Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Meet Commissioner Muktha Jost

Muktha Jost is one of our Truth and Reconciliation Commissioners (see bio here). Please read her reflections on this process below:

Truth on trial

At break time during the hearing at Weaver Center, several women in line at the ladies room shared many kind words for the task that the GTRC had accepted. I remember and appreciate one very well. She looked deeply and softly at me and said, “Thank you. I am grateful for what you all are doing, but I don’t envy you.”

Tough as it has been the last year, I was really at a place of gratitude for myself and my community. The truth is, I was in the middle of seeing a childhood story learned at the lap of my elders unfold before me. The story I’m referring to is that of the Seven Blind Brothers and the Elephant. Typical of some of the best stories passed down to us, this one has numerous versions too, but with common underlying themes. When fights and quarrels broke out among my cousins and me during hot summers in India, adults addressed them through telling us stories like this one.

In my tale, seven blind brothers set out to see the world. The world then presents to them an elephant. Despite their blindness, the seven brothers put to work all the other senses at their command and provide seven different imperfect, incomplete, BUT seven truthful descriptions of ‘their’ elephant. Yet, they find it necessary to bicker about the truth of the parts of the elephant that they had come to understand. It is through that sharing and bickering though, that they get a chance to get a glimpse of bigger reality, the whole elephant.

The brother who felt the side of the elephant concluded it was like a wall, and the brother nearest the trunk said that it was like a snake. Another brother who felt the tusks of the elephant said with all certainty that the snake was like a spear. Other brothers felt the leg and shared that it was a like a tree, or the ear and imagined it to be like a fan, or felt the tail and described the elephant to be like a rope. What was the seventh brother’s idea? I don’t remember.

Over the years, this story has been at the core of my understanding and questioning about truth. Like the elephant, truth is something we must approach with reverence, respect, and courage. At the hearing, former Klan Grand Dragon Gorrell Pierce opened our eyes to the power of context: "Had I been born in New York City I probably would have made a good communist. Where I was, I became a good Klansman." Our experiences shape our insight and vision, but they can also blind us at times. For two days at the hearing, many of us suspended our own experiences and judgments and listened to the ‘truths’ of others. Although tough, the result can be a powerful transformation for the community, as is evident by the wise and varied writings/reflections of many who were there at the hearing.

The seven brothers were everywhere. They came from the past in the form of Klansmen, Communist Workers Party members, members of the community, social activists, historians of the time, etc. They came in the form of us commissioners who brought our own experiences and stories to the work we had accepted to complete. They came in the form of the listeners and writers, who left with vastly different truths about the same event.

In fact, nowhere is the truth of this fable more compelling than in the reports about the hearings themselves. About 400 people witnessed the hearings, but left with almost 400 different accounts of what they heard.

So is it enough to just get everyone to tell their story? Can the whole truth be understood then? I suspect that it’s more complicated than that in the case of the Nov. 3rd tragedy. For 25 years, the seven blind brothers have held to their part of the truth and tugged and pulled and torn the whole truth into many different parts. The task before us is to piece as many parts together as we can. Perhaps it’s well that I forgot what the seventh brother got out of his part of the elephant because there’s a brother or two whose story will never be told.

Longstanding differences in the community led to the tragedy of Nov. 3rd, and those differences now have deeply torn divisions among them. Many in the community nurse that seed within them that something is just not right about the ways in which we have dealt with our differences.

Every now and then, communities all over the world impress us with how they brought the whole elephant into their midst. Often, it’s the community that works at such an amazing task, not a single group or commission or task force. Almost always, such miracles happen because communities dared to have a collective dream about living together with their eyes open.

This is such an opportunity for our community.


Anonymous chip atkinson said...

Ms. Jost, you claim that the long standing differences in Greensboro led to the tragedy of November 3rd. Yet the CWP represented a few malcontented citizens. The Klan came from far outside Guilford County. This is why the commission has no value.

If November 3rd was about race relations her premise would make sense. It was not. The sit-ins were relevant, because they involved everyone in our city. Neither group involved on Nov 3rd represented our community. No one wants to reconcile with the CWP or the KKK.

3:57 PM  
Anonymous Jill Williams said...

Thanks for your comments, Mr. Atkinson. I feel certain you have represented the concerns of many people in Greensboro through your post. As you probably know, those of us involved with the GTRC are all still learning about the relevance of Nov. 3rd to the Greensboro community and are in no position to make any firm findings on that topic at this point.

