I Heard It Through the Grapevine: Rumor in African-American Culture, by Patricia Turner, University of California Press, 1993, 260 pp., $25.00
Few whites are aware of the nonsense that circulates about them among blacks. Ever since the days of the slave trade, when Africans were convinced that whites planned to eat them, to the present, when more than half of all blacks think that illegal drugs may be part of a genocidal plot, blacks have believed all sorts of foolishness about whites.
Patricia Turner, a black associate professor at the University of California at Davis, has looked into today’s anti-white rumors and tries to explain why blacks–even successful, college-educated blacks–believe them. She says that they naturally expect the worst from whites because American society is so hopelessly racist that virtually any sort of white wickedness is plausible. Her book is therefore not just a study of credulity but also an exercise in it.
One of the most persistent themes in the world of black rumors is the fearsome powers of the Ku Klux Klan. For example, during the 1980s and even up to the present, many blacks firmly believed that the Church’s Fried Chicken fast food chain was owned by the Klan and that its food was doctored to sterilize black men. In 1984, a congressman actually had the FDA conduct mass spectrometry and gas chromatography tests on Church’s chicken to see what was in it. Naturally, the FDA found nothing suspicious, but these results did not satisfy “the folk,” as Prof. Turner often calls blacks. Some of her informants explained that the Klan would have had no trouble persuading the FDA to lie about the tests.
Another recent Klan enterprise is said to have been the Troop Sport clothing company, which was founded in 1985 and sold 95 percent of its clothes to blacks and Hispanics. The Troop name reportedly stood for “To Rule Over Oppressed People,” and the linings of shoes and jackets were supposed to contain messages like “Thank you, nigger, for making us rich.” Some young blacks who wore Troop clothes despite the rumor and subsequent boycott were attacked as traitors by other blacks.
Troop spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to fight the rumor. It hired the black singing group Gladys Night and the Pips to improve its image and posted anti-Klan posters in stores. The campaign failed and Troop went bankrupt, though the company denied that the boycott was the cause.
Prof. Turner tells us that the most recent alleged Klan front has been the Brooklyn Bottling Company, which sells a soda called Tropical Fantasy. Like Church’s chicken, the soda was said to be laced with a drug that would selectively sterilize black men. There is no odorless, tasteless substance that sterilizes anyone, much less only black men, but the FDA duly trotted out its mass spectrometers and cleared Tropical Fantasy. The rumor was unaffected and caused serious losses for Brooklyn Bottling. It also provoked violence; blacks attacked delivery trucks and roughed up storekeepers who stocked Tropical Fantasy.
“The folk” credit the Klan with many achievements. It is said to have killed John Kennedy and to be deeply involved in the tobacco business. The eponymous founders of Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds are both said to have been important Klan members (despite the fact that Philip Morris was British), and Kool menthol cigarettes are suspect because of the brand’s ominous misspelling.
The Klan is likewise thought to have killed Martin Luther King, though the government may have helped. As one informant said, “I heard it was the FBI or the KKK–one of those groups.” Prof. Turner notes that for many of “the folk,” there is no real difference between the two.
If the Klan has fearsome powers, those of the United States government are more fearsome still. As noted earlier, more than half of all blacks are either convinced that the government supplies illegal drugs to blacks or that it might well be doing so. Many blacks think it was Ronald Reagan who started spreading guns and crack cocaine in black neighborhoods out of a deep-seated hatred for blacks.
One reason many of Prof. Turner’s informants give for believing that the government is spreading illegal drugs is their complete confidence in its ability to keep them out of the country. Since there are drugs in America it must mean that the government lets them in so that blacks will take them and kill each other.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), was said to be behind the Atlanta child murders of the late 1970s and early 1980s. During that period 28 young blacks were killed before a black was finally convicted of the crimes. Even today, the conviction is commonly thought to have been a frame-up. The CDC employed the FBI to do the killings, because an essential ingredient for the manufacture of wonder drugs could be obtained only by extracting it from the sex organs of young blacks. The comedian Dick Gregory helped promote this rumor.
Many blacks, including the actor Bill Cosby, also believe that AIDS was invented by the government in order to kill blacks. Prof. Turner herself isn’t quite sure what to believe. She finds it ominous that when government agencies deny that they invented the virus they argue that bio-engineering is too primitive for that. She hints darkly that this may mean that the government might just spread deadly diseases among blacks if only it knew how.
Suspicions about drugs and AIDS are so widespread and so ridiculous that they have broken into the news but there are always other rumors on the go among “the folk” that whites rarely hear.
