Saturday, June 29, 2013

rachel jeantel, paula deen and Truth

If I believed in an anthropomorphic god I would think he had brought both Paula Deen and Rachel Jeantel to the forefront of news this week as an example of how she laughs by mixing events together.

I recognize that I speak with a power I may not have earned, primarily because I am a man who is speaking about two women.  I can't know what went through their minds as they testified in separate instances. 

But I give Paula Deen credit.  She did not dance around the truth in her deposition, she spoke what came first into her mouth, and it was not the most considered response but it was a truthful one.  Similarly, Rachel Jeantel, who has received much flack for having said cracker is not a racial term--and while it is to the extent it refers to someone's color, it's not, certainly not on the level of nigger or spic or slant or polesmoker; at worst it's a word that conjures up a specific stereotype, the good ol' boy, but that doesn't reduce all white people to a single attribute like the other terms do--and like Deen's it wasn't the most creditable but it was truthful. 

Is it possible to speak about Truth, not an eternal but a verity we all understand, in the contexts of these instances?  Yes, it is, and we should.  For many of us who are involved with humanity, it is complex trying to navigate the places where these two women intersect.  Some of us have been here before:  we were both burned by the Tawana Brawley fiasco of the late 80s but also understood the legitimacy of Spike Lee's graffitti in Do the Right Thing (and does it say something that I had to go to, not the most black issues-friendly website, to find the above image?). It's the kind of Truth many black preachers, Biblical moralists, and American Indian storytellers are getting at when they say, "I don't know if it happened that way, but it's the Truth."

This is the Truth of the parable of the Good Samaritan which, whether it happened in the way it's described in Luke or not, is nonetheless True in its conclusion.  Small "t" truth is notoriously slippery and sometimes results in things like what I hope will be an infamous tweet from Don West, George Zimmerman's high-profile murder counsel.  The "stupidity" to which his daughter refers may not be intended as Jeantel, and I don't think he'd want to be thought of as doing that, but it's certainly been taken by many pro-Zimmerman, or they may be more accurately called anti-Jeantel, commenters as referring to her.  Rachel Jeantel speaks Creole, Spanish, and English.  How many languages do many of her detractors speak?

Brittney Cooper, writing in Salon, argues "justice should be no respecter of persons, or it isn’t justice," and she is absolutely correct.  Both women are paying in what we so euphemistically refer to as the court of public opinion.  It is one thing to argue that Paula Deen is paying a high price--the loss of some (not all) of her sponsors--for something she said 27 years ago and may have continued to say(does someone really know the time when they once used or stopped using an offensive word?  I have said "nigger" many times in my life, most often in classrooms as an example of the power we afford to language, mere puffs of air, to determine how we think of ourselves or others.  But have I ever said it when angry or drunk, aimed that word like a barrel at anyone?  I like to think not but I've lived over 50 years and I know better than to profess anything as certain), and it is something else again to blame Rachel Jeantel for repeating in court what her friend called someone over the phone.  As Jelani Cobb points out, Jeantel this week took on the role of defendent in this trial, something I'm certain Zimmerman's legal team welcomes. 

Paula Deen had an opportunity to lie and chose not to do it.  There are inconsistencies between what Rachel Jeantel told police earlier and later.  I don't have reason not to believe her reasons for doing so.  Many of the same people who would give Deen the benefit of the doubt are unwilling to do the same for Jeantel.  It may be because Deen is white or because she is successful but there are no other reasons Jeantel has given so far for them to do so.

We must not become confused:  unlike Paula Deen, Rachel Jeantel is not the perpetrator; unlike Tawana Brawley, she is not even the professed victim.  She is a witness and she is 17 years old in a society that both alienates and confuses her. 

She is not a witness whose lines have been written by Dick Wolf.  What she says will not fit into a neat narrative.  She is a 17 year old black girl who listened to her friend as he was followed and eventually killed.  She is scared and uncertain about her own role in all this.  She has seen the man who killed her friend already released once from police custody.  Why shouldn't she be cynical it will happen again? Why shouldn't she be concerned she could well be the victim next time?

No comments:

Post a Comment