Black History Month: Sen. Avel Gordly

[Trigger Warning: rape, sexual abuse, child abuse, domestic violence, racism, sexism, misogynoir, ableism]

Oregon Sen. Avel Gordly’s Remembering the Power of Words: The Life of an Oregon Activist, Legislator, and Community Leader is a powerful narrative. A collaboration between Sen. Gordly and her colleague Dr. Patricia Schechter, the book was shaped from twenty-two hours of oral interview, edited down and molded into a book. While it is a recounting of the biographical details of Avel Gordly’s life, it is very strongly a tracing of her social and political consciousness, culminating in her time in the Oregon House of Representatives and the Oregon State Senate.

She tells, without going into graphic detail, of the sexual and physical abuse she suffered as a child and the domestic violence and rape within a marriage. She speaks confidently to identify the points at which she struggled with racism, sexism, and the particular oppressions facing black women (misogynoir) in the United States, and in Oregon in particular. Reflecting on her life, she explicitly labels many of the incidences in her early life as racist, sexist, or both, and recounts her experiences confronting these things with varied strategies, including silence.

She talks plainly about her experiences suffering from depression and self-doubt. Her visits to psychiatric hospitals are mentioned matter-of-factly, with details kept private, and her struggles with her mental health in both her work and personal life are laid bare – not as a sob story nor as an apology for weakness. She presents depression as a challenge in her life, and as a fact: something that she had, at different points, more or less ability to cope with, and as something she acquired coping skills for. Both in and out of the legislature, Sen. Gordly has been a hugely important activist around mental health advocacy, particularly around mental health services for people of color in Oregon, and it was so refreshing to see someone who has done so much good in such a high profile position come out, and talk about it in such a down-to-earth way.

My favorite thing about her book is her bald statements of her abilities and her accomplishments. She outlines moments of failure, to be sure, but she also often records moments of conflict or challenge as “teachable moments” – she tells the reader the lessons she learned from her experiences, instead of ignoring or dwelling on those times. In a culture where women are often taught to downplay or deny their importance, it was wonderful to read Senator Gordly’s frequent, not egotistical but not self-effacing, comments about her skills and her work. She staked her claim solidly to the knowledge she has acquired over the years, acknowledging her lingering self-doubt and the personal toll the work took in stress, but holding on solidly to her accomplishments. Most poignant to me was her discussion of two photographs of herself, one of her withdrawing, trying to make herself invisible, and one of her putting herself forward to engage fully in the work and exercising her voice. Being the first woman in her family to graduate from college was only the beginning of her firsts.

My overall impression is one of great strength, great keeness of insight, and a reserved and thoughtful public persona. Though she was a single mother, her son is mostly absent from the book. Her relationships with family members and friends are largely discussed through her analysis of their relationships, with one or two defining anecdotes. Despite not fitting any of my expectations of autobiography, I was profoundly affected by her story and her journey, and hope that Avel Gordly has many years yet to use her wise and influential voice for causes of justice, as she has throughout her life.



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