There is a collective chuckle from the crowd as he stands to speak, and, as they expect, he spouts the same old tripe. They exchange knowing glances and shake their heads, amused by his absurdity. For twenty years, this routine is repeated: His crazy insistence and their incredulous murmurs. But on February 23, 1807, there is another vote, and tears rush down his tired face. The slave trade has been abolished, and he has won.
Along the way, he has been mocked as a dwarf and a fraud. The King of England branded him a hypocrite. All for saying what, at some level, they all knew to be true.
I thought of this during the local Board of Education meeting the other night. There was, as the saying goes, an elephant in the room. Every seat was filled, more people stood along the walls, and still more watched from outside.
There was a buzz when the time came for public comment. Everyone knew the topic at hand. A few people rose to speak, and they all agreed. A loud clatter of applause followed every speech.
And then another name was called, and the room grew quiet. I heard a chuckle as she stood, and I noticed the grim look on her face as she began the long walk to the podium. She has taken this walk before, and it is always the same. Incredulous murmurs from the audience. Knowing looks and shaking heads. They all know what she will say, and she is quite alone.
Well, she said her piece, and it was a sad piece. The practice that grieves her, that has set her on that lonely walk through an angry room, over and over again, seemed to her audience a small thing, much as slavery once seemed a small thing.
So, how do we know a small thing from a big thing? How do we recognize the crazy insistence that might be telling an unwelcome truth?
We might begin by noticing the personal cost of that lonely walk, the remarkable courage required to stand alone and say what a roomful of people don’t want to hear.
We might also consider the question being asked – in this case, whether school libraries should provide sexually-explicit materials – and decide if the question deserves a hearing.
It is a strange fact that the audience is often louder than the speaker; we tend to hear as a group and respond as a group, with a clear sense of what the group will find acceptable. It takes courage to listen – to really listen – to hear the lonely voice above the offended audience and take a moment to consider what is being said.
I don’t know if Stefanie‘s question will get a hearing, but I hope our community will recognize the courage and sacrifice she demonstrates in continuing to ask it.
William Wilberforce led a long and determined campaign to eliminate slavery in England. For more information, see https://www.britannica.com/biography/William-Wilberforce.