“Only Words Can Undo Words”: Focus on the power of words in “Leaving Atlanta” and future follow up research questions

“”Shh…” said Mama. “I know. you don’t have to talk about it.” She rocked [Daddy] like a grumpy baby.

“Mama, let him say it,” Tasha whispered. Only words can undo words. Kids say that to take something back you have to say it backward. Like a filmstrip run the wrong way.

Die you hope I. Eighteen of side other. People some to nice be can’t you.”

“That’s what I’m talking about. How can I say that I can’t stand to talk about it? And how can you say that you can’t stand to hear it when other people are living it?”

Tasha couldn’t see her father’s face. She heard the strange muffled voice, and for a moment she didn’t believe that it was him. She needed to see his mouth to make the words” (Jones, 79).

Through the exchange in this passage, Jones suggests that while words may seem insignificant in the face of the enormity of tragic events, they are actually the most powerful and necessary weapon we have to fight back against trauma. The passage on page 79 happens after Daddy returns home from the search party to find Jashante. While Mama encourages Daddy to “shhh” and not speak about the experience that has him clearly shaken up, Tasha disagrees. She instead proposes that Daddy speaking is the only way to cope by saying “Only words can undo words.” She explains that in kid world, in order to take something back you have to undo it by saying the phrase backwards. For her, this means “Die you hope I,” or as she said to Jashante prior to his kidnapping “I hope you die.” Tasha may not be too far off with what seems like a childish game. While children may say the phrase backwards to indicate that their intentions did not align with the impact of their words, adults often to do the same by trying to explain away the damage they may have done with harmful words.

Daddy encourages Tasha’s point about the importance of pushing through words in the face of trauma or discomfort by questioning “How can I say that I can’t stand to talk about it? And how can you say that you can’t stand to hear it when other people are living it?” Through this series of questions, Daddy brings attention to the idea that shying away from uncomfortable conversations that arise in the wake of trauma is an unacceptable solution. In order to bear the weight of the burden as a community, or larger society, Daddy suggests that words must be spoken to prevent a person from being able to turn away from the hurt that the trauma brings with it. Also in this series of questions, Daddy brings into discussion proximity to trauma. While he and his family may have the option to hide from the words that make this a pressing reality in their world, Jashante’s family who is directly experiencing the trauma do not. As the degrees of separation become more significant, words and discussion of trauma that others are facing become even more optional. Through this passage, Tasha and Daddy suggest that words are the opposite of optional; they are necessary and important tools to combat trauma on a personal, communal, and societal level.

Discussion Questions:

How does Jones use the contrast between action and words in “Leaving Atlanta” to expose the weight that words carry?

How does Tasha’s character and her perception of words as manifesting action help us consider the interconnected nature of language and reality?

1 Comment

  1. Tasha advocates for consistent communications, even amongst her classmates such as Monica. The power of the spoken word doesn’t just relay a message, but it relays an emotion, either good or bad it takes a step forward, not backing down. Jones displays this through Tasha’s character and narration. However, can we see it more than the significance of language, but rather the encouragement of getting uncomfortable in order to learn and communicate with one another? Does this perhaps translate over to readers understandings of the harsh realities and hardships Leaving Atlanta communicates?

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