by Susan K. Williams Smith
I was fascinated when I heard Dr. Miguel de la Torre say in a lecture, “I no longer speak truth to power. I speak truth to the powerless.”
The powerful already know the truth, he said, and they ignore it. It is those who feel they have no power who need to hear the truth about the powers and principalities against which they are fighting – in order to claim the power that they do not know they have.
The fact of the matter is that nobody, really, wants to hear truth about injustice, because it is troubling; it yanks us away from places where we have made comfortable nests in which to rest and exist. The myths with which we build our nests are necessary and act as barriers to truth. If we know the truth, our equilibrium is upset and whatever we decide to do, we are not comfortable. If we fight the truth, we realize that once we know it, we cannot “unknow” it, and if we accept it, we feel the push to fight against it, even if and when we don’t want to.
Speaking truth to those who either need to hear it or be reminded of it is no easy thing. There is almost always resentment. Women don’t want to hear the truth that they have gained weight and can no longer wear the size 8 or 10 they wore in their youth; men don’t want to hear that perhaps they are too old to play full-court basketball. Little truths bother us; big truths cause deep spiritual and emotional pain.
In reference to what is going on now in this country, we keep hearing, “this is not who we are.” That’s a myth with which we have built our nests of American exceptionalism. The truth is that what we are seeing and experiencing is exactly who America is and has always been. It has been documented that the period of American history from 1917-1921 was the bloodiest period of political violence in our history since the Civil War.
People were angry and fed up with American democracy. People were arrested and jailed for things they had said and/or written. Books were banned. Vigilantes roamed the streets with guns, searching out people who they believed were being “unpatriotic” because they took issue with the draft that had been instituted by the government. Thousands of Black people were lynched. The government dictated what newspapers and magazines were acceptable and which were not.
Before then, there had been the coup in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898, where votes were stolen by an organized effort put together by whites who were angry that so many Black people were in political power, and they vowed that they would not ever again be ruled by “niggers.” Even Black people who were not up for re-election that year were forced out of their positions, and Black political and economic strength continued to decrease for 100 years.
To whom does one speak truth, then? This is the history that some do not want anyone to know; to know it and speak about it makes one “woke.” Those who are hiding the truth because they know how damning it is don’t want to hear anyone tell that truth to them, because it wrecks their mythical image, and those who struggle to eke out an existence in this system don’t want to hear it because it affects their hope that things will only get better if they hold on. And some – maybe all – don’t want to hear it because it is simply too painful to recall, or to be taught.
Nevertheless, truth cannot be put in a dark room somewhere. It has to be let out; it has to be shared with an understanding that it is not our job to force it on anyone who is resistant, but, rather, is our job to make sure that it is told regardless of the reception of those who hear it. The powerful will call it a lie; the powerless will shake their heads in disbelief and decide it is too much to bear, but the truth, let out of its room, cannot be pushed back into darkness.
To whom, then, do we speak truth? We speak it first to ourselves, to our spirits that yearn to know. We speak it to the universe, in our writing, in our art, and to the children – our children and all other children with whom we interact. The government can (and has) take away our choice of what we are allowed to read, but the government cannot take away what we have internalized and digested. We start with ourselves, pulling ourselves out of ignorance or anger or spiritual and emotional fatigue, and then let our spirits begin to cross-pollinate truth across all fields of lies and deception. The seeds that fall will yield a crop, and there is nothing that the powers and principalities can do about it.
And that, perhaps, might be the greatest truth of all.
Amen and amen.