American Racism, Black Women, Charlatans, False Accusations, Law Enforcement, Long-Term Unemployment, Maurice Eugene Washington, Misogynoir, Pitt, Rape, Respectability Politics, Rev. Al Sharpton, Stepfather, Summer of 1988, Tawana Brawley, Trust, unemployment
If I have to pick a point in my life where I began to realize how hypocritical humans could be, my second summer after high school would be such a time. The long, hot summer of ’88, of nearly 50 consecutive days of highs in the Triple-H (hot, hazy, and humid) 90s in New York and its immediate suburbs. It was my first summer after starting college at the University of Pittsburgh, and if it weren’t for sheer determination, it would have been my only year at Pitt.
News wise, there were two local events that dominated my summer of unemployment in Mount Vernon and The City. One was the Tawana Brawley story. Between the end of November of the previous year and the end of June, the Rev. Al Sharpton and his entourage used the bully pulpit of the fourth estate to generate outrage and consternation regarding the alleged rape of one Tawana Brawley. A month or so before her sixteenth birthday, good samaritans found Brawley outside an apartment building in which her family had once lived, lying in a garbage bag, covered in dog feces and with racial slurs written on her body. Brawley had been missing for four days.
There wasn’t much agreement on anything else beyond these facts. Brawley claimed that three White men had repeatedly raped and sexually assaulted her, including a local police officer, then later denied being raped, but remained adamant about other forms of sexual assault. At one point, a cop who had recently killed himself was a suspect in the alleged Brawley rape. At another point, Sharpton and company accused the Dutchess County Assistant DA Steven Pagones of being one of Brawley’s three rapist (he later sued Brawley and Sharpton for defamation). Sharpton claimed throughout to believe Brawley, but others in his group later disclosed that the blowhard had his own doubts about Brawley’s story a few weeks after agreeing to represent her in the public eye.
Wappingers Falls is in Dutchess County, just two counties north of Westchester County and Mount Vernon, a hour-and-thirty-minute drive from Manhattan (give or take). After Eleanor Bumpurs and Michael Stewart, I rarely believed authority figures regarding their crime reportage. But by June, I also realized that not everything is a conspiracy, and that even racists can occasionally be on the right side of the law. I learned, above all else, that Sharpton was a charlatan. He used Brawley’s true life story of familial abuse and misogynoir and fear of more abuse to raise his profile on the New York and national stage. Especially in this case, as Brawley’s mother and stepfather took a dim view on Brawley’s time out with boys, a view shared by Whites all too willing to see Black girls and women as over-sexualized playthings.
If Brawley wasn’t raped or sexual assaulted, she was certainly abused physically and psychologically. It was bad enough that her name was out there and known (a violation of her rights as a potential rape survivor), especially since Brawley was still a minor. It was bad enough that there was a significant racial gap, where six out of every seven Whites polled believed she was lying (versus only half of African Americans polled). That Sharpton put Brawley’s name in the public arena for months with additional and unsubstantiated accusations? He took advantage of her for months, adding another layer of abuse to this teenager’s life. It’s practically unforgivable. And no, Sharpton’s work to get Trayvon Martin’s murder in 2012 the attention it and he deserved and his self-serving eulogy at Michael Brown’s funeral in 2014 do not make up for his original media sins.
The other charlatan I had to deal with that summer was my idiot stepfather and another one of his get-rich-quick schemes. He had spent nearly all of 1988 unemployed and lying around at 616, between losing his car salesman job and burning out the engine of his green 1976 Cadillac Coupe de Ville. It made my summer at 616 almost unbearable. I hadn’t spent this much time around the asshole since my summer of abuse.
In July and August, Maurice had the wonderful idea of starting his own limo service. One of our neighbors on the second floor had moved from driving a limo to starting his own service over the previous eight years. Maurice wanted in.
Afterward, Maurice went to his once well-off friend, who had survived a three-year period of very local and very public court battles and prison time over alleged incidents of child abuse and molestation at her daycare in Mount Vernon. The woman and her husband were financially ruined in the process, even though neither of them were directly involved in the incidents that occurred at the daycare. Somehow Maurice managed to get $1,000 out of his friend for his limo idea, likely some of the last money she lent anyone before her death in 1989. It’s more likely that “Hebrew-Israelite” Maurice bought lobster tails and moo shu pork at a Chinese restaurant with the money than attempted in any way to use it as collateral to get the downstairs neighbor to give him a shot at driving a limo.
By this time 30 years ago, I had already had my fill of hucksters between Sharpton and Maurice. Their misogyny, their need to use others, their harebrained ideas for fortune and fame. Maybe that’s why I never bought my stepfather’s act when he was dating my mom as a seven-year-old. Maybe that’s why I never, ever, found 45 appealing from the first time I read about him in the New York Daily News in 1984.