What I can tell you is that we are hearing from people who lived in Greensboro (many of whom still do) who were directly involved in the tragedy as Morningside Homes residents, police officers, health care workers, city officials, reporters, textile mill workers, and Communist Workers Party members and affiliates. Each of these people has his or her own story to tell about what happened that day, why it happened, and what we should do to make sure it never happens again.

As you've correctly pointed out, whether or not the events of Nov. 3rd had anything to do with race relations is also a big question in this work. Again, I'm not in a position to make a claim on this point yet, but I hope that you might have some time to listen to some of the statements by speakers at our public hearings recently (they can be found at http://beta.news-record.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20050722/NEWSREC0101/50719006/1001/NEWSREC0201). Several of the speakers gave their own answers to this question of the relevance of race issues to the events; some agreed with you and others felt differently.

Finally, I want to understand better your contrasting of the Woolworth sit-ins with the events of November 3, 1979. You say that the sit-ins involved everyone in the city in a way that Nov. 3rd did not. Can you say a little bit more about this distinction? It is an interesting one and I want to understand it better.

I'm also interested to hear how others respond to your concerns about these issues. Thanks for raising them here.

5:00 PM  
Anonymous chip atkinson said...

The Sit-ins involved most every citizen on several levels. Of course, blacks and whites in Greensboro were forced to eat separately. In this instance, a silent majority found its voice. White people were divided about segregated public facilities, but until that point, segregationists were the only ones speaking up. The sit-ins woke up everyone here- complacent blacks, religious peoples, parents, children...

The Morningside residents were clearly victims. If the CWP had been a significant part of Greensboro's culture in 1979, if Morningside residents had actively planned and participated in the march, if the Klan were any part of Greensboro culture, if the CWP had not threated and dared the Klan (over 70 miles away from Greensboro), if the Klan came to kill blacks- then the events of November 3rd would require reconciliation in the way the sit-ins still do.

1:21 PM  
Anonymous Chip said...

just to clarify... "if the Klan came to kill blacks,"- all the deaths were tragic. But the Klan was not there to lynch black people. They were there because they had been physically challenged and threatened by the CWP.

1:30 PM  
Anonymous Jill Williams said...

Thanks for sticking in there for this discussion. You bring up many interesting points. The most interesting to me, honestly, are the connections (or lack thereof) you see between Nov. 3rd and the sit-in movement. The Commission's mandate is to examine not only the sequence of events of November 3, 1979, but also the context, causes, and consequences of that tragedy. Our first hearing offered speakers an opportunity to answer the question of "What brought us to November 3, 1979?" Thankfully, the speakers offered a multitude of perspectives on this question, but a few issue themes emerged in their statements, some of which included labor conditions in the textile mills, a culture of violence, police/community relations, racial disparities (with regard to health care, jobs, housing, education, etc.), socioeconomic divisions, communism/anti-communism, and the list continues. Let me be clear that the Commission has not yet made any conclusions about whether or not these issues were relevant to the events of Nov. 3, 1979. This is what we are hearing from people who give statements to the Commission.

The reason I raise this context, however, is because I think that you are right in pointing out that "The Sit-ins involved most every citizen on several levels." As you described, this large involvement wasn't because most every citizen was at the Woolworth's lunch counter (in fact, the majority of participants in the sit-ins were college students from A&T and Bennett, similar to some of the direct participants in Nov. 3rd). It was because the sit in movement existed within a particular historical context of segregation and a broad movement for social change. I think the varied answers we heard from the diverse group of speakers at the recent public hearing shows that the tragedy of Nov. 3rd also occurred within a particular historical context that many believe is still relevant today.

In the same way that the sit-ins involved nearly every Greensboro resident, I firmly believe that the historical context within which the tragedy of Nov. 3rd occurred makes it a relevant discussion for every Greensboro resident as well.

I'm still curious to hear more about what kind of reconciliation you think needs to occur around the sit-ins. That was a statement ripe with meaning...

6:41 PM  
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3:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mrs.Jost, i leave my due respect for the justice you are determinedly trying to bring to our community. I give thanks to the awareness of the racial issues our neighborhoods have been faced with in the past that you have provided us with. peaceee ouut.

9:58 PM  
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