|*Artwork by Tim Okamura|
RACHEL JEANTEL AND THE POLITICS OF BLACK WOMEN’S SPEECH
By CAROL BOYCE DAVIES
Black women scholars for a long time have been writing about the avoidance of really hearing black women’s speech. Indeed, all the black women writers who are now published began from the basic history that black women’s speech has been silenced in dominant discourses, from bell hooks in her book Talking Back to Gayatri Spivak’s rhetorical question, Can the subaltern speak?, which described rhetorically how women of color are already spoken for by the way they are constructed.
What this has meant historically is that black people and women under Jim Crow laws and up to the 19th Amendment were not able to testify in court, especially if testifying against a white person. When they did speak, their words were consigned to fussing, nonsense, ignorance. Black women writers and scholars have battled these perceptions for years and now there are avenues in which we can get our voices heard, at times with difficulty or less the obvious positioning that occurs.
Enter Rachel Jaentel, the prosecution’s star witness in the George Zimmerman murder trial, who, in her being, fits fully the stereotyped positions in which black women have been placed. In other words, she walks into an already constructed set of understandings in which the black and poor woman is seen.
Constructed as a problem from the start, she was clear in her interview with Piers Morgan on CNN that she had many months of encounters with defense attorney Don West and that it was only her home training of not speaking back to adults that stopped her from saying what she really felt about him.
Rachel’s clarification that she has a bone disability which makes her words come out wrong and slower than is normal makes our point even stronger. A physical disability was taken to mean stupidity in the fullest historical sense in which disabilities have been treated. In her words, there are “words I can say; others no.”
Rachel began her response to Morgan’s first question with the words: “Disappointed. Upset. Angry. Questioning.” Importantly, she proceeded to fill in some necessary knowledge gaps as far as Trayvon Martin was concerned. He was a calm, chill-loving person who loved his family, especially his mother, she said. Trayvon was a funny person to his friends. He was a bit lazy and would not, it seemed, stretch to do too much unless pushed.
And what did they talk about for all those hours? What they were going to do and be in life. Ironically Trayvon never got to realize this projection into the future and this, to me, is what perhaps hurt Rachel as equally as finding out that the person she was talking to was dead minutes after their last conversation.
She was on the phone with him until 7:16 p.m. and he died at 7:17 p.m., a time when “people are walking their dogs,” still walking around. So what could drive Zimmerman to such an irrational conclusion for a young boy walking on the street at 7 p.m.? The racial profiling response from numerous communities speaks volumes here, as does Rachel’s sense that Zimmerman “was finally going to get one.”
So, ironically, Juror B37, a white Southern woman, in the true tradition of the South, saw Rachel as inadequate in terms of her education and communication skills and felt something akin to pity for her and so discounted her story.
But Rachel’s comment, “I will hold back,” when prompted with the quote by the interviewer reveals a certain care, for the obvious response would have been to speak back to the ignorance and racism implicit in such a statement. Her clear position that this entire thing was not racial is an impressive moment of confidence in knowing the truth.
This is the testimony we did not hear for it seems the combination of racism, sexism and classism positioned this black young woman negatively from a variety of quarters: the prosecutors, who did not know how to use her credibly; the defense attorneys, who pillaged her and helped make her seem untrustworthy; the jurors’ patronizing assumptions about her; the media’s general, immediate, conditioned response; the legal pundits who generally had negative views except for the occasional lone black woman lawyer from time to time; some in the larger community – black and white – who saw her as inadequate, illiterate, uninformed, an embarrassment.
But there is a smart inner ghetto-fabulous logic to Rachel’s thought processes: Why would a young woman say she does not “do death”? There are several great responses possible here which we can pursue from the abhorrence of inner-city violence to the respect for the dead and the fear of spirits that sometimes run in Caribbean and African-American Southern cultures of which she is a descendant.
But, beyond that, she operates from a post-hip-hop “new school” framing which plays with language and in which “cracka” is the security guard or modern overseer, as was his ancestor, the Florida “cracker” or overseer who cracked whips on animals and/or black people.
So Rachel got that right. The Florida Humanities Council has a great research booklet on the “Florida Crackers” that I would recommend all in the media become familiar with.
Yes, this is a racialized Southern term, though in no way symmetrical with the N-word but assigned to poor whites who try to use authority on black people.
And, finally, for me, as I have said before, the fact that the prosecution made more of “cracker” than they did of “creepy” and “creeped out” in a state that has had its share of sexual predators is not an unreasonable fear for two 17-year-olds.
I am happy that Tom Joyner has offered Rachel a scholarship to further her education. With her experience at 19, thrust into the spotlight that she did not ask for, she will be able now to grow beyond this and, with the right critical skills training and education, will become one of the professionals we will be pleased to have around for years to come.
I would love to have her in my classes.
Carole Boyce Davies, professor of Africana Studies at Cornell University, is the former director of African Diaspora Studies at Florida International University.