Bob Neal

We may have a million sayings about the truth.

“Truth will out.” “Facts are stubborn things.” “Truth is like the sun. You can shut it out for a time, but it ain’t goin’ away.”

Those quotations come from Shakespeare, John Adams and Elvis Presley, respectively.

The idea of truth ran through my mind recently as I read “The Rescue of Jerusalem,” an inquiry into an event 2,700 years ago. The book’s upshot is that the familiar (to historians and Old Testament readers, at least) sparing of Jerusalem from Assyria came through the efforts of the Black state of Kush, also called Nubia, which ruled Egypt, too, at the time.

The conclusion overturned the apple cart of historians who for a century-plus had been trying to figure out why Assyria’s ruler, Sennacherib, ended the invasion and went home.

Disclosure: Henry Aubin, the book’s author, is my friend of 50 years. We both worked at The Montreal Gazette, and I visited Henry and Penny Aubin last month at their camp.


Not to trudge too deeply into the weeds of history, but Henry found historians mostly pooh-poohed the idea that Black Africans could have had anything to do with rescuing Jerusalem. His exhaustive work showed that racism was a key element in that consensus.

Henry did this partly by looking at other works by the scholars who had ruled out the Nubians as saviors. Some had written blatantly racist works about other events, some had simply dismissed, without evidence, the notion that Blacks could have been heroes.

Having read Henry’s book, I have recently begun reading “The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store” by James McBride, a novel about American Jews and Blacks cooperating.

All of which has set me to wondering how deeply racial ideas are baked into our culture. And that led me to South Africa, which has shifted fairly successfully from apartheid to a majority-ruled republic, with the promise and problems of democracies everywhere.

As part of that process, South Africa formed a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1995 to hear testimony from oppressed and oppressors alike. It had the power of amnesty for oppressors of the majority and for Blacks who had taken up arms in protest. The TRC didn’t solve all of South Africa’s problems, but it cleared a lot of the air.

Canada, too, used a truth-and-reconciliation model but on a limited scale. It was called to look into the forcing of Indigenous children into schools intended to turn Indigenous children into whites. The panel issued 94 recommendations, and the federal government posts from time to time the progress toward meeting those points.


This made me ask how our story may parallel South Africa and Canada. Our original sin, of course, was slavery, which was legal in South Africa and Canada, too, until 1834.

Legal segregation existed until 1990 in South Africa and until 1962 in Canada, just as it did here in a bunch of states, not all confederate, after reconstruction. It lasted here until 1965. As it turns out, legal segregation was easier to ban than social segregation.

South Africa cracked down on everyone who wasn’t white, restricting schools, jobs, residence and everything else the whites-only regime could. Canada, before segregation had ended, began moving toward its “cultural mosaic” model, in which all Canadians have access to all rights and privileges.

In both cases, TRCs came about following a great national trauma. Increasingly spiteful application of apartheid and the unearthing, literally, of abuses of Indigenous children.

Despite such highly visible events as the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a cop in Minneapolis or the slaughter of 23 people in El Paso, Texas, by a white man who targeted people who appeared to be Latino, we haven’t had such a national catharsis.

That may be because we are much more populous than South Africa (60 million) or Canada (38 million). Or because the crimes seem aberrant rather than baked into society.


But the little instances keep popping up. The Bangor Daily News carried an article this week reporting that one-third of Asian-Americans said they had been racially abused in the past year. Elijah Anderson, a Yale professor, wrote in the current Atlantic magazine about a backlash by white Americans against Black Americans who have succeeded in the American economy and society. White grievance, it is called, and it can get ugly.

This isn’t to argue for a TRC like South Africa’s or Canada’s. But it is to argue for a truth and reconciliation process, that we have a “conversation on race.” President Bill Clinton in 1998 called for a “dialogue on race,” but I see no sign that he followed it up.

We haven’t undertaken a formal commission, and few of us can give years to research and writing on a single topic obscured at least in part by racism, as Aubin did.

But keeping with our American model of individualism, each of us can look into our own hearts and ask whether we have done enough to move toward racial justice.

Bob Neal believes President James A. Garfield got it just about right when he said, “The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.” Neal can be reached at

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