Speaking truth to power

Inspired by the words of Nelson Mandela and James Baldwin

I have often found this phrase problematic. It sounds simple, but in practice it is not. It sounds like a grand gesture, but done in public, with resonance it’s the kind of act that rightfully ends up in a movie and in the history books. Public speaking of truth to power form definitive moments on which the world can eventually turn. Take Nelson Mandela speaking in his defence in court in South Africa on the 20th April 1964. He concluded his speech with these famous lines

During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

The words above are beyond memorable. That day Nelson Mandela spoke truth to power. But the truth that he spoke, although political, and thankfully in public for posterity, was driven by an accumulation of smaller personal truths that, for many years, had no voice at all. It’s a speech everyone should read in full, and not just looking back to a different time and place, but mindful of certain parallels around the world today. The following extract illuminates the painful personal experience of black South Africans under white rule. It’s hard not to read it without imagining yourself experiencing it too. That, I think, is part of the point.

The lack of human dignity experienced by Africans is the direct result of the policy of white supremacy. White supremacy implies black inferiority. Legislation designed to preserve white supremacy entrenches this notion. Menial tasks in South Africa are invariably performed by Africans.

Nelson Mandela built a platform to speak his truth, long before social media. Not so for the men thrown into jail in South Africa: beaten, abused, sometimes to death. Not so for the wives left behind. Not so for the children, denied an education. Yet some people may have spoken their truth, and gone unheard. Others may, from fear and self-preservation, remained silent. Who of us wouldn’t too? Nelson Mandela spoke for all of them.

Some years ago, I went to see The Scottsboro Boys at the theatre. It’s based on the true story of 9 young black teenagers who were falsely accused of rape in Alabama in 1931 and sentenced to death. I am not an especial fan of musical theatre, but the subject matter and the reviews had made me determined not to miss it. It was a great piece. I feel it is brave. I can see why it closed in New York after a mere 12 weeks.

There is one moment in the production that stands out, a moment of suspense, where one of the young accused wants to speak truth to power, the truth being the injustice of it all, the power represented by the only white cast member The Interlocuter. The moment is heavy with audience expectation. The truth suffocates in the accused man’s throat. In that moment, you get the sense of how almost impossible speaking truth to power is when the personal and the political come face-to-face. How the bravest of men and women can be overcome by the most urgent of imperatives: the need to survive.

I have come to realise, over the years, that like it or not, I represent some part of the system that silences the truth on the tongues of people for whom the system has minor regard. This is an uncomfortable fact. Yet it is fact, and as such I have a responsibility, small as it is, as personal and non-political as I feel I am, I still have a responsibility to speak out. I am saying it clumsily. It sits clumsily still with me because it’s easier to remain ignorant, to stay silent. James Baldwin, the American writer, can say it better, I hope.

In his 1949 essay ‘Everybody’s Protest Novel‘ he excoriated the novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe for her book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In the essay Baldwin is clear: it is not enough for a writer to describe the horrors of the world, overlaid with righteous indignation in order to comfort the readers. Baldwin believes such novels ’emerge for what they are: a mirror of our confusion, dishonesty, panic, trapped and immobilized in the sunlit prison of the American Dream.’ Baldwin asks why is that we are ‘so loath to make a further journey… to discover and reveal something a little closer to the truth?’

This is the power of the uncomfortable and paradoxical truths that Baldwin believes ‘will free us from ourselves’.

This is the truth to power that we need to speak: other people’s truths to our own power — power that we often blindly leave in the hands of those who misuse it.

The image above shows the Scottsboro Boys with guards and their lawyer

Postscript: I’d like to name these young men and their position in the photograph, but black history recorded by white people is often a victim of disregard for the status and dignity of each individual concerned. As if, to quote Nelson Mandela above, history does ‘not realise they have’ names, lives, loves. For now, here stand:

Olen Montgomery
Clarence Norris
Haywood Patterson
Ozie Powell
Willie Roberson
Charlie Weems
Eugene Williams
Andy Wright
Roy Wright

I find myself wondering if Scottsboro Boys, the musical, would have passed the James Baldwin test. I think, perhaps, yes.

And I also wonder: who do I speak for and to? What about you?



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