News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to MinneKota@gmail.com

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Puttin' on the honkey


This attractive young couple put on outlandish costumes as a whore and her pimp and canvassed ACORN offices looking for some kind of scandal.  They played stereotyped roles as conceived by privileged white bourgeois children of what they think black street life is all about. 

If this pair came traipsing into  my office  I would immediately know that some kind of tomfoolery was taking place.  And if they said to me that that wanted information on how to set up a brothel featuring the services of 13-year-olds,   I would go along and tell them that they would be missing out on the marketing of perversion if they  did not not include some sheep, chickens, and a pack of dogs for servicing the right wingnut contingent of  the South Dakota blogosophere.  When people make absurd presumptions about other people based upon their own prejudiced and bigoted notions, they deserve and leave themselves open for being fooled as much as they hoped to fool someone else.  This is an old motif in English literature called "gulling the fool."

One of the ACORN women interviewed kept asking if the interview she was involved in was a trick and, deciding it was, she gave the pair ridiculous stories about murdeirng her ex-husband.  They fell for it, and it resulted in the police investigating the woman's tales and finding her ex-husband alive and in good health.  She was  carrying out an old African-American tradition of gulling the fool called "puttin' on the honkey" or jiving the fool.    In it, you tell the white man what he wants to hear to confirm  his stereotypes and the certainty of  his ignorance.  The premise is,  "You want a wild, lewd, and scandalous tale, I'll give you a wild, lewd, and scandalous tale.  Other offices threw the couple out and some called the police on them for their fraud.

Many urban legends have their origins in circumstances where some presumptuous jerk is fed a line of jive, the more preposterous the better.  As one who has worked in folklore and literature, I find it extremely difficult to think that the people who worked for ACORN were taken in for a moment by the impostors.

The most famous example of jiving the honkey occurs in Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man.   The episode centers around a black brothel where white folks gather to have their sexual proclivities serviced.  One black man who lives in an old cabin tells a wealthy donor to a nearby black college a tale of incest there.   The story he tells puts the wealthy old white man--who some of the brothel inmates call old monkey balls--into a fit of gasping shock, but produces a generous gift of money from him for the black man.  The story deals with how the man came to have a huge scar down the center of his face.  Living in cramped poverty, the man and his wife share a bed with their teen-age daughter.  The story has the young woman feeling some sexual inclinations during the night and in turn arouses the man who consumates those urges with the girl while sharing the bed with his wife and i;mpregnates his daughter.  In the man's version of the story, his wife hits him in the face with an ax, leaving the scar.  The man, who also sings some of the spritiual songs of his ;people, makes money going around to academic "researchers";and tellling this tale. The black college students feel shame and chagrin at the man.  Ralph Ellison  lets the circumstance stand in his novel as a portrayal of the racial attitudes that pervade the general culture. 

Putting on the honkey is a game played in Native American literature, too.  One of the early first-hand accounts of a Pueblo childhood was written at the instigation of missinoary who paid his informant by the word and stressed that he wanted all the lascivious details of an Indilan boyhood.  The informant wrote and wrote to bolster his earnings.  One of the details he includes involves fornication with a chicken.  The problem in the narrative is that episode occurs when the lad was five years old.  To alert readers the improbability was apparen;t, but many professors of anthropology put the book on their reading lists and became the object of ridicule and scorn among the Indian people whose stories they presumed to tell.

One of the more profound fooleries involved the head of the Bureau of Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institution.  He worked extensively with the Mesquakie people of Iowa, recording their ethnology and, particularly, the accounts of their sacred ceremonies.  These ceremonies are often built around a sacred pack, which is a bundle of symbolic objects which form memory devices for the performance of the ceremonies.  Michelson made himself a bit of a pest by constantly asking informants to provide him with accounts of sacred rituals that are to be performed only by designated holy men.  Finally some young ;men decided to give him what he asked for.  They gathered together some old cow bones and other bits of trash, wrapped them in a cow hide, and made up a story about them.  They dubbed it the Whie Owl Sacred Pack.  Michelson took it all down and published it the Smithsonian proceedings.  It,f course, was totally made up to show the presmptuous attitude and gullibility of the white anthropologists.

Still today, if you go to the Mesquake settlement and mention the White Owl Sacred Pack, the people will break into laughtet at the ingenious trick and what it reveals about the general culture.

ACORN, like all organizations that become large enough to become bureacraciies, may have problems.  However, it stretches credulity that people who are expeienced on-the-street organizers fell for the poses of young Hannah Giles and James O'Keefe.  In his interviews, O'Keefe has said that his motive for the "sting" was because of ACORN's vogter registration efforts which he thought led to the defeat of Republican candidates for office.  In his explanation lurks a racial motive. 

The devastating irony is that this all occurs when there is a great furor over whether or not racism is driving the hate rhetoric and demonstrations against Obama and his programs.  While the right wing almost unanimously protests that their hatred is not racially motivated and the accusations of racism are unfounded and irresponsible, they laud the crude racial stereotypes assumed my Ms. Giles and Mr. O'Keefe, and conclude that their own attitudes and notions have been confirmed.

The question is just whose racial perceptions have been confirmed?  Who really got stung?

(The journalistic implications of the deception and the coverage given it are another story.)

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States

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