I Heard it Through the Grapevine: Rumor in African-American Culture.
Seldom does reading a scholarly book become a page-turning adventure, but that is what happened for me with Patricia Turner's I Heart It Through the Grapevine, a study of rumor in African American communities. With a flowing writing style, Turner achieves her first objective of making the book accessible to academics as well as to persons outside the academy, such as some of her informants, whose literacy skills range widely. Setting as her task the exploration of rumors that have persisted among African Americans -
even when conclusive evidence has proved otherwise - Turner explores the historical significance and contemporary function of several rumors. These include the belief that Church's Chicken has an ingredient that sterilizes black men, that the Ku Klux Klan owns the popular Troop sportswear line, that profits from Reebok shoes are used to support the ruling white elite in South Africa, and that the Ku Klux Klan, in cahoots with the FBI, murdered the black children in Atlanta between 1979 and 1981. Turner devotes an entire chapter to rumors surrounding the prevalence of drugs in African American communities, particularly crack; in this case, Turner's informants claim government conspiracy in the attempted extermination of blacks in America.
In order to contextualize her study, Turner devotes the first two chapters to historical materials, beginning with misperceptions Africans and Europeans had of each other (Topsy/Eva cycles of rumors) regarding a propensity to cannibalism (each thought the other guilty of the practice). She cites the Amistad mutiny as one instance in which a belief that whites would eat them led blacks to rise up against their captors. Turner makes clear that hundreds of years connect rumors that focus on violation of black bodies during racist encounters between blacks and whites - from Africa, through slavery, and into riots of the twentieth century. Contemporary rumors and legends, therefore, which highlight efforts to destroy the procreative and reproductive functions in African Americans, or the claim that whites need black "bodies or body parts to survive," can be traced back to fear of black bodies (and the desire to conquer that fear by controlling black bodies), exploitation of black bodies sexually, and consumption of black bodies (figuratively in the stealing of black labor during slavery). Black male bodies have been more frequently targeted in the rumors Turner explores.
From her historical contextualizing, Turner moves to focus on contemporary conspiracy theories - those serving to explain reputed Klan-owned businesses in black communities; the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy, and Malcolm X; and Klan involvement in the Atlanta child murders. More recently, rumors of Klan involvement have focused on Church's Chicken, Troop Sportswear, Kool cigarettes, and Tropical Fantasy, a soft drink, with the Klan and other agencies that have the power to destroy or contaminate black bodies being cited as the demonic offenders. Turner's informants illustrate that beliefs about the Klan loom large in the African American psyche. As the oldest and most virulent white supremacist group in America, with a strong history of anti-black sentiments, the Klan becomes the easy target for many feelings of ill-being among African Americans. Despite claims of Klan members that they do not deal in certain products, or that they would have nothing to do "with a bunch of gooks" (in the Korean-based Troop Sportswear rumor), they remain the most frequently targeted source among African Americans for rumors of conspiracy theories. These theories can be as concrete as asserting that the Klan uses proceeds from Troop bomber jackets and other popular items to replenish the coffers depleted by a court settlement a black woman won against them, to generalized ideas that the Klan wants to destroy the black race, or see blacks suffer, or generally keep the race down economically and socially.
Turner also devotes chapters specifically to rumors surrounding contamination theories (interferon, AIDS), corporate conspiracy theories (food, beverages, cigarettes, athletic shoes), and theories about crack and its current place in African American communities. Since Turner's primary focus is upon four or five cycles of rumors, the chapters necessarily repeat some of the material she has presented previously as she attempts to analyze the rumor phenomenon from various angles for its historical, cultural, and psychological value. African Americans, she concludes, have devised specific, rumor-dependent ways of responding to news or crises that affect them as well as the larger society. When research on interferon promised it as a miracle cure for cancer, and those claims were simultaneous with the unsolved murders in Atlanta, African Americans closed the information gap by asserting that young black males were being killed for the substance (extracted from their penises) necessary to complete research on interferon. Since the Centers for Disease Control, located in Atlanta, had allowed the research to continue for decades on the black men in Tuskegee who had been contaminated with syphilis, then why would it not condone a usage of black male bodies in the Atlanta child murders? Similarly, at a time when officials and legislators were decrying the use of public funds to support welfare, and pointing their fingers at black women as conspicuous abusers, why would such officials, in conspiracy with the medical profession, not use the Norplant implants to retard - permanently, not temporarily - the reproductive capabilities of black women?
