Legacies of Enslavement & Race: 4 Truths


As this project’s steering committee laid the groundwork for this assessment tool, they kept returning to a series of foundational principles that would create a framework for understanding the rubric’s content. The Four Truths, non-negotiables, and derailers all play a role in grounding the intentions of the assessment tool.

The Four Truths establish a framework for understanding the differences between factual, documented truths; the personal and narratives people spin to help contextualize a fact or event; and the reconciliatory process that is necessary for coming to an shared understanding and moving forward together.

The Four Truths

Founded in 1996 in the aftermath of devastating and destructive apartheid, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission set out not only to investigate the causes and crimes of racial prejudice, but to work as a body promoting restorative justice. To do this, they established a framework for understanding truths based on 4 categories: 

Forensic (Factual) Truth — Personal (or Narrative) Truth — Social Truth — Reconciliatory Process

The Four Truths in Training

The Four Truths should be an integral part of staff and volunteer training. Staff training includes the establishment of non-negotiables (forensic truths) and the examination of biases (personal truths and social truths). NPS staff must come to an understanding and agreement about the park’s forensic truths and be equipped to discuss them.

We need to understand, and help our visitors understand, that the forensic truth is not fixed in time. As historians uncover new primary sources, we add to and change our understandings of the forensic truth. We must move away from blaming the shortcomings of forensic truths. Work with underrepresented communities to find primary sources and documents, including oral histories, is essential.

We can’t hide behind the “just the facts, ma’am” perception of forensic truths, by noting that people perceive and read primary documents in different ways. (E.g., 400 years of enslavement vs. 500 years of enslavement in North America). We need to create a space where we can work through different forensic truths. This space includes partners, descendant communities, and other stakeholders in the process.

Everyone should be able to tell the stories. NCA needs a cadre of diverse trainers to bring new ideas and perspectives to the process. We need to use the Four Truths to educate staff, as many people don’t think they have a bias. Programs are developed based upon employee interests, rather than the need to diversify the story of the park. Staff need to understand their biases play a role in how that interpretation is developed.

The Four Truths in Interpretive Programs and Exhibits

Once staff members have done their own work on the Four Truths, they can help facilitate the process for visitors. Doing this will aid visitors in understanding the forensic truth may differ from the personal truth. For example, rangers can help by deconstructing the lost cause narrative as a social truth.

Stating a forensic truth to a visitor may cause a learning crisis as they try to integrate it with their personal or social truths. We can and must assist them in the learning process. Help visitors integrate the forensic truths with their personal/social truths by providing primary source document, and by approaching the history through an empathetic and equitable lens.

We need to be clear with visitors that we are using the Four Truths model, so that we can help them understand where we are coming from. Visitors may perceive rangers as engaging in personal attacks when we provide forensic truths. (E.g., “Are you calling me a liar?”) By disclosing this framework at the beginning of our programs, we can more productively help visitors with their learning crisis.

Looking For More

Check out this introduction to The Four Truths, a three minute video presentation (MS Stream, NPS access only) by Braden Paynter, International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, from the 2020 IMAG conference.

Information about Audience Centered Interpretation can be found on the Common Learning Portal.

More from Braden Paynter (all videos are hosted on MS Stream; NPS access only):

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