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Whispers on the Color Line

Rumor and Race in America

Gary Alan Fine (Author), Patricia A. Turner (Author)

Available worldwide

Paperback, 270 pages
ISBN: 9780520228559
May 2004
$34.95, £24.95
Legends are arguably the most common narrative form of folklore in American society. From sex acts to business transactions, from fashion to food, from heroes to heroin, rumors and legends take on every charged topic. Children circulate texts about toys and candy; teenagers share stories about sex, drugs, and rock and roll; young professionals commiserate over the hazards of the work world. These stories address aspects of life about which we receive mixed or ambiguous messages. Given that matters relevant to race remain confused and divisive in many corridors of American society, it is not surprising that rumors and legends that reflect racial misunderstanding and mistrust frequently circulate. Whispers on the Color Line focuses on a wide array of tales told in black and white communities across America. Topics run the gamut from alleged governmental conspiracies, possible food tampering, gang violence, and the sex lives of celebrities. Such beliefs travel by word of mouth, in print, and increasingly over the Internet. In many instances these stories reflect the tenacious level of racial misunderstanding that continues to vex efforts to foster racial harmony, creating separate racialized pools of knowledge.

The authors have spent over twenty years collecting and analyzing rumors and contemporary legends--from the ever-durable Kentucky Fried Rat cycle to persistent beliefs about athletic footwear manufacturers and their support for white supremacist regimes. These implausible stories serve many purposes: they assuage anxieties, entertain friends, increase our sense of control--all without directly proclaiming our own attitudes. Fine and Turner consider how these tales reflect attitudes that blacks and whites have both about each other and about the world they face. In an engaging and penetrating narrative, they brilliantly demonstrate how--by transforming unacceptable impulses into a narrative that is claimed to have actually happened--we are able to express the inexpressible.
1. Rumor in the Life of America: Riots and Race
2. How Rumor Works
3. Mercantile Rumor in Black and White
4. The Enemy in Washington
5. The Wages of Sin: Stories of Sex and Immorality
6. On the Road Again: Rumors of Crime and Confrontation
7. Cries and Whispers: Race and False Accusations
8. Coming Clean
Gary Alan Fine is Professor of Sociology at Northwestern University. Among his books are Kitchens: The Culture of Restaurant Work (California, 1994), Difficult Reputations (2000), and Manufacturing Tales: Sex and Money in Contemporary Legends (1992). Patricia A. Turner is Vice-Provost of Undergraduate Studies and Professor of African American and African Studies at the University of California, Davis. She is the author of I Heard It Through the Grapevine: Rumor in African American Culture (California, 1993) and Ceramic Uncles and Celluloid Mammies: Black Images and Their Influence on Culture (1994).
"Fine and Turner present a wonderful exploration into what our seemingly mundane rumor-sharing means for race in our society. Filled with examples that we all can recognize, and superbly written and argued, Whispers on the Color Line will be a classic in the study of race and culture."—Mary Pattillo-McCoy, author of Black Picket Fences: Privilege and Peril among the Black Middle Class

"Fine and Turner have written a disturbing, yet important book. Taking racially tinged (or drenched, as the case may be) rumors as an unobtrusive measure of the state of black-white relations in the U.S., the authors document the yawning social-cultural chasm in the nation. Contradicting the tepid national narrative that celebrates the "before" and "after" racial transformation achieved by the civil rights struggle, Whispers on the Color Line reminds us that the "peculiar dilemma" Gunnar Myrdal wrote about fifty-seven years ago is still very much with us. Until the "whispers" grow into a far more open and honest dialogue, nothing will change."—Doug McAdam, author of Freedom Summer

"Whispers on the Color Line is a logical and necessary extension of the authors' earlier books (Fine's Manufacturing Tales and Turner's I Heard It Through the Grapevine), which work in tandem to explore racial issues through everyday narratives. The authors themselves represent an American cultural dialectic."—Janet Langlois, author of Belle Gunness, The Lady Bluebeard

"Whispers on the Color Line is insightful and thought-provoking, powerfully underscoring the social significance of hearsay, rumors, and legends in everyday life. This rich and poignant narrative reveals and educates--an important contribution to social science understanding and to the ongoing discourse about race matters in this country."—Elijah Anderson, author of Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City

"This book speaks loudly to our most troubling contemporary problem: interactions among the "races" that are carried out in secret. The development of media such as the Internet (with its various aspects, from personal email to screeds sent out through listserves) has helped us recognize that rumors have gone public--and that we need to become involved in managing this process."—Roger Abrahams, author of Singing the Master: The Emergence of African-American Culture in the Plantation South

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