I hope we are careful with the words that we use.
I hope we can all look to our inner moral compass to make sure we harness the power of words in a positive way, and not wield our words as divisive weapons. I hope we have the strength to fight back when we see others using words divisively.
Later that night I plunged myself back into my book. The clock was nearing 2AM, but I wanted to escape the America that Mahmoud reminded me existed.
I wanted to wake up to the America I’d known all my life; the one I’d seen earlier that night… sitting in Union Square.