I delivered the following remarks last night when accepting the 2015 Truth Teller Recognition from Arkansas Community Institute, a non-profit dedicated to education and advocacy for persons with moderate and low incomes.
SUBVERSIVE TRUTH-TELLING AND SURVIVAL
©Wendell Griffen, 2015
Arkansas Community Institute Truth-Teller Recognition
Central Arkansas Library System, Darragh Auditorium
November 19, 2015, 5:30 PM
EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR NEIL SEILY, PRESENTER HOWARD “FLASH” GORDON, ACI BOARD PRESIDENT DONNA MASSEY AND OTHER DIRECTORS, SISTERS AND BROTHERS IN THE STRUGGLE FOR A JUST SOCIETY AND WORLD:
On yesterday we learned of the death of Milton Crenchaw, a native of Little Rock, Arkansas who was a Tuskegee Airman, at the full age of 96 years in Atlanta, Georgia. Please join me in a moment of silence as we remember, with thanks, his life, service, and offer our hopes for his children and other loved ones who grieve his passing.
It is often said we are known by the company we keep. I take special joy in accepting the ACI 2015 Truth Teller recognition with sincere gratitude and delight. Arkansas Community Institute has Past Truth Tellers such as Jean Gordon, Ernie Dumas, and Bobby Roberts as part of its effort to advocate and educate society on behalf of our low and moderate income neighbors who are often misrepresented, marginalized, maligned, and misunderstood. Thank you for numbering me among these prophets. Thank you for what Arkansas Community Institute means for justice and truth. Thank you for supporting the ACI mission by your attendance this evening, and for your ongoing support. And I am especially grateful to Howard “Flash” Gordon for his generous remarks, and to Jim Lynch, Rhonda Stewart, and Neil Seily for their encouragement.
As Flash shared with you, I grew up around truth-tellers. My parents and community elders were laborers. Most of them had not completed high school. None had attended college. Yet, they nurtured me and the other black youth of our rural neighborhood concerning the inconvenient and usually unpleasant truth about injustice. We were black people living in a segregated society. They spoke the truth to me about racism and bigotry. They told me I was equal, but that many in society would never treat me with dignity or equality. They told me that smiling faces often mask scowling attitudes when it comes to justice for oppressed people.
Dad, Mom, and the elders of the Harrison Chapel Baptist Church and Rosenwald Elementary School community that defined my childhood were always interpreting life from the perspective of what I now realize was subversive truth-telling. For them, truth telling was a daily and ongoing activity aimed at presenting a counter-narrative to the racism, sexism, classism, materialism, pseudo-religious nationalism, and militarism of the 1950s and 60s. Their messages nurtured a sense of purpose, dignity, and moral authority within me. They told me that I mattered despite what Orval Faubus, Ross Barnett, Lester Maddox, and George Wallace and the people who supported them said and did.
Truth-telling is always a subversive work. My elders often reminded me that the dominant narrative about my worth and life was a lie. They told me that the American notion of justice doesn’t respect workers, people of color, and others who live with their backs against the wall. They insisted that it was my duty to oppose injustice, however and wherever possible.
And my elders had me understand early in life why white political leaders and editors opposed Roy Wilkins (head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Council), A. Philip Randolph (leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters), and other civil rights leaders; white political leaders and editors always prefer the semblance of orderly injustice to activism for justice. To this day, I bristle when people complain about activists “stirring up trouble,” “disturbing the peace,” and violating “law and order.”
My wife (Dr. Patricia Griffen) and I nurtured our sons in the same way. Our sons grew up with Sesame Street, but also the PBS McNeil-Lerner News Hour. We took them to the Little Rock Zoo and other popular local venues for education, growth, and recreation.
But Martyn and Elliott Griffen will always remember spending a spring break driving with us across the South. During that trip we toured the Civil Rights Museums in Memphis, Tennessee and Birmingham, Alabama. We drove with them to Selma, and walked with them across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. We drove with them to Montgomery and explained to them how the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church was pivotal in the struggle for racial equality. We drove with them to Tuskegee, Alabama during that trip, and in another trip drove them to Diamond, Missouri to learn about Dr. George Washington Carver. We drove them to Atlanta where we toured Ebenezer Baptist Church and the King Center with them, and showed them where Dr. King’s remains are entombed.
