Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Value of Truth Telling


She raised her hand and said¸“I don’t have a question, but I do have a comment.”

“That’s fine,” I said. “I’m listening.” I had just finished speaking to a doctoral class for about 40 minutes on the piece I had titled: “White in America: Can I Get a Witness?” The Georgia Southern class on “Ethics and Diversity” was being taught in Savannah to doctoral students in an educational leadership program. Their professor invited me to come speak after hearing her husband share about a conversation we had at a social gathering. And, although I’ve pretty much taken my professor hat off for good, I was happy to share on this topic. This class had 12 African American students and four white students. And the person who had raised her hand was a middle aged African American woman. She paused before going on, as if trying to think about the best way to make the comment. And I breathed deeply and waited for whatever she had to say. Then it came….

“I have never heard a white person talk like you have just talked. I mean, I never have heard white people really tell the truth about themselves and about race like that before.” Others nearby shook their heads in agreement.

“Well,” I said, “I’m very sorry. It’s taken most of us a while to even tell ourselves the truth.”

Then we went on to other questions. One white student made a point of sharing that her experiences were very different than mine, since the schools integrated before she started school – and she had not experienced the Jim Crow era. It was as if, in some ways, she was letting herself off the hook. I let her slip off gently – and just said, “Well, yes, your experiences have been different, but we still have much to work on.”

The discussion turned to efforts to make a difference, including the recent decision by congress to compensate black farmers pursuant to a decade-old settlement with the United States government. The case addressed allegations that the farmers were unjustly denied benefits by the Department of Agriculture.  The Claims Settlement Act of 2010 will fund the agreements reached in the Pigford II lawsuit in the amount of $1.15 billion. The bill also includes a $3.4 billion fund to settle charges from the Cobell lawsuit brought by Native Americans claiming that the government mishandled money from the Native American Land Trust. I also shared a bit of information with them from my economist husband’s article on “The Cost of Being Black.”

Then I said, “But it’s not all about money. Money means something, but it’s about much, much more.” I looked at the woman with the initial comment and walked up to her desk and said. “I bet if I gave you a $100 dollar bill tonight, you could put that to good use and would like to have it.”

She smiled coyly and replied, “Oh yes.”

Then I said, “But I’m also willing to bet that what you heard me share earlier tonight was worth more than that.”

And she smiled broadly and said, “Oh YES! That was PRICELESS!”

“Yes, Priceless,” chimed in the student sitting by her.

Now that’s not because I delivered a great or entertaining speech. It was simply because I shared the truth. I shared the truth about my upbringing, my deep prejudices, my fears, my struggle to overcome these difficulties, and my continuing struggles as I strive to contribute what I can to help others who are committed to anti-racism, anti-oppression, and multiculturalism.

My time was up. The professor gave me a thank-you note as I left the class. Before I turned on my car, I opened the note. It included a $50 honorarium. When I returned home, I emailed the professor, thanking her for the honorarium and sharing that it would be put to good use helping others via our emergency relief fund. Indeed, that money would be helpful, but her invitation and the experiences we all shared that evening provided an awesome experience for me too. Oh yes, money helps – but the value of truth telling, it is priceless, indeed!

I am currently reading a book entitled, The Arc of the Universe is Long: Unitarian Universalists, Anti-Racism and the Journey from Calgary by Leslie Takahasi Morris, Chip Roush, and our own Leon Spencer. It is a very comprehensive examination of what we have been through as an association, with some historical summation of efforts prior to the 1992 General Assembly resolution related to anti-racism, and a very thorough examination of what we’ve been through since that time. (I will share more about this perhaps in a workshop format this summer.) Some of the passages are painful to read. Sometimes the truth hurts. But then, it is also what sets us free.

We will celebrate that struggle and that freedom as we march with others in the Martin Luther King, Jr. parade on January 17. Some may say that marches don’t mean anything. And I certainly agree if that is all we do. But marching should serve as a reminder to us and to others that we have not forgotten King’s dream, and that we are willing to march in the light of truth as we work for justice. The title of the book I’m reading comes from a quote that you may have heard attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr. King's often repeated expression that "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice" was his own succinct summation of sentiments echoing those of Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, who, in "Of Justice and the Conscience" (1853) asserted: "I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice."

In April of 2008 on the 40th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, then candidate Barak Obama said, “Dr. King once said that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice. It bends towards justice, but here is the thing: (and this is crucially important) it does not bend on its own. It bends because each of us in our own ways put our hands on that arc and we bend it in the direction of justice….” Will we folks at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro put our hands on this arc? I challenge you to join us as we do this work. You might begin with just marching, marching “on the side of LOVE” – moving with us through the streets of Statesboro as we unite with others hoping to make this world a better place. The chairperson for our MLK parade entry is Greg Brock. You may contact him or me (for I have his ear) for suggestions and information.

And may your new year be filled with peace, love, joy, and that priceless truth that sets us all free!

Standing on the Side of Love!

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