For the past several months, I have been working on a history of Fullerton, the town I live in. There are two “official” history books about Fullerton: Ostrich Eggs for Breakfast (a book for children), and Fullerton: a Pictorial History (a book for adults). When you finish reading these books (which I have), you feel a sense of pride in Fullerton, because they tend to focus on its accomplishments, and downplay anything negative. They felt, to me, untrue, or at least not the whole truth.
The true story is found at the Center for Oral and Public History at Cal State Fullerton, thousands of interviews with ordinary residents. “Unofficial history,” you might call it. In reading those interviews, I have discovered some pretty awful things that happened here: the KKK, housing discrimination, forced deportations, segregation. For a long time, I was reading about this stuff, writing about it, but not really sure why. Something told me that the truth ought to be told, because the truth is important as an end in itself. But that didn’t quite satisfy me.
I care very deeply about Fullerton, I have invested much of my life here, but as I have shared my writings on my blog, I often I felt like a kind of traitor, like I was digging out all of Fullerton’s dirty laundry and showing it to the world, and there is certainly a lot of dirty laundry. One might get the impression from my writings that I hate Fullerton, that I regard it as a terrible place. But that is not true. If you know me, you know how much I love this place, despite all its flaws (past and present).
It was only very recently that I began to sort of understand what I was doing with all this research and writing. I recently read a book that my friend Kevin (the best bartender in Fullerton) loaned me called Speaker for the Dead. It’s a science fiction book (we are nerds) about a person who travels to an alien world to “Speak the Death” of one of its residents. This means that he talks to the family, does research, and when he is finished tells the true story of the man’s life to the whole community. The man whose death he speaks was a cruel wife-beater who was generally hated in the community. But, in telling the truth of this man’s life, the brutally honest truth, the Speaker for the Dead tells the truth of the whole community, all the awful secrets that had been causing them so much suffering and pain. His “speaking” causes great pain, but it is the first step toward healing and true renewal in the community.
Orson Scott Card, the author, writes: “Ender (the Speaker for the Dead) stood behind the platform, looking at Novinha’s family (the family of the dead man), wishing he could do something to ease their pain. There was always pain after a Speaking, because a Speaker for the Dead did nothing to soften the truth...Ender knew from the faces that looked up at him as he spoke that he had caused great pain today. He had felt it all himself, as if they had passed their suffering to him...But Ender had also felt the pain that people felt before (he had Spoken many deaths), and he knew that today’s new wounds would heal much faster than the old ones ever would have done. Novinha might not recognize it, but Ender had stripped from her a burden that was much too heavy for her to bear any longer.”
To some, Ender is regarded as an “infidel,” even evil. The religious and political authorities fear him. But, after Ender speaks, the mayor of the town says to him: “Only a wise man could see my people so clearly in so short a time. Only a ruthless one would say it all out loud. Your virtue and your flaw--we need them both.” Ender’s Speaking causes reflection and renewal in the community.
I am about halfway through the book Cry, the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton, and many of the same themes exist in that book, which is not science fiction, but about the terrible social problems of South Africa in the past century. That book is full of suffering and pain and confusion caused by decades of colonialism, racism, and oppression. The famous quote from that book is: “Cry for the broken tribe, for the law and the custom that is gone. Aye, and cry aloud for the man who is dead, for the woman and children bereaved. Cry, the beloved country, these things are not yet at an end. The sun pours down on the earth, on the lovely land that man cannot enjoy. He knows only the fear of his heart.” The book itself may be read as a “Speaking,” an unvarnished truth-telling. And, ultimately, as a result of people like Alan Paton, who spoke the terrible, heart-breaking truth, a change began, a change that culminated in the rise of people like Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu, whose role it was to heal the wounds that had finally been spoken aloud.
It was this idea, that truth-telling can also be healing, that resonated with me as I reflected on the book I am writing about Fullerton. As I read about the injustices and wounds of the past, wounds that linger today in things like ethnic and economic segregation, I feel compelled to tell the truth, because the truth has the power to wound and to heal. My sincere hope with this project is that, in telling the truth of the past, the sometimes terrible truth, the truth we would rather forget... we might better understand why things are the way they are, and only then, with deep understanding and compassion, can real change come. I suspect I will continue to piss some people off, but that is not my intention. In my heart, I dream of a community that is creative and beautiful and honest and accepting of all people. I hope that, in giving voice to the true stories of the past, even talking about them, and reflecting upon them, we can learn and grow together. That is my hope.