WHEN I FIRST read Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “truth” early last year, I did a double take to make sure it wasn’t written in 2021. The 1987 poem personifies its titular subject as a living being that can knock its “firm knuckles / Hard on the door,” whose arrival brings an equal mix of anticipation and apprehension. Brooks describes multiple responses one can have to the arrival of truth. For those who have made peace with lies, the truth can be threatening: “Shall we not dread him, / Shall we not fear him / After so lengthy a / Session with shade?” Even for those who have longed for truth’s arrival, blissful or willful ignorance seems to be a better alternative than the terror of having to engage truth head on: “Shall we not shudder?— / Shall we not flee / Into the shelter, the dear thick shelter / Of the familiar / Propitious haze?” Regardless, Brooks makes one thing clear: The question is not a matter of if truth will come, but when. The most important question of our lives then becomes, how are we to greet it?
In the poem, Brooks doesn’t name the truth that haunts her—although since she first published it in 1949, as the stage for the civil rights movement was being set, one possibility might be the systemic mistreatment of Black people and white people’s willful obliviousness to it. I found the poem to be a peculiar comfort in this time as we try to adjust to an ever-shifting landscape of new realities and reckon with truths about ourselves we might otherwise prefer remain hidden.
Similarly, several films offer insight into how people receive truth’s advent.