Taking Care of the Truth
Embedded Slander: A Meditation On the Complicity of Wikipedia
BEGINNING IN THE LATE 1990s I became aware that my daughter, Rebecca Grant Walker Leventhal, aka Rebecca Walker, was, for her own purposes, making wildly untrue comments, in private talks, lectures, and in the media, about her childhood experiences with her father and me. As years passed, these charges grew in variety and intensity and centered primarily on my deficiencies as a mother. I was not a perfect mother, whatever that means, but I was good enough. The pain of being unfairly and publicly accused of willful harm, by someone I gave birth to, and raised, to the limits of my ability, someone I’ve deeply loved, has been at times almost unbearable. For the past decade or so I have borne this injustice as well as I could, in silence, for the most part, but now, being on the other side of the trauma to some degree, I begin to see unexpected ways uncontested slander harms us. This is what I wish to share.
Which brings me to my subject: Embedded Slander: A Meditation On the Complicity of Wikipedia.
Six or seven years ago I discovered Wikipedia. I am “old school” and used to relying on the ancient writer’s tools: dictionaries, encyclopedias, a thesaurus. It seemed so invitingly easy and quick that I thought to check out my own name. There, as if verified by The Gods of We Know Everything, appeared some of my daughter’s most distorted comments about me. Presented as legitimate information. As if they were true.
There is the ‘”fact” of our “estrangement” as if I participated in manufacturing, establishing or maintaining one. It is true that after years of verbal and fear of physical abuse I resigned as personal mother, in favor of being the same kind of mother to my biological daughter that I am to non-biological ones: protective and loving but demanding of courtesy and respect.
There is the “fact” that my daughter was removed from my will, in favor of “a distant relative.” My daughter has not been removed from my will to this day. That a first cousin, my brother’s son, was asked to assume end of life duties for me, in no way impacted on the rest of my will. But why should the subject of my will even appear in Wikipedia? Whose business is it what is in my will?
There is the “fact” that I have not spoken to my daughter since the birth of her son, Tenzin, which I suppose is meant to make it more conceivable that I’ve never been permitted to see him. (All I can say to this is: Hang on, Grandson!)
I learn via Wikipedia that my daughter was banished because she questioned my “ideology”! I’m the kind of mother who would cheer.
There is my daughter’s quote about feeling like a symbol of interracial solidarity rather than “a cherished daughter” that is attributed to me. Further establishing a self-pitying tone that begins to grate.
I see I’m also second cousin to Reggie Watts whom I do not know.
For a number of years, when I thought of it, I would ask various people: doesn’t Wikipedia have to be concerned to print the truth? They brightly responded, usually: Oh, no problem. If something’s wrong, you can change it.
But how is that done? I asked. No one seemed to know. Or could follow the complicated route laid out for this maneuver by Wikipedia. I gave up trying almost at once.
A computer genius nephew- in- law came to visit, and I was telling him of my concern.
He laughed: Oh, it stings you because it is personal.
No, I said, not laughing. It stings me because it is untrue.
He said he could fix the Wikipedia page easily, but that was the last I heard from him.
At last I hired an executive aide, one of whose primary responsibilities was to change the offending entries on Wikipedia.
Happily one day he called to tell me all the work was done! He had even gotten them to change what I’d considered a very racist and sexist line: she has written both fiction and essays about race and gender (how would one do that?) And is that what one would say Faulkner did? Albert Camus? Doris Lessing? Anyway.
I was delighted with this news for a whole day. Because that’s how long the revised entry about my life remained on Wikipedia. The very next day the page had returned to its former state of misinformation.
And so it remains. (As of this post.)
However, all is not lost. The first step to liberation from mendacity is to expose it. And for that capability I am very grateful to have the soapbox of my blog.
Many years ago I fell in love with Hawaii and also in love with a wild and magical Hawaiian woman. One of the reasons for this was because Hawaiian ancestral wisdom was still alive in her. She taught me many things. One thing she taught me was that, according to her own Kumu, or teacher, the ancient Hawaiian farewell: Malama Pono, meant “Take Care of the Truth.” I believe I burst into tears when she first shared this with me. It felt that useful, that profound. It certainly felt like what I had, all my life, been attempting to do. The costs had not been small.
I realized also that like a very ill loved one, these days, the truth has to very carefully be taken care of. Otherwise it will die.
May I suggest that when responding to Wikipedia’s many appeals for donations we write on our checks: Malama Pono: in all the languages and vernaculars that we know. A gentle reminder of what we support. The truth. Because truth, not slander and hear-say, or racial and sexual narrow mindedness, is what will ultimately see us – humanity in all its curious forms – through this toughest of all periods of human existence, where lying is the buzz and intoxication of the day.
Other thoughts on Malama Pono:
The trauma I have experienced from my daughter’s distortions of my being and life, make me especially sensitive to and regretful of any way in which I have unintentionally distorted the life of my father, with whom I had issues that grew out of the fact that we were so much alike. Which as a child I could not see. There were also confusing family dynamics I did not understand. Not to mention the apartheid system I was born into. For example, I could not tolerate his “concern” for my welfare, as a teen-ager, and the ways he expressed this, that looked like distrust of my character. The comment that he was good at math and terrible at farming, in Wikipedia’s choice of something worthy of mention, smites me sometimes in the night. I think: Well if you were meant to be a genius at math and instead found yourself behind a mule sun up to sun down, with ten people in your household depending on you for sustenance, without a home ever to call your own, and treated disrespectfully at every turn by the slave owner descended landowners who acted exactly as if they still owned you: what kind of farmer would you be?
In fact, he was a decent farmer, considering the fields he labored in would never be his, but it must have hurt him deeply that few people ever knew how good he was at math.
Charlotte Hunt, the one and only, big and beautiful, Charlotte Hunt, at the foot of whose bed Zora Neale Hurston herself appeared one night to tell her to cease and desist some inquiry into her personal life Zora apparently didn’t want to go forward, did indeed accompany me on my journey to find Zora’s grave. We had a grand time, even though Charlotte refused to enter the cemetery with me because of a fear of snakes. (I stifled my own). We did not collaborate on buying Zora’s headstone, however, though we collaborated on almost everything else, including where to recover from our rather fraught exploration of unknown parts of darkest Florida. (We discovered an exquisite beach where all the buildings seemed made of driftwood). I paid for the headstone, with utter happiness that I was able to do it: the receipt for the stone can be found in my archives at Emory University in Atlanta.
Although I have tried many times to take a “sabbatical” from writing, I have never succeeded. And certainly not while I lived in Mississippi and worked in the Civil Rights Movement. It was in Mississippi that I completed my first novel The Third Life of Grange Copeland (about the sharecropping system that I now understood still enslaved my father) exactly three days before the birth of my only child on November 17, 1969. I wrote my second novel Meridian (set deeply in the Movement itself) there. I also wrote the stories in In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women, and many of the poems in Revolutionary Petunias and Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful, which comes from that wonderful quote by Lakota elder, Black Elk. And of course numerous essays and a small history book to be used in my classes teaching the adults who would teach the small children in the Friends of the Children of Mississippi Headstart program.