Part 5—Where our “facts” come from: In last Saturday’s column, Charles Blow discussed the remarkable life of Rosa Parks, who was born 100 years ago this week.
He could have selected any number of themes from Jeanne Theoharis’ fascinating new book about Mrs. Parks. For good or for ill, he devoted a fairly large chunk of his column to what he rather oddly described as a “scene in the book.”
This "scene" involves an attempted assault against Mrs. Parks when she was a young woman. Here's the way Blow presents it:
BLOW (2/2/13): One of the most troubling and possibly most controversial scenes in the book occurs when Rosa is a young woman working as a domestic. A white man whom she calls “Mr. Charlie” tries to sexually assault her. Determined to protect herself, she taunts him as she evades him, haranguing him about the “white man’s inhuman treatment of the Negro.”Blow devotes about one-sixth of his column to this matter, which he rather weirdly describes as a troubling “scene in the book.”
“How I hated all white people, especially him,” she continued. “I said I would never stoop so low as to have anything to do with him.”
Parks added that “if he wanted to kill me and rape a dead body, he was welcome but he would have to kill me first.”
The author points out that although the story is recorded in Parks’s own handwriting, it isn’t clear whether it’s completely true, half true or just allegory.
In comments, Theoharis was scolded by one reader for doubting Parks’ account of this attempted assault. “The author is doubting whether black women were sexual harassed and assaulted during the Jim Crow South?” the acerbic commenter asks. “She thinks that Rosa Parks who bravely investigated gang rapes of black women by white men throughout the South may have fudged her own attack? The denial of one of the painful aspects of Park's life is another form of sanitization.”
Ouch! As the commenter closed, he or she reversed the central claim of Blow’s column. At the time of Mrs. Parks’ death, her remarkable life was “sanitized and sugarcoated,” Blow declares. He quoted Theorharis, who seemed to say that this had occurred in “nearly every account.”
Now, this commenter accused Theoharis of additional sanitization.
In our view, the commenter was right to be struck by the oddness of Blow’s presentation. Beyond that, the commenter has cause to be angry with Theoharis—although Blow had obscured the actual problem with this “scene” from her new book.
Like almost all of Blow’s citations, this particular “scene” occurs early in Theoharis’ book. The fiery professor devotes several pages to this matter—mentioning just once, very much in passing, that she is describing a “short story” Mrs. Parks wrote as a middle-aged woman, “sometime in the late 1950s or the 1960s.”
Theoharis never explains this fleeting reference. Did Mrs. Parks write other short stories? How does Theoharis know that this document was a “short story” as opposed to a piece of autobiography? None of this is ever explained, but Theoharis quickly starts treating the “scene” in question as a factual episode. She relates the story in great detail, engaging in several types of legerdemain which convey the impression that this incident actually happened.
She doesn’t know that this is the case. But she struggles to give that impression.
It is only at the end of her detailed telling that Theoharis says, as Blow notes, that we can’t be sure how much of this story actually happened. In fact, it doesn’t seem clear that Theoharis knows if any of the story is autobiographical, although she dissembles in various ways, avoiding a clear statement of this apparent fact.
In his column, Blow adds to the confusion, even as he channels Theoharis’ disclaimers. He never notes that he is describing a “short story” at all. For that reason, at least one reader found it strange that Mrs. Parks’ account would have been called into question.
Because of Blow, this reader didn’t know that he or she was actually being told about a “short story” Mrs. Parks wrote. In fairness, this identification flashes by so quickly in the book that Blow may not have seen it.
By way of background:
Mrs. Parks did have to drop out of school in eleventh grade to help care for her family. She did work as a domestic, Theoharis says, although she doesn’t provide a source for the claim.
Question: When Mrs. Parks was a young woman, was she the object of an attempted assault of the type described in Blow’s column? It’s certainly possible, but the professor doesn’t show any sign of knowing. Despite this handicap, Theoharis works to convey a different impression. She employs several types of writerly misdirection as she misleads and mistreats her readers—as she invents a “troubling and possibly controversial scene” on page 10 of her new book.
When Mrs. Parks was a young woman, was she the object of an attempted sexual assault? Obviously, that is possible; lived experience may well have been the source of this “short story.” On the other hand, sometimes a short story is just a short story—unless the short story is being used in a novelized account of a famous person’s remarkable, complex life.
We strongly recommend Theoharis’ book for much of the information it conveys. A reader may learn many things about Mrs. Parks and about the times in which she lived.
That said, the book is also fascinating as a road map to the way we receive the novelized tales which constitute so much of our “knowledge.” Let’s review:
At the start of her book, Theoharis complains about the way Mrs. Parks was portrayed at the time of her death. Sadly, Theoharis’ presentation is the work of a committed fabulist. The endnote in which she pretends to document her claims should be an embarrassment to Brooklyn College. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/6/13.
A few pages later, we encounter an exciting “scene” in her book. The scene is taken from a “short story” whose accuracy as autobiography Theoharis can’t seem to vouch for. Again, we’ll recommend Theoharis’ endnotes concerning this matter to those who enjoy the grotesque.
In its major thrust, Blow’s column was absolute nonsense—an insult to his New York Times readers, an insult to Mrs. Parks. On the bright side, it helps us see the novelized nature of much of our modern knowledge.
His account of the way Mrs. Parks was portrayed is baldly, laughably bogus. If he fact-checked Theoharis at all, he learned this within five minutes. In addition, his account of that “scene in the book” is, in reality, a description of a text Theoharis described as a “short story.” He burned about one-sixth of his column on an incident which may never have occurred.
Blow describes it as a "scene in the book." In this way, he keeps his own presentation technically accurate. He knows enough not to call it an "incident from Parks' life."
That space in Blow's column could have gone to other parts of Mrs. Parks’ rich life, parts of her life which are clearly documented. Perhaps it’s simply true that sex sells—and that assault sells best of all.
But good lord! In our view, Theoharis just isn’t overwhelmingly honest in the way she constructs quite a few of her tales. In our view, Brooklyn College should be troubled by much of the work in her book.
Having said that, Theoharis is quite doctrinaire. She has a story she wants to tell about Mrs. Parks’ life. Many parts of that story are well worth examining; many of the professor's doctrines are very much worth exploring. But Theoharis seems willing to break the rules to tell you her story in a manner she likes.
Within our journalistic culture, what role is played by such well-known concepts as the facts and the truth? For fifteen years, we've been showing you the very small role that is played by such recent concepts, which sit atop much older traditions of fabulized, heroic tales.
In truth, our modern “journalists” routinely tell us the stories they like. Routinely, they invent bogus facts and bogus quotations to pimp their tales along.
Highly motivated scholars may play these games too. Everyone seems to accept this.
Fabulists to the left of us, novelists to the right! Tomorrow, we’ll show you the way Amy Goodman and Gwen Ifill played along with this low-IQ piddle as they interviewed Theoharis about her fabulous book.
Tomorrow: Gwen Ifill remembers