The Reebok shoe company funnels its profits to South Africa to prop up apartheid. Whites adopt Latin American babies to kill them and harvest their organs for transplants. George Bush started the Gulf war because there are so many blacks in the military. Colonel Sanders stole his Kentucky Fried Chicken recipe from a black cook who worked for his parents. The offices of Planned Parenthood are located in black neighborhoods to keep blacks from reproducing. The police deliberately let the Los Angeles riots get out of hand so that blacks and Hispanics would look bad on television. Clothing designer Liz Claiborne said on the Oprah Winfrey television program that she didn’t like to see black people wearing her clothes. Miss Claiborne has never been on that program, but many blacks threw out their Liz Claiborne dresses. Whites are always up to some kind of mischief.
Why do blacks believe this nonsense? Whites usually look for a rational explanation. When a company is said to be trying to sterilize blacks, its officers suspect that a competitor is trying to do them down. When the government is accused of wanting to kill blacks, the CIA and the United States Information Agency go looking for Communist propaganda.
Prof. Turner is probably right to argue that this sort of thinking is a waste of time. “The folk” are sufficiently credulous and sufficiently ill-disposed towards whites to cook up and swallow rumors without any outside help. Prof. Turner does not quite put it this way. She says that whites have been and continue to be so implacably racist that any kind of anti-black evil is plausible even if scientifically impossible.
The first part of her book is therefore full of ancient Klan atrocities that are supposed to justify today’s delusions, and the rest is sprinkled with the usual assumptions about contemporary white wickedness: random blacks are often beaten up while the police look the other way, television promotes anti-black stereotypes, the government is hostile to blacks, whites won’t hire blacks, the police persecute blacks, etc. In Prof. Turner’s world, affirmative action does not exist and it is always necessary to assume that whites are racists.
Her assumptions about sex take us deeper still into the world of black delusion. For example, we learn that the early Ku Klux Klan was primarily motivated by a sense of sexual inferiority coupled with latent homosexual desires for black men. Southern whites called blacks “boy” in unconscious acknowledgment of their Ganymead attractions, and lynched them because of this unbearable, suppressed homosexual lust. We also learn that Ku Kluxers stuffed wads of paper down their pants before they went calling on blacks so as not to appear insufficiently endowed.
Current anti-white rumors, Prof. Turner repeatedly points out, are filled with sexual elements: the KKK is trying to sterilize blacks, AIDS will exterminate blacks because it is sexually transmitted, white doctors need to extract something from black sex organs, etc. She stops just short of saying that all this is evidence of sexual obsessiveness on the part of whites.
Prof. Turner cannot bring herself to admit that black beliefs are aberrant or deplorable. Though she concedes that they may be tough on innocent companies that are smeared, she thinks goofy rumors are good for blacks. Believe it or not, rumors are “tools of resistance” because the catharsis of naming oppressors–such as the Klan and the FBI–gives blacks “a sense of power” and “contributes to an atmosphere of communal problem-solving.” “Sharing the rumor and joining the boycott,” says Prof. Turner, “enables individuals to perceive themselves as powerful.” What must Prof. Turner think of blacks if she really believes that swallowing preposterous nonsense “contributes to an atmosphere of communal problem-solving”?
The truth about these rumors is more stark and unpleasant than Prof. Turner seems to think. If today’s blacks think their government is trying to kill them or that the KKK can tell the FDA what to put into a report, they will believe anything. Of course, foreign correspondents in Africa stagger back to civilization with reports more amazing than these: sorcerers who can steal a man’s genitals with a handshake, religious fanatics who believe they can walk on water–and then drown en masse, witches who call down lightening and must be burned to death. Africans are champions of credulity, ripe for rumor, superstition, and nonsense.
Another element in these rumors that escapes Prof. Turner’s notice is the implied omnipotence of the white man. Whites could stop illegal drugs if they wanted, or invent viruses, or sterilize black men, or prevent riots, or just about anything else. “The folk,” on the other hand, are dolts who, with a little coaxing, can be made to buy shoes, eat fried chicken, take drugs, shoot each other, and get AIDS. This is powerful commentary on how blacks really see themselves.
Finally, a message that whites ignore at their peril is the implication of what blacks would want to do to a minority in their midst. Do not their delusions of genocide reflect their own desires and fantasies? Whether it be Idi Amin’s massacres or South African necklacings or corpses by the truckload in Burundi, Africans often make short and bloody work of their tribal enemies.
Much as she tries to blame “the folk’s” fantastic beliefs on white racism, Prof. Turner unwittingly points to the depths from which they flow.
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