The United States “has never had its truth telling moment as it relates to the middle passage and the impacts of enslaving so many people for so many years,” U.S. Representative Barbara Lee said Thursday at a John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum.  

Lee’s appearance at the Forum marked the beginning of the two-day Truth and Transformation Conference, organized by the Institutional Antiracism and Accountability (IARA) Project at Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. The theme was “Looking Back, Paying It Forward: Truth and Transformation through Historical Accountability.” 

Lee, who has been working with U.S. Senator Cory Booker on legislation to create the first U.S. Commission on Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation, was just the right person to begin the day-long conference, according to Khalil Gibran Muhammad, the Ford Foundation Professor of History, Race, and Public Policy and director of the IARA Project. 

“Most of what we are committed to is understanding how to understand the past, how to reckon with that past as the benchmark for measuring progress in the future,” Muhammad said in introducing Lee. “What debts are owed, what conversations need to be had, what kind of community do we need to build in order to have a better future?” 

Official headshot of Rep. Barbara Lee.

“It's not about accusing people. This is about telling the truth because that's the only way to move forward.”

Rep. Barbara Lee

Lee, who has represented a swath of Oakland and Berkeley, California, in the U.S. House since 1998, spoke with Melissa Perry-Harris, the Maya Angelou Presidential Chair at Wake Forest University. 

“Forty countries have established truth commissions. And the U.S. funds a lot of these international commissions through the U.S. Institute of Peace,” Lee said, referring to the nonpartisan institute founded by Congress in 1984 and dedicated to resolving violent conflict abroad to ensure U.S. and global security. 

“And there are commissions around the country at the local level,” she continued, referencing the work of truth commissions already at work in communities. "So, it's not like this is brand new in this country, because we've been doing this at the local level. But I want it to be a national commission.” 

From Lee’s perspective, commissions are a pathway to healing: “It's not about accusing people. This is about telling the truth, because that's the only way to move forward.”  

The proposed truth commission goes hand-in-hand with other legislation Lee has introduced: H.R. 40, The Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act. 

“Reparations are the conclusion of this process through the United States Congress,” Lee said.  “You can't just move forward and heal without transforming this country. And that means reparations.”  

“Individuals, families of those who enslaved people, who benefited from that, should be able to talk about how they benefited,” Lee said, acknowledging the difficulty of a discussion around reparations. “But it's the institutions that we must really focus on, all around the country. I mean the insurance industry, universities, the government, the legalization of enslaving Africans was sanctioned and was in law.” 

The 2022 Truth and Transformation Conference opened the doors for such discussion. With panels covering affirmative action policies and current diversity practices, monuments and racial reckoning, and the reparation movements already underway in the United States, attendees were able, as Muhammad suggested, to learn what’s possible going forward. 

You can watch the complete Forum event to learn more about Lee’s proposed legislation. 

Photograph by Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA via AP Images

Get smart & reliable public policy insights right in your inbox.