The Price of Truth-Telling

Seeing a thing and saying a thing, especially about who we are as people in this place at this time, is a risky business.

It’s been a summer full of difficult news headlines. On July 4, we had the hottest day on record ever, which was followed by the hottest week on record ever; affirmative action was canceled; and LGBTQ rights continued to get trounced in parts of the country. We learned that even the simple pleasure of watching fireflies light up the night is in jeopardy: According to scientists, one in three firefly species in Canada and the US may be threatened with extinction. The “Dark Ages” is sounding less like a relic from our past and more like a future of our own making. And to be honest, I have been sorely tempted to grab my beach ball and bury my head in the sand.

the night sky, fireflies

Among other difficult news this summer, we learned that the simple pleasure of watching fireflies light up the night sky is now in jeopardy. Photo by Mike Lewinski/Unsplash.

To fight that impulse and redirect my energy, I continue to work on my second book, a personal story about race, land, and belonging that I hope is an invitation for others to claim where they stand and look into those places that some of us try to ignore and erase. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to write. To tell you the truth, I’m afraid. How much should I say? How vulnerable should I be? What do I have to be willing to really look at? What is my intention in telling this story in relationship to a world that hasn’t always honored my family and people who look like me? Where is that beach ball?

My fears are not unfounded. Take the experience of Alice Walker, who is most famously known for writing The Color Purple, which Steven Spielberg later brought to life on the silver screen. The story’s primary male character, “Mister,” was physically and emotionally abusive to women. The abuse is brutal to read about and imagine, and it’s brutal to watch on the big screen. Consequently, he was cast out by his family and held accountable, but eventually invited back into relationship. While Walker viewed the primary themes of the story to be redemption and love, when the film came out, she was deluged by hate mail from Black people who felt betrayed, miscast, cast out. As a result, she fell into a depression for three years. Imagine what it must’ve felt like to receive messages of hate from those you love most in the world.

In 1996, about ten years or so after the film came out, Walker wrote a book, The Same River Twice, which delves into the emotional rollercoaster ride she experienced after the film was released. Walker starts the book in this way: “I belong to a people so wounded by betrayal, so hurt by misplacing their trust, that to offer us a gift of love is often to risk one’s life, certainly name and reputation. I belong to a people, heart and mind, who do not trust mirrors. Not those, in any case, in which we ourselves appear.”

I say all of this (while still eyeing my beach ball) because seeing a thing and saying a thing, especially about who we are as people in this place, at this time, is a risky business. Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich understood this. Even though she won a Nobel prize for literature for her writings about female soldiers in WWII and the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown, she upset a lot of people who saw her work as demeaning towards Russia. She exposed hard truths — and exposed herself. In an interview on NPR, journalist Michel Martin pointed out that she made a lot of people uncomfortable in the process. “But her purpose, she says, is that she loves her country and wants it to be better, instead of comfortable with where it is.”

In his show, You Don’t Have to Tell Me Twice, LA-based visual artist Mark Bradford explores themes of displacement, predatory behavior, and populations in crisis. The impulse to look away from these issues that plague us and our planet can be overpowering. But Bradford offers us an opportunity. “I believe in resurrection,” he says. “We have to have some belief that something will resurrect out of all this. And that things will be put together in a different way.”

I want to believe this, too. But true transformation demands vision — the willingness to look in the mirror and see not just who we are, but who we’ve been and who we can become. We do this to remind ourselves that we are culpable, complicit, and deeply human. And yes, the risk is real. But the truth just may set us free.

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