They Called Her a Liar, A Book Review

The Tawana Brawley case is a prominent page in the black female narrative. Despite its vivid illustration of the dehumanization faced by the black female body, this page remains unread or glossed over by those most impacted by its truth. Brawley’s treatment in crime and consequence illustrates the low regard to which the white world holds the black female body. Most importantly, Brawley’s story illustrates that any black female is merely breaths away from mirroring Brawley’s fate.

Dr. Melva Jackman performs a dual service in not only bringing buried details of a forgotten case to the forefront, but epitomizing black people telling their own stories. Seventeen years ago Dr. Jackman was my multi-cultural studies teacher. She taught my peers and I about Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee and even praised students for wearing cornrolls. So, it comes as no surprise that she would author such an essential text, given that she authored such an important page of my childhood.

They Called Her a Liar evaluates the heartbreaking truth of a black female body ostracized despite her own victimhood. Her admission of truth cost her normalcy and poisoned all those who too attempted to stand in the line of truth.

The Backstory

It was Thanksgiving of 1987 and Brawley made her way home to prepare for the family’s annual trip to DC to celebrate the occasion. In analysis, this timing seems the creation of a television series. Thanksgiving, a well regarded holiday evoking the necessary collective amnesia to erase the truth upholds white supremacy in declaring a Massacre on the indegenous an occasion to celebrate. But little did Tawana know that she was about to come face to face with white supremacy, with a tragedy that would compromise the rest of her life.

Tawana went missing for four days, raped by multiple men. She remembers being orally assaulted by at least three men, and  one of the attackers urinating in her mouth. The book provides gory details of Brawley’s attack, details I had never heard before. For instance, the white media conveniently disregards that Brawley tested positive for two STDs , and had a white substance on her tonsils. When found in a garbage bag, the teen was clinging to life, and near death with feces, and racial epithets all over her weak body. The entire town, which was predominately white, would join together and paint her as a liar.

They Called Her a Liar functions to discount the “lies” the white media rendered Tawana’s story.

  • The medical record reveals that Tawana had a “Contusion” the exact spot where she said someone hit her in the head.
  • Tawana had two sexually transmitted diseases: Trichomonas and Chlamydia in addition to a swollen red hymen and white discharge on her tonsils.
  • Her rape kit was given to George Brazzle, Duchess County arson specialist
  • Suspects Steven Pagones and Henry Crist were together the day Tawana disappeared. Crist was found with a gun shot wound to the head soon after the incident. It was ruled a suicide although no gun was found at the scene
  • The smeared feces was not an isolated incident
  • Tawana Brawley, ordered to pay $185,000 to Steven Pagones for defamation of character for single statement around June 12, 1988) Her advisors also had to pay the following:    C. Vernon Mason—$185,000
    Alton Maddox: $95,000 disbarred
    Al Sharpton: $65,000

While an overall  terrible portrait of injustice, two moments from the text proved particularly unsettling.

  1. Sh!t Happens

The feces that consumed Tawana’s hair and clothing, was one of the first components of the crime scene used as evidence that Tawana did this to herself. It was later stated that Tawana had gotten the feces from a nearby dog and smeared it on herself. But, this was not the sole instance of feces smearing in a racially charged act.

In 1988, Elaine Disnuke, a lucrative, self-employed, middle-aged black woman confronted police following their mistreatment of her son. Disnuke filed numerous complaints to which she received the following response:

When she pressed for action to be taken over a period of months, after filing complaints on a number of occasions, a window was shot out of her house, racial slurs were shouting outside her house at night, a fire was started on her lawn , and her front door was smeared with feces (Jackman 155)

Authorities would later claim, as they did Tawana that Disnuke smeared the feces. Also similar to the Brawley case, the smearing of feces by the victim was corroborated by a witness. Dr. Jackman writes

“ Apparently, a witness submitted a photograph ostensibly showing her smearing her own door. Mrs. Disnuke maintained that the photo showed her cleaning the door after the incident” (Jackman 155).

Despite her retaliation to the proposed evidence, Disnuke would not be able to beat the numerous allegations accumulated against her by those of the majority. She was arrested, and although a once successful business woman, would eventually lose her business and home due to an anonymous source that urged Disnuke’s customers to withdraw their patronage from her business.

