Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey

Professor Jan Black: Unavoidable Truths

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Jan Black

Professor Jan Black, a leading authority on human rights in Latin America, wrote the definitive book on U.S. interference in post-colonial Brazil -- some years after she was invited to play piano in Elvis Presley's band.

June 23, 2017

She met Martin Luther King Jr., spent a day with Cesar Chavez, hit the road with Sar­gent Shriver, and danced with Harry Belafonte. She studied graphic arts in college but went on to become a leading authority on human rights in Latin America. And she very near­ly played piano in Elvis Presley’s band. Calling longtime Middlebury Institute professor Jan Knippers Black’s backsto­ry “interesting” feels like an epic under­statement. Here are a few of the lessons she’s learned on her journey, including variations on some of the observations her students have come to know as “Black’s Laws.”

Creativity is not a skill set, but a mindset. My first career was in music, as some­thing of a child prodigy sidekick to my father, known as Tennessee’s “Singing Senator.” When I went off to college, ev­erybody assumed I would go into music. Characteristically stubborn, I went into graphic arts instead. Somewhere along the line, my advisor suggested I pick up a second major because “you’re an intellec­tual.” I said “A whut?” I had no idea what he was talking about, but I soon realized it had something to do with insatiable curiosity.

Most consequences are unintended. Before I graduated from college, I was working in TV program design in Nash­ville and playing piano at a local club, just for my own entertainment. The house band would come in and say “Oh, keep playing.” Finally, they asked me to join, but I wasn’t looking for a career in music and I let it go. That group was the Jordanaires, who were backing up Elvis Presley!

Chase your passion. When I heard about the Peace Corps in 1961, I said “That’s it! That’s where I’ll find myself.” I hopped on a bus up to Washington, D.C., and talked with the deputy director. He asked where I wanted to go, I said “Chile,” and that was it! Returning from Peace Corps, I was asked to travel around the country helping spread the word, often with Sarge Shriver, who became a good friend.

Poverty and happiness are not mutually exclusive. The Peace Corps helped me gain a different kind of understanding of the lives of the impoverished. It was surprising to see how able and optimis­tic and happy most seemed to be. Amer­icans tend to seek satisfaction in material things, and that’s not very fulfilling.

In the business of development assis­tance, the first thing the West needs to learn is humility. In the U.S., we’ve always talked about how important it is to make sure we have buy-in and participation from the local people, and that we pass on our skills and work ourselves out of a job. We talk a good game, but practice has not changed for the better over the years; if anything, it may have changed for the worse.

Stand up to bullies. While at American University for my PhD, I worked in a program underwritten by the govern­ment. I was assured there would be no censorship, but when my chapters for a book on Brazil came back from “across the river” (the CIA), my supervisor was livid. He beat his fists on the table, called me a hippie and a pamphleteer, and or­dered me to rewrite the chapters or be fired. I said “Fire me! I won’t rewrite a word.” He turned white as a sheet. He knew he was trapped. Very soon I had his job, which I hadn’t wanted. Meanwhile, my dissertation, inspired by that episode, won best of the year and became my first book, U.S. Penetration of Brazil.

Making uncomfortable truths available isn’t enough: you have to make the truth unavoidable. If people can live in denial, they probably will. Moreover, speaking truth to power is not enough if power is not listening. If such speech carries no risk, it is carrying too little volume or too little truth.

Get involved and you never know who you’ll meet. One of my mentors, Brady Tyson, was a leader in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and I was able to meet Martin Luther King Jr. I also spent a whole day with Cesar Chavez once when I was president of an organiza­tion called the New Mexico Progressive Political Action Committee.

Don’t underestimate your potential impact. With Amnesty International USA [where Black is in her sixth year as a board member], I went to Taiwan to intercede for a woman who had been arrested for speaking at a human rights rally. I wasn’t allowed to visit her in jail, but I made sure the appropriate government officials knew there was U.S. interest in her case. She was ultimately released early, but more important, she was able after my visit to get treatment in prison for her cancer; and she claims that I saved her life. In 2000, when Lu Hsiu-lien became vice president of Taiwan (then the Republic of China), she honored me at her inauguration.

The risks we take help define who we are. I knew choosing to write my disser­tation about U.S. involvement in Brazil was risky. Many people of influence did not want that story to be told. But I re­alized I wouldn’t be able to live with my­self if I understood what had happened to Brazil—and was likely to happen to Chile and Uruguay—and failed to tell people about it. Once I made the decision to take that risk, I knew who I was.

Knowing who you want to be is an essen­tial prelude to knowing what you want to do. It’s a waste of time trying to figure out what kind of career you want to have until you fully understand your own values and character and capabilities. In the begin­ning and in the end, you’re the one you have to live with, so you’d better focus on being comfortable in your own skin.

[This article was published in the Spring 2017 issue of Communiqué.]