Sam Smith, 2006 - Having been an anthropology major, I don't get as riled up about mythology in public life as many in the media and politics. Myths can be helpful, benign, sad, or deadly but mostly they're there to fill the empty places in reality.
Sometimes myths are carried on the backs of famous people because the reality isn't powerful enough to do the job. A classic case involves the death of Dr Charles Drew, the famous black surgeon.
It is widely told that Drew, then 46, died in North Carolina in 1950 following a car accident for which he was unable to get treatment at a white hospital and had to be transported to a much more distant black hospital, wasting critical treatment time.
But the Annals of American Survey notes:
"The authoritative work by historian Spencie Love entitled, One Blood: The Death and Resurrection of Charles Drew, described how the myth has been cultivated because of the time and place of Dr. Drew's death and serves as an unfortunate filler between living memory and written history. True enough, a 23-year-old black World War II veteran by the name Maltheus Avery was critically injured in an auto crash on December 1, 1950, exactly 8 months after Dr. Drew's death. He was a student at North Carolina A&T, a husband, and a father of a small child. Like Dr. Drew, he was treated initially at Alamance General Hospital. He was transferred to Duke University Hospital and subsequently turned away because they had exhausted their supply of beds for black patients. Mr. Avery would die shortly after arrival at Lincoln Hospital, Durham, North Carolina's black facility. Spencie Love's book discusses how the story of the lesser-known Maltheus Avery confronted the circumstances of the death of the more prominent Dr. Drew, and thus a myth was born."
Something similar was at work in the black response to the OJ Simpson case. To many blacks, Simpson was carrying the mythic weight of decades of ethnic abuse under the justice system. In a column at the time for Pacific News Service, a black journalist, Dennis Schatzman, outlined some of the black context for the Simpson trial:
- Just last year, Olympic long jumper and track coach Al Joyner was handcuffed and harassed in a LAPD traffic incident. He has settled out of court for $250,000.
- A few years earlier, former baseball Hall of Famer Joe Morgan was "handcuffed and arrested at the Los Angeles airport because police believed that Morgan 'fit the profile of a drug dealer.'" He also got a settlement of $250,000.
- Before that, former LA Laker forward Jamal Wilkes was stopped by the police, handcuffed and thrown to the pavement.
- A black man was recently given a 25-year to life sentence for stealing a slice of pizza from a young white boy.
- In 1992, a mentally troubled black man was shot and killed by LA sheriff's deputies while causing a disturbance in front of his mother's house. Neighbors say they saw a deputy plant a weapon by the body.
- Simpson case detective Mark Fuhrman was accused of planting a weapon at the side of a robbery suspect back in 1988. The LAPD recently settled for an undisclosed amount.
- In North Carolina, Daryl Hunt still languishes in jail for the 1984 rape and murder of a white newspaper reporter, even though DNA tests say it was not possible.
These examples would be rejected as irrelevant by the average lawyer or journalist but in fact OJ Simpson's case served as the mythic translation of stories never allowed to be told. The stories that should have been on CNN but weren't. Everything was true except the names, times and places. In Washington, they do something similar when stories can't be told; they write a novel.