“Speaking Truth to Power”: John Legend

Musician John Legend getting interviewed by the Toronto Media at the ONExONE Benefit Gala held at Maple Leaf Gardens the week of TIFF '08

Words of wisdom are commonplace, yet we seldom actually listen to them (Creative Commons License photo credit: christopherharte).  I have just read the probing and wise commencement address given by Grammy-winning songwriter and singer, John Legend, to University of Pennsylvania’s College of Arts & Sciences graduates on May 17th. (h/t: Huffingtonpost).

He first talks about the impact some books and some people at the university, his alma mater, had on him:

That comforting dichotomy of right and wrong was replaced by what professors here would call inquiry, methodology, and praxis. Or in layperson’s terms, a never-ending series of questions, discussions, analyses, and options. There was James Joyce telling me “a man’s errors are his portals of discovery.” Toni Morrison telling me that “”If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.” Or even my sociology professor repeating his mantra that “correlation does not always equal causation.” With each course I took, my mind was challenged to be more critical, more flexible, more fluid, more supple.

This later passage really caught my eye:

As a nation — and as a world — we need more truth. Let me repeat that. We need more truth. When you look at the list of crises we face, there is a common thread that ties many of them together. The people who created these crises or allowed them to happen either didn’t look hard enough for the truth, or didn’t listen to those voices that could tell them where the truth lived.

We lost thousands of lives and spent billions (possibly trillions) of dollars fighting in and rebuilding Iraq, all based on the false premise that there were weapons of mass destruction or that Saddam Hussein was in cahoots with Al Qaeda and caused 9/11. . .

We’ve spent trillions of dollars bailing out banks with phantom profits that were selling financial products whose values had no grounding in reality. . . .

From the war in Iraq to credit-default swaps to the internet bubble to the real estate bubble, too often we got caught up in the hype and failed to see the real truth.

Too often we become apathetic. We see the lies, we see the obfuscation, the deception. But we fail to point it out. We’re afraid to rain on the parade. Afraid to rock the boat. Afraid to pursue the truth.

He might well have added that it is also way past time for our whitewashed mass media, our leading academics at schools like Penn, and our leading politicians (of all backgrounds) to speak the hard truth about our still-systemic racism, whose everyday exploitation and discrimination in employment, banking, housing, health, and educational institutions are still quite pervasive. Very few people anywhere are now willing to speak the truth about everyday racism. To talk about the dozens of research studies demonstrating it. That truth seems much harder to speak even than speaking the truths from this list above. Why is it nearly impossible to get anywhere in our mass media, including most of the “liberal” and “left” media, a serious sustained discussion of systemic racism–like the research-based discussions of many on this blog? Denial of that racism will get a pundit or academic an op-ed piece in major media most any day.

Like every good commencement speaker, Legend last calls the Penn students to take personal and collective action:

To be witnesses of today and for tomorrow. To speak truth to power. And to speak the truth on behalf of the powerless. Sometimes there isn’t a single answer. But there is always the truth. Now, I don’t assume that the word “truth” is commonly found. Like its bedfellows of “democracy” and “justice,” I believe it is quite rare to find. It is born through process. It is gained through questioning. It is found in listening. It’s about accepting that complex problems often require complicated solutions. A commitment to truth also requires what Patricia Hill-Collins calls a “politics of empathy.” I would say that a commitment to truth requires a commitment to social justice.

He goes yet deeper:

Searching for truth is in many ways the same as searching for your soul. Since I am touted as a soul singer, I’m often asked to define what soul is. Well, it’s hard to define, but I’m sure that soulfulness and truth are very closely related. . . . Soul is about authenticity. Soul is about finding the things in your life that are real and pure.

A powerful address putting to shame the typical commencement speakers–and it is nice to see the current president of the American Sociological Association, the brilliant critical-racism analyst Patricia Hill Collins, was thus influential in this young man’s life.