As my parents and elders nurtured me, Pat and I routinely talked with Martyn and Elliott about injustice. During those conversations we exposed them to the falsehoods and myths fabricated and maintained to promote the imperial narrative of racism, sexism, classism, materialism, militarism, pseudo-religious nationalism, and techno-centrism. Many people appear to marvel that Martyn and Elliott are inclusive, thoughtful people, but Pat and I don’t. We nurtured them, as we were nurtured, in the counter-narrative of subversive truth-telling.
Subversive truth-telling is a moral and ethical necessity if we want a just society and world.
· When pseudo-leaders respond to events such as the recent terrorist attack in Paris, France with demagogic calls to ban Syrian refugees from the United States, say they are opposed to Muslim immigrants, and say they are opposed to Arkansas receiving refugees from Syria (Governor Asa Hutchinson), we need subversive truth-tellers to denounce their xenophobia and hypocrisy.
· When pseudo-leaders continue to lionize the American president (Ronald Reagan) whose administration deliberately, and unlawfully, trafficked arms to promote wars in Central America, while the CIA enabled smugglers to fly cocaine to major U.S. cities, we need subversive truth tellers to denounce the War on Drugs as a longstanding fraud that corporate media continues to ignore.
· When politicians and self-styled education “reformers” press to privatize and commodify public education, we need subversive truth-tellers with the courage and insight to expose and declare the truth that the much ballyhooed “achievement gap” was always, and remains, a function of social and political inequality, not personal ability, intellect, and responsibility.
· When business people talk about “economic growth” and when people complain about affirmative action remedies for centuries of race-based discrimination, we need subversive truth-tellers who remind us that “economic growth” in New England and the South was built on enslaving Africans, that “economic growth” in the West was built on genocide of Native Americans and workplace injustice against immigrants from Asia, and that “economic growth” in the Southwest was built on land theft and discrimination against Latinos.
· When the biggest retailer in the world enjoys its dominance after decades of wage theft while political leaders in its home state accuse labor unions of being crooked, we need subversive truth-tellers who declare the counter-narrative that the minimum wage, forty-hour work week, sick pay, Social Security, Medicare, and other safety-net mainstays of our economy resulted from the hard, and often dangerous, work of labor activists, not bankers, realtors, and Chamber of Commerce operatives.
· And when “law and order” functionaries accuse communities of color of being lawless and falsely stereotype all people from Islamic societies of being vicious terrorists, we need subversive truth-tellers to declare the counter-narrative that the United States is the only nation in the history of humanity that engaged in the terrorism of deploying nuclear weapons against civilian populations (twice). The United States refused to enact a federal anti-lynching law to curb the terrorism of lynch mobs. The United States refuses to maintain a data base for injuries and deaths associated with the terrorism of gun violence.
These and other moral and ethical travesties render any professed claim to U.S. “exceptionalism” to be delusional, if not manifestly fraudulent. They show why we need the Arkansas Community Institute. We need subversive truth-tellers. We need to embed subversive truth-tellers in positions of power and leadership. We need to support institutional and collective truth telling because the imperial narrative is supported institutionally, collectively, politically, socially, religiously, and educationally.
Finally, we must always remember that subversive truth-telling is hopeful testimony. We are subversive truth-tellers of a radical, subversive, audacious, defiant, impertinent, and triumphant hope. Whether we are subversive truth-tellers by choice or by necessity, in sorrow or joy, during moments of praise or seasons of persecution, we must be subversive and hopeful truth-tellers. As Jesus said it so well, the truth will set us free. Free to love one another, affirm one another, respect one another, struggle with one another, and hope with one another.
I accept this recognition tonight with thanks, and pledge my undying commitment to keep faith with the hopeful and subversive imperative of truth-telling I received from un-acclaimed parents and elders in rural southwest Arkansas a long time ago.