In her story “Wolfpack,” Mecca Jamilah Sullivan explores the different ways that we derive power, and she focuses specifically on the way that words and speech give us power. The story gives us an insight into the lives of several of the women included in the Jersey Seven, who are African American and lesbian women who were given time in prison for defending themselves against a man who verbally assaulted and threatened to rape them. Throughout the entire story, there is a lot of emphasis on the effect of and power of words, or the lack thereof. For example, in the sections told from the perspective of Verniece, she constantly talks about how the night of the encounter with the man “took [her] words away” (2). The encounter as well as the public and judicial system’s reactions to it make her feel as though she is powerless, and this is expressed through her feelings that what she says makes little difference.
Another recurring example of how words and freedom of speech give us power is the comparison of humans to animals. This is demonstrated when Verniece’s girlfriend says to her “the only real difference between people and animals is people talk. That’s it” (9). This statement has a real impact on Verniece, and it sticks with her throughout the story. As humans, we often think of ourselves as superior to animals due to our unique abilities and accomplishments. It’s very striking, then, when Verniece’s girlfriend says that the only thing that really distinguishes us from other animals is our ability for speech. This scene marks a shift in Verniece, who suddenly becomes very conscious of the empowerment that results from freedom of speech. It is incredibly significant to her, then, when the man calls her an “elephant” (13). In doing so, he takes away her power of free speech by lessening her to an animal. Similarly, the newspaper headline that sticks with Verniece the most following the incident refers to her and her friends as a “wolfpack” (20). By comparing the Jersey Seven to animals in this manner, their freedom of speech and thus their ability to be seen in the world as human beings is taken away.