In 1968, hundreds of striking Black sanitation workers marched through Memphis streets, many of them hoisting signs bearing four simple words: I AM A MAN.
Many of the most powerful arguments for racial justice in this country have been mere statements of fact. Nearly a century before the sanitation strike, in 1879, Chief Standing Bear of the Ponca tribe told a judge, “I am a man.” That case became the first in US law to acknowledge Native Americans as persons. Even earlier, abolitionists circulated coins depicting an enslaved person that read, “Am I not a man and a brother?” “Ain’t I a woman?” a phrase attributed to Sojourner Truth, also helped advance the abolitionist cause. And in the 1920s and ‘30s, at the height of racist terrorism in the United States, the NAACP flew a flag from its New York City headquarters: “A man was lynched yesterday.”
The truth, plain and stark.
There is a deeply ingrained idea, at least as old as the New Testament Book of John, that honesty brings liberation. “The truth shall make you free,” Jesus is quoted as saying. It’s a phrase that has long since transcended its religious context to become a cultural axiom, a sort of truth about truth itself.
On May 25, 2020, a Black man told the truth, but it did not make him free. “I can’t breathe,” George Floyd repeated more than 20 times in the violent minutes leading up to his death on a Minneapolis street. In transcripts and video, the police officers who participated in his murder seem impervious to his pleas, or even insulted by them. But Floyd persists in crying out the simple, urgent truth. “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe,” he says in one of his final attempts. “I’ll probably just die this way.”
Floyd’s murder — which came on the heels of reports that Louisville police had shot Breonna Taylor dead in her home and three white men had shot Ahmaud Arbery dead while he was out on a run in Georgia — brought millions of demonstrators to the streets. They rallied under contemporary successors in the long line of plain, truth-telling slogans: We can’t breathe. Black lives matter.
But two years after the summer that was dubbed a reckoning and an uprising, how much closer are we to freedom? Police have killed more than 2,000 people since Floyd, including over 350 so far this year. Just last month, Patrick Lyoya, a 26-year-old Black man, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was shot in the back of the head by police in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Lyoya’s killing, like most others since Floyd, was met with a muted public reaction, barely comparable to the outcry seen in 2020.
I find myself wondering what the country did with all the Black pain it watched and read and heard. What actually happens when we — Black people and all people dedicated to advancing justice — dare to tell the truth?
The national appetite for Black truth-telling seems, on some days, to have been sated. After months of Black death and grief playing on an endless loop on social media, after best-selling books offering lessons in antiracism, after countless personal testimonies and news stories and academic studies detailing the costs of systemic racism, support for the Black Lives Matter movement has dropped from record highs. Many people have turned their focus elsewhere.
The air has changed.
“Two years ago was just a very different time,” Toiell Washington tells me over the phone.
In May 2020, Washington had just finished her junior year of college at Salem State University. She was due to fly to California for an internship at the University of California, Berkeley. Instead, she found herself rallying young people on social media to march for Black lives. Along with two other young Black women, she led one of the largest protests in Boston that summer. The march grew into a movement and an organization, Black Boston, which Washington directs.
“For me and my team just organizing in these spaces, I feel like it’s been a little bit harder [recently] to get people engaged,” she says. The sense of urgency that propelled her to change the course of her career, that drew thousands to Boston streets and millions to streets worldwide — she simply doesn’t see it anymore.
Washington points to a number of factors driving this change: The return to ordinary routines and responsibilities that, in the early months of the pandemic, had disappeared from many people’s lives, leaving them to focus on current affairs and their own political rage. The election of a Democratic president, which she suspects led many on the left to feel that their work was done. The desire, after a punishing stretch of emotionally taxing months, to take a step back from the news.
But there is also the long history of white backlash against racial progress. Jim Crow followed on the heels of Black legal and political gains of the Reconstruction era. Lynching spiked in the 1920s in part because of the relative freedom some Black men experienced abroad while fighting in World War I. Many historians and political theorists have likewise deemed the election of Donald Trump, with his open racism, a backlash against the Obama years.
These days, reactionaries seem to be trying to kill movement toward racial justice, but also truth of any kind. Lawmakers from Texas to Montana to Rhode Island have attempted to ban discussion of race and other concepts they deem “divisive” in classrooms. Florida is trying to prevent schoolchildren from learning about both race and queerness. Some legislators have reached beyond young people’s education, attempting to limit the books that public libraries circulate.
Historian Daphne Chamberlain has spent her career advising universities and other institutions on how to commemorate the civil rights movement through memorials and educational programming. She sees the urgent stakes of this political moment.
“We have to be truthful in the narrative that we’re telling, because if we are not truthful, things get lost,” says Chamberlain, who is a vice president and associate history professor at Tougaloo College, a historically Black college in Mississippi.
