Speaking truth to power is an often used cliche when a person hits a cord of truth on behalf of the powerless. I have often been encouraged to stand up and speak truth to power. Usually, I do not have a problem articulating my opinion on the major topics of the day.
Perhaps this is because many years ago my mother taught me to hate injustice with a passion. And so at great peril to liberty and finances, I have never shied away from expressing my opinion on issues of injustice and inequality.
Other than my mother’s encouragement to look power in the eyes and tell them the truth, I have often wondered where the courage to do this emanated.
Thanks to an enterprising correspondent for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, I now know that I have the genetic disposition to speak truth to power.
In 1889, an Ohio newspaper, The Salem Daily News, ran a story about my great great grandfather Dempsey Clark and his brother Bristow Clark. As the story goes, Dempsey Clark was born in 1825 in North Carolina. About 25 years later he finds himself standing on a slave auction block in Hawkinsville, Georgia with his brother Bristow and “several thousand slaves [who] were brought in by the slave traders.”
A rumor circulated among the men and women in bondage that a particular planter in the area was mean and treated his workers poorly.
The Clark brothers stood erect, side by side, on the auction block in the full embodiment of their Africanness. The dreaded planter, a white man named Mr. Coley, prepared to bid for them. The Clark brothers, speaking truth to power, interrupted the auctioneer:
“We don’t like you Mr. Coley and you need not buy us, cause we ain’t gonna live with you.”
“Oh well,” Mr. Coley replied, “I got plenty of dogs.”
When the transaction was completed Dempsey and Bristow were sent to Mr. Coley’s plantation. On the third day, the Clark brothers headed for the woods. Mr. Coley sent his bloodhounds into the woods after them. They were captured, but on the trip back to Coley’s plantation, the Clark brothers escaped, again speaking truth to power, they swore they “would die before going back to Coley’s plantation.”
Mr. Coley was about as stubborn as the Clark brothers. He kept a team of “Negro hunters” with bloodhounds on the Clark brothers trail. Coley’s Negro hunters chased the Clarks “into the cypress jungle, and among the lagoons just below big creek near where the creek runs into the Okmulgee. The swamp was almost impenetrable, but the hunters followed their dogs and approached within fifty yards…”
Whereupon Dempsey and Bristow fired upon Coley’s Negro hunters and dogs. They gave up the chase for the evening and the Clarks descended further and further into the swamp. After three years of trying to capture them, Coley admitted that the Clark brothers had meant every word of the truth they had spoken to power from the slave auction block, and he sold them while they were still in the woods to a Mr. Brown of Houston County.
When the word got out in the county that Coley no longer had legal title to the Clark Brothers, they emerged from the swamp, walked into Hawkinsville under their own power and turned themselves into Mr. Brown.
They worked on Brown’s plantation without incident. In the early 1850s Dempsey Clark married Celia who gave him 12 children. In 1860, Celia gave birth to Lilly Clark my maternal grandmother’s mother. Eight months after Dempsey Clark died in 1893, Lilly Clark married Paul C. Coley and three years later gave birth to my grandmother Puella Coley. In 1985, my wife Cynthia gave birth to our son, and to honor Puella, we named him Coley M. Harvey.
In 1889 Dempsey Clark was considered one of the wealthiest Negroes in Georgia. He owned 600 acres of land and various livestock.
Sometime after Reconstruction, Bristow moved to Colorado where he owned “large mining interests. He never came back to the south to live.
Now you know why I am the way I am, speaking truth to power without trembling or fear, but with power, and a sound mind willing to bear witness to the truth. It’s in the genes.
Harold Michael Harvey is an American novelist and essayist. He is a Contributor at The Hill, SCLC National Magazine, Southern Changes Magazine and Black College Nines. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org