Rigoberta Menchú Tum

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[Five Rigoberta Menchús, oh my!]

One of my students wrote an honors thesis on the controversy which surrounded Rigoberta Menchú after David Stoll alleged that there were false statements in her testimonio. This student read virtually every book and article then in print about the issue. She said to me, “This is the academic Jerry Springer show! It started out with a disagreement between two people, and now the entire audience is slugging it out on the floor!”

I will not attempt to summarize the entire debate here, but it was somewhat unnerving to those who had an interest in the literal truth of Menchú’s narrative – the first paragraph of which contains this sentence: “I’d like to stress that it’s not only my life, it’s also the testimony of my people.” I never thought veracity in a ploddingly literal sense was testimonio’s cornerstone. Stoll’s interest in discovering Menchú’s “untruths” is primarily political. He disagrees with her politics, and wishes to discredit her so as to discredit these.

In Nebaj, Guatemala, I had a conversation with a man who put it slightly differently. “Stoll is just envious. He is a man, a Euro-American, a Ph.D., and a professor. She is a woman, a Native American, and a Guatemalan, with very little formal education. But her book has been very well received academically in the metropolitan countries. She achieved First World academic success without preauthorization. This he cannot forgive.”

Axé.

9 Comments

Filed under What Is A Scholar?

9 responses to “Rigoberta Menchú Tum

  1. I’m holding that thought…
    Oooom…
    ;^)

  2. Your student is smart! and a scholar!

  3. luisa

    ahhh. i remember this debate.

    it happens whenever anyone wins the nobel peace prize (usually when they are a PoC). there are people who don’t agree this the politics of so-and-so and start reseaching ways to discredit her/him. Even if there were inaccuracies, her family members were murdered! Trauma and adreneline can make things fuzzy. –like when rape/attack victims ID the wrong person in court.

  4. sorry ass ph-DUH — i’d have to say, the more formal education a person gets, the bigger the asshole they are…which makes doctors the biggest of them all…with lawyers second…

    you sound like a great teacher!!

  5. This is hard for me. I’m a social socience, where claims are routinely contested. We have been less capable of understanding the role of identity and testimony beyond facts. I am reading a very good book on the ethics of identity by Appiah that may help me here. I don’t think it’s unacceptable to have narratives that aren’t somehow by-the-book, I also don’t know that it’s illegitmate to point out that discrepencies between narrative accounts and the available data record. However, you don’t have to be a jerk when you are doing that, and such do not necessarily discredit an individual narrative; it simply points out what is documented and what isn’t.

    For example, bell hooks does things that just drive me crazy sometimes even though I respect much of her work. In her last book Class Matters, she talks about how she and her friends used to pick on an impoverished white girl when they were in elementary school, but the white girl always knew that she’d prevail over them because she was white and they weren’t. Now I’m sorry, but you can’t do that legitimately, no matter how central your identity is to the way you form knowledge. You don’t get ESP; you can give your impression of what you think the other’s reaction is, but you can’t claim that–especially when you are the one (ab)using the power of numbers to hurt somebody else.

  6. Chaser – I should read the Appiah book, too. The Menchu debate was as hotly contested as it was (in my view) partly because some people, who were in literature but felt they should be doing something less ‘bourgeois’ (?), had an idea that the new genre of testimonio (not exactly the same as testimony) might somehow save THEM AS SCHOLARS. I actually have a lot to say about armchair radical scholars and their self-serving uses of “Third World” material. BUT Stoll makes some very dubious assertions himself about conditions in post-1954 Guatemala, which reveal his own agenda, and … there are interesting things to talk about on this but …

    Hooks, yes, I like her, but her style is not ‘scientific’, more like memoir/personal essay and … I think one has to paint sometimes in broad strokes, impressionistically, to get at certain unwelcome truths …

    (The day the levees broke re Katrina, I “just knew” that students and faculty from elite N.O. universities would be welcomed and petted nationwide for the rest of the semester, while everyone else dropped off the radar. And that some of them would really make hay out of the situation, in melodramatic and self-serving ways.)

  7. Ok, yes, but your “just knowing” is based on a *lot* of good reasoning AND personal experiences-and that’s my point. We have plenty of previous history, lots of theory, etc that would support your “just knowing”–and you can build a careful argument from those things as a means of building knowledge about different vulnerabilities during a disaster.

    In hooks’s example, I suspect *she* knew as a child she’d never escape the stigma attached to skin color while the white girl could attain social mobility. THAT is just knowing based on identity; instead she got sloppy, frankly, and projected, and nobody called her on it. Her knowledge of the other can not be as intimate as she claims.

    It doesn’t have to be “scientific”, I think it just has to be rigorous in its own way–internal logic of the argument. Otherwise, we devolve quickly from good quality use of radical scholarship, which hooks is capable of, into “it is what I say it is because I Am X”–purely identity-based claims of knowledge which become impossible to reconcile away from the sort of explotative scholarship you have mentioned. Am I being clear here?

  8. Hey Chaser, and yes, ultra-clear, and I think you’re right!

  9. Not only that, but the little White girl, who may have known and probably did know that being White was “better than” being a person of color in this society, would have been nonetheless brutalized emotionally and psychologically by the abuse of hooks and the others–maybe to the point of not being able to utilize her position in her own best interests. Women, even European-American women, are particularly vulnerable to that kind of wearing away of their own personhood.

    I especially love Bone Black and I think it’s important for hooks and others (such as Nathan McCall in Makes Me Wanna Holler) to talk about how they acted out of their pain. These kinds of scenarios have, throughout our history as a society, always manifested themselves against specific White folks in this way (in generalized response to White oppression), but I don’t think it’s honest or realistic to then mitigate the damage done to the individual in question just because we live under–and benefit from–a White power structure.

    It’s appropriate to tell what the White oppression brings out in people of color, but it’s also appropriate to acknowledge the damage that then rolls back on some White folks themselves as a result of it. Even rich folks get sick and, while I’d rather be rich and sick than poor and sick, nobody feels good when they’re puking.

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