Chamberlain sees efforts to erase accurate portrayals of US history as partly a response to young people’s activism over the past two years, which she says follows in a long tradition of youth, and Black children and teens in particular, being on the front lines of social change. And sidelining the truth is not new, she says. Sanitized historical accounts can overstate national progress toward racial justice, she says, while at the same time minimizing civil rights activists’ names, genuine triumphs, and harrowing trials. “We’re often painting this watered-down picture that diminishes the value of the work that people have done.”
Telling the truth about race in a country rife with racism can present a paradox. Even true statements can be divorced from their context, distorted or misrepresented, and absorbed into the logic of white supremacy.
This danger was made clear by a recent study showing that reporting on racial disparities in COVID-19 risk, in many cases, actually reduced white people’s empathy and support for protective measures. “Publicizing racial health disparities has the potential to create a vicious cycle wherein raising awareness reduces support for the very policies that could protect public health and reduce disparities,” the study authors wrote.
Such findings leave people committed to the truth in a difficult position. Journalists, myself included, have struggled with the question of how to tell the truth as it relates to race without inadvertently reinforcing racist beliefs and actions, oversimplifying complex stories, or ultimately upholding the status quo.
Brandi Collins-Dexter has thought about these issues for the past two years, as she has watched journalists reckon with the ways in which media organizations have fallen short of their professed commitment to the truth. As newsrooms scrambled to invest in coverage of race and long-overlooked communities, Collins-Dexter, a senior research fellow at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, saw many miss the mark, often because they did not handle difficult truths with care and caution. “Every word that’s being written, there’s a responsibility and weight to that,” she says.
Collins-Dexter also saw meaningful research and reporting, including her own, co-opted to fit narratives that hurt rather than helped Black people.
When in summer 2020, she wrote a report detailing how COVID-19 misinformation inundates Black communities, she did not imagine that her work would become part of a narrative that focused on Black communities’ historical distrust of the medical system, while ignoring all the contemporary racial disparities in vaccine access. Some pundits and policy makers quickly latched onto historical examples of how the medical establishment had harmed Black people — in theory, a step toward more inclusive coverage — but in the process ignored present-day policy and structural barriers to vaccination that, according to Collins-Dexter, might have been overcome.
It matters who tells Black stories — and how.
When spoken by or in support of Black people, the truth has rarely enjoyed a receptive audience for long in this country. And those truths that have managed to find lasting power have often been distorted to soften the blow. That Sojourner Truth quote “Ain’t I a woman?” for example, is almost certainly a fake.
The original transcript of Truth’s rousing 1851 speech on abolition and women’s rights does not include the phrase. A white woman, Frances Gage, introduced it 12 years later, in a version of the speech written in an imagined “Negro” dialect. Gage’s version, presented as fact and printed in a newspaper, was riddled with misspellings, full of questions rather than assertions, and even included the n-word, none of which appeared in Truth’s original speech. Why alter Truth’s powerful words? Perhaps Gage thought she could make a Black woman’s story more believable — or her intelligence more palatable — to a white audience. Maybe she even imagined what she wrote to be true.
We cannot know Gage’s exact motives, but we do know that white people and institutions have long deemed themselves the arbiters of legitimacy for Black stories. Writers of narratives of life under slavery — including Frederick Douglass, one of the most prolific speakers and writers of his time — had to include forewords by white people vouching for the Black authors’ intelligence and character.
If the truth can be ignored, outlawed, met with violent resistance, and misused, why do Black people continue to tell it — often at great personal cost?
Darnella Frazier, just 17 years old at the time and holding her younger cousin by the hand, witnessed Floyd’s struggle for breath and decided to record it. She wrote last year about how filming and publicizing Floyd’s murder affected her. “I am 18 now and I still hold the weight and trauma of what I witnessed a year ago,” she wrote on Facebook. She had trouble sleeping. She shook at night and suffered anxiety attacks. “It’s a little easier now, but I’m not who I used to be. A part of my childhood was taken from me.”
But Frazier also wrote, “I’m proud of myself. If it weren’t for my video, the world wouldn’t have known the truth. I own that.”
Summer 2020 was another step forward in a long history of Black resistance and truth-telling. Floyd’s truth became Frazier’s truth, which in turn became a nation’s truth. And it was liberating. I remember the Black teenagers who felt empowered to lead their communities in protest, the workers and students who felt emboldened to speak about the institutions that harmed them. I remember the seasoned organizers who succeeded in expanding political conversations about policing and punishment. And I remember the unknowable number of people who found a new truth within themselves, that they did not have to suffer white supremacy quietly. They would not and could not if they wanted to be able to breathe.