Turner ends her book with an epilogue that focuses on Norplant and other rumors that she could not, given the time frame for the publication of her book, pursue in more detail. She offers these as areas deserving further research and raises questions pertinent to that research. For the rumors on which she conducted extensive research, she not only uses rumor theory in conjunction with historical, folkloristic, and other cultural materials, but she conducted hundreds of interviews with informants and, impressively, wrote to representatives of all the agencies that were the objects of the rumors. The responses she received are a study in themselves, ranging from a form letter from Ronald Reagan, whose staff respondent clearly did not read Turner's inquiry about a government conspiracy to put crack in black communities, to a defensive representative of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, whose very literate and detailed letter reveals more about the gaps among him, his company, and African Americans than about the specific information Turner had requested on governmental conspiracy in connection with drugs. She also garnered informative letters from incarcerated black men, and she completed case studies of two well- educated perpetuators of rumors about crack in an effort to show how strong the rhetorical power and cultural identification with rumor can be. In addition, Turner uses movies such as Boyz 'N the Hood to shed further light on her analysis of crack and conspiracy.
And why do such rumors persist in African American communities, especially after conclusive evidence is presented that the Klan does not own Church's or Troop, that no substance could be scientifically devised to attack the reproductive powers of only black men, or that Tropical Fantasy had no Klan connection and no sterilizing substances? People in a minority group, kept away from access to information, Turner posits, frequently fill in gaps for themselves. Their vulnerability and powerlessness are additional factors in production of the rumor mill. There is also some guilt about consuming products, such as fried chicken and corn on the cob (from Church's), that are almost ritualistic soul food items that one might be better off cooking at home. Further, there are problems in trying to justify spending nearly two hundred dollars on jackets or athletic shoes in communities where people are working-class and poor. Rumors become rationales, therefore - efforts to control rampant, seemingly irresponsible financial behavior. Ultimately, Turner "seeks to delineate the connections between the realities of black oppression and the folk discourse that has been developed as blacks have sought to secure their place in America."
Few scholars have the opportunity to produce truly groundbreaking work, but Turner's I Heard It Through the Grapevine belongs in this category. Its combination of sources make it ideal for interdisciplinary classroom study; its expansion of knowledge about urban or contemporary legends makes it particularly appealing to folklorists; and its analysis of persisting creative patterns of resistance in African American communities makes it of general interest to cultural analysts. The book will therefore be read, cited, and used in a variety of settings. It might also spark controversy, the kind that made Zora Neale Hurston wonder if she should have published her findings in Mules and Men (1935) about voodoo in New Orleans, or if she should have retained her insider status and left white folks ignorant about such practices. The clash between being a member of a community and the folklorist/scholar's desire to spread knowledge abroad - that is an issue that naturally arises upon reading Grapevine. In the very excitement that kept Turner pursuing her project for years, has she not also "let the cat out of the bag," perhaps given those so inclined to use it more ammunition with which to combat the very African Americans who circulate the rumors? Only a conspicuously small percentage of nonblacks was familiar with any of the material Turner treats.
Since its publication, Grapevine has received attention that far exceeds what most scholars can expect from a university press book. To most scholars, that is unquestionably good. To some others, that very good might be questionable. None of the potentially controversial noises the book will continue to make, however, can gainsay Turner's completion of a project that shares in its very construction the spirit of the culture from which it derives and that shows a striking sensitivity to the topic covered. Concerning rumors, Turner defends "the somewhat controversial position that they do not necessarily reflect pathological preoccupations among African-Americans." Rather, Turner prefers to make "the case that these rumors and contemporary legends often function as tools of resistance for many of the folk who share them." The book is well-done, well-written, and should rightfully be well-received.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1996|
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