This part of the text proved especially redolent because it illustrates the black female navigation through this abducted land as a shared experience. Even when experiences seem singular, no black female body is alone in her suffering, exploitation, or pain. Often times these shares experiences stories, as seen in the Brawley case, are buried and not uncovered until one has already mirrored the tragedy of an elder or peer.

        2. A Guilty Conscious?

Another moment in the text that stuck out to me was the behavior of the supposedly innocent Steven Pagones. Dr. Jackman provides the following information in her book:

Pagones made certain admissions to Barca regarding his whereabouts and activities on evening Tawana was abducted. He also admitted to harassing the Brawley family after the incident and while the initial investigation was in progress. Its hard to explain why an innocent assistant district attorney would have a friend harass and intimidate the Brawley family (Jackman 187).

Pagones offset a number of harmful acts onto the Brawley family that seem unsolicited unless their claims are true. Particularly, Pagones filed a lawsuit against Brawley for defamation of character, despite obtaining a promotion and pay grade since the incident. This immense financial burden would be difficult to overcome under normal  circumstances, but impossible given the alienation following Brawley’s attack.

I read an article late last year that revealed Pagones as receiving a three thousand dollar check from Tawana Brawley. This turned my stomach but was not the worst of it. To this payment, Pagones scoffed saying that he would prefer an apology.  Pagones statement is a racist’s attempt at modesty, an attempt butchered by an oblivion to the totality of damage incurred by Miss Brawley, and a general lack of conscience.

To this Dr. Jackman writes the following:

Salt added to the wound of injustice is that no one was ever named by law enforcement not even as a suspect. No one was charged, indicted or convicted, or punished in any way for the deeds done. In fact, careers moved forward. Tawana and her family took what they believed would be the best route to a fair hearing of her story in a court of law leading to the prosecution of the perpetrators, given the attitude and actions of the prosecutor. She never was granted in court. ( Jackman 239)

She was also not granted peace of mind. Instead, Tawana incurred psychological and emotional damage, social alienation, and an underserving financial debt–all for having the courage to not only share her story but stand by it.

I believe you Tawana.

Three years later after Tawana Brawley’s rape, Anita Hill would garner support for harassment claims against Clarence Thomas just before his conformation. Hill’s testimony would garner support from both black and white women because Hill’s allegations functioned to substantiate black male hyper sexuality. Thus, the irony of Hill’s testimony just before Thomas’ confirmation, is that her testimony served as “confirmation” that the black male body, despite extensive education, was still a sexual degenerate. But, Tawana, just eighteen years old at the time of Hill’s trial, was ostracized because her truth disturbed the tranquility of Western conceptualizing of black female bodies .

So, while many wrote letters to Hill following her trial stating their belief in her testimony, this support seemed non-existent or fleeting for an even younger victim perhaps more in-need of communal support and belief.

Thus, perhaps the most extraordinary bit of Dr. Jackman’s work is that that she bears an intractable belief in victim Tawana Brawley. This belief, however, does not consume the text. Instead, Jackman presents fact after fact and attaches copies of actual documents to show readers the truth omitted from mainstream news. Dr. Jackman’s work is masterful because she makes it so that even those who doubted Brawley for over two decades must question their own rationale, and gifts those who believed her from the start, peace in new knowledge.

Nevertheless, Tawana– I believe you.

They called her a liar because she told the truth in a world composed on fiction, didactically illustrating  that black truth simply cannot function in a world established on white lies. Tawana could never be a rape victim in this world, for to paint the white male as a pedophile who savagely raped and beat a fifteen year old child is to unveil the forgotten horrors of slavery—where white men performed these very acts as often as they ate and slept. To perform acts of sexual deviancy is in tune with the  innate state of white men, who coerce sexual relations with the hyper fertile black female body as a means to both exercise power and to selfishly ensure their survival. In essence, the white man treats the black female body identically to her continent of origin. Africa—raped, bludgeoned and abandoned until another form of rape manifests to abduct her resources, mirrors the treatment of her abducted daughters cast along the Western coast.