A decade or so ago, when I was in my mid-twenties, I volunteered to teach ESL to senior citizens in Chinatown. At one point others decided to join in. It was a change I had to get used to — being the only instructor to be one of two, then three. In my attempt to engage with one of the other instructor, one moment in particular pierces the surface: I spoke to the new guy, tatted up, his motorcycle helmet perpetually by his side, and said “You know what I heard?” This was in regards to his co-workers who were friends of my husband’s. His face simultaneously reflected irritation and boredom. He wasn’t interested in the fact that one guy was cheating on his girlfriend with his co-worker who also worked the concession stand. Though I saw the reaction it happened again. The same face and this time he ended the convo quickly. I think his name was Joe and Joe had a point. The rumors/gossip had nothing to do with him. Who was I at that age to even be spreading stuff to people I didn’t know?
I can say now that it was an attempt at connection. It’s a false and sordid learning curve to be accepted or appreciated or, some may think, respected when being able to have the info/intel on others and disperse it at your leisure and pleasure. It’s often easier to talk about others than oneself.
The gossip/rumor mill is dangerous territory. Asses got beat in my middle and high school years for these kinds of transgressions (she said you said along with I heard from so and so). Most of the time I saw this result in physical confrontations between girls, but boys were not exempt. True story: I saw a fight begin and end in a matter of 10 seconds when a guy walked up to my best friend’s boyfriend on the street, his own posse huddled behind him ready to go, and said “I heard you said s*** about me in the school cafeteria.” In one swift motion the guy hiked up his jeans and lifted his chin ready for action. His people spread out and my friend’s boyfriend surveyed those around him weighing whether he was going to get tag teamed or this was mano y mano. They spread out, did that boxing jump in prep for battle, and my friend’s boyfriend landed a punch to the guy’s nose that bled instantly. The guy backed away, said “Oh s*** my nose.” That was it. The boyfriend and I got on the next Q44. I said “If someone had blinked you’d have missed the whole thing.” Days, maybe even a couple of weeks later the guy and my friend’s boyfriend gave each other daps in the cafeteria as if nothing had happened. It was an unnecessary lesson.
I’ve been at the end of those kinds of rumors as a child and an adult. One girl in elementary school had come up to me, already matured by her own conflicts on the playground, “Afterschool” as some shouted the threat hanging in your ears and stomach until students were released. Somehow my name was spread around in circles that ultimately got to her. At a prepubescent age she essentially asked me, face-to-face, “Did you say s***?” To which I said “Not at all.” To which she said “Okay.” That was that. No “Afterschool,” no further incidences. Handled.
Rumors and hearsay and, let’s admit it, flat out lies have gotten people killed. Men and women strung up by their necks with their insides carved out for sport if not a perceived restitution and right. The most grotesque form of perceived “justice” exerted on individuals because of fear, insecurity, supremacy, and thirsts for power. I have seen the photos, clear as day in black & white with a parade of faces staring back at the camera. I suspect I may have direct lineage to those who were lost, those who were one of the original disappeared for this nation’s colonized society, some who never got amends but had to deal with it because this was the nation we were and are in. It’s the suspicions that take hold morphing into it’s own form of “truth” where victims go on trial and their loss of life deemed acceptable. Those lost due to this have often been the marginalized and in my family in particular people of color. Perspectives can vary but one thing that cannot be debated is the danger, not only in the single story as Chimamanda noted, but in the feeling of absolution when you think you know what’s occurred and in fact have no clue because, as victim, it becomes a new sort of terror that takes hold.
