The rumors gathered in I HEARD IT THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE by the folklorist Patricia A. Turner cover topics such as Liz Claiborne’s unwillingness to see her designs worn by black women, the ingredient in meals from the Church’s Fried Chicken restaurant chain that causes sterility in black men, and the FBI’s involvement in the serial murders of children that occurred in Atlanta in the 1970’s. Some readers may shake their heads in amusement and wonder. How, such readers will ask, can people be so gullible?
Exposing gullibility in the African American community, however, is not Turner’s purpose. In offering both a concise history of rumor throughout African American history and an account of current rumors, the author attempts to demonstrate that rumor often serves positive functions. The rumors to which she gives the greatest attention often involve conspiracies against blacks and threats to the bodies of black people. According to Turner, the rumors constitute a mechanism by which black communities resist exploitation and seek control over their environment.
Turner acknowledges two negative consequences of these rumors: They have disturbed relations between blacks and whites, and they have harmed the reputations of individuals and corporations. Her discussion seems to imply as well that such rumors may do economic harm to the many black employees employed by targeted companies and may discourage businesses from focusing on black consumers in their advertising and marketing strategies; the last point may, of course, strike some as a blessing.
Complicating the picture is the history of actual white oppression, exploitation, and manipulation of black people. From the African American perspective, a healthy suspicion of white institutions and corporations may be a valuable survival skill, even when that suspicion takes the form of unfounded rumor.
Many readers will be persuaded of the instrumental function of rumor in the African American community. Nevertheless, is it an effective instrument? Or is the black writer Shelby Steele right to argue that the prevalence of rumor weakens the ability of black Americans to take control of their destiny? To the discussion of such issues, Turner’s book makes a provocative contribution.