The term & designation of “victim” can be delicate territory. Meaning who “deserves” your sympathy/empathy in this case? It’s all too common for the victim of trauma to have to qualify the events that hurt them. It’s dangerous to press or want to make distinctions. In some cases the roles of plaintiff and defendant seem clear — Did he/she/they steal? Yes? Guilty. The tenets of the U.S. judicial system even say “innocent until proven guilty.” This was hammered into my and the other potential juror’s heads during jury duty earlier this year. But what we see and hear cannot be dismissed because it takes hold and judgments accrue in a way that is not okay because we “heard” things. Wasn’t she dressed a certain way? Did consent happen before or after? Why were you out so late in the first place? If you didn’t have your phone out maybe it wouldn’t have gotten stolen. Or what‘s been said to me, “If you hadn’t gotten them upset such and such wouldn’t have happened.” Too often it can be simple to center self in the rumor mill and hearsay game. It can be habitual too to dismiss and center oneself rather than listen. This is what I learned in therapy years ago in addition to what I’ve learned from truly aware white friends: to take stock is to own oneself and being able to explain your hurt as well as understand someone else’s. In the rumor mill things can be said, thrust out in the world for many reasons, but what I’ve seen/experienced is it stems from the same reason I told Joe things he had no business knowing in my twenties: to be accepted and to do so meant tearing someone else down. It’s how bullying begins or ends, if bullying ever does end. It’s where the fight to maintain self comes into play. It’s why some of us are hardened and “not nice” to maintain a balance of awareness and ownership.
My ex-husband and I went to therapy for a good 2 years in an attempt to salvage a marriage that not only couldn’t be saved but should’ve never taken place. Therapy requires open-mindedness, humility, as well as listening skills. I learned a lot in those 2 years and also in the time I continued seeing the same therapist after a very stressful divorce that had me blubbering in a court room in front of strangers, judge, lawyer, and court security. In therapy my husband and I were required to hear one another. When we didn’t there was an independent observer available to take stock and explain what was occurring because it was easy to attack but was it possible to also take stock in what others were feeling as well in that situation? As far as I was concerned I was always right and so was my husband when in fact we both had issues and had to grow from them. I think that’s where I first took stock of the fact that to be better meant being human and owning my s***. It wasn’t nor is it easy, but I’m proud of the progress made.
Earlier this year, the day after my 36th birthday in fact, Vanity Fair posted an article where it was revealed that the woman who accused a child, Emmett Till, of being the worst form of pervert and this allegation, her testimony — along with White rage and racism of course — lead to the death of Till and later exoneration of those who killed him. It didn’t matter whether what he said was true — which to me and many others never seemed to be — all that mattered was that fear was incited and anger stroked to the point that this child was not only killed but tortured. In John Edgar Wideman’s latest book he attempts to piece together the life of Louis Till, Emmett’s father, who would die under similar circumstances, in this case due to a white woman’s accusations of rape. Whether or not it’s true for Louis we will never know — given the time period and the sources it could be a sordid and prophetic tale of the demise between father and son. There are layers to this but what cannot be forgotten or dismissed even in the 21st century when we continue to say “that was then and this is now” that the perception, the rumors, the lack of recognition of others, ultimate hearsay and allegations have detrimental effects.
Childish antics are called such but don’t necessarily stop in childhood. They surface or continue through adulthood, when supposedly we’re aiming to move forward and not stay the same. It’s a point where we comprehend even more how much words have power and that power can chip away or destroy as well as uplift. It’s why some of us cling so hard to words because we need them and use them to help ourselves as well as others. It’s sad and unsettling when it turns out those words are manipulated to create chaos and instill suspicion while those throwing out said words, which become sentences, which can lead to paragraphs that incite pain stand back to watch what transpires. It’s why Trump’s tweets are dangerous. Why it’s important to hear both sides but also not to rely on one more than the other when facts aren’t supplied. It’s why we all have a responsibility to be ‘better than’ not ‘on par with.’ It’s why the danger of the post-9/11 narrative against Muslims has taken lives and lead to the reduction if not abolishment of civil rights for so many marginalized people over time. The hearsay, the rumor, the skepticism that you are bad because I heard this, I read this, I trusted this source more than I trusted the people involved gets messy.
Last week, I had lunch with a group of friends. I said “Oh wait until you hear the drama leading up to — ” One of my friends stopped me dead, “Nope. I don’t want to hear it,” she said. I smiled and laughed, perhaps out loud or to myself. She was/is right and I’m still learning.