Among the political squabbles that emerged during my vacation was the fact unearthed by Blue Hog Report that Republican attorney general candidate Leslie Rutledge had forwarded to others an e-mail written in black dialect about a mother seeking an order of protection for a son. The author of the e-mail, Judith Gardner, has defended it as literary art.
The defense of dialect in this fraught setting and Rutledge’s decision to approvingly share it at a minimum raised another question about her work representing juveniles in need of assistance at the state Human Services Department. Rutledge continues to resist release of DHS personnel records that would shed more light on why she was judged unworthy of rehire after she left the agency abruptly in 2007.
A blog reader has pointed me to another view on the subject by Sen. Joyce Elliott of Little Rock, who posted her thoughts on the e-mail on Facebook.
Elliott said that, after consideration, she agreed with those who found the e-mail demeaning, even if that was not the author’s intent, “and forwarding it rather than trashing it perpetuated a blatant marginalization of folks simply in need of help.” She said she has no idea if the author or Leslie Rutledge are racist. Author Judith Gardner says she is the opposite (if apparently tone deaf to her own words.) Elliott comments about Rutledge’s response to the news:
But I do know her action gives me no comfort that she can or would be an attorney general who honors all of us. How will she “protect” all of us when she doesn’t even respect all Arkansans or lacks the judgment to recognize she doesn’t? Finally about Ms. Rutledge, it would be heartening if she would just take responsibility for what she did and apologize, not continue the excuse-making of “I just forwarded what my friend sent to me.”
And there, of course, is the point. Thoughtless forwarding of an ill-conceived e-mail composition isn’t a capital offense. But blaming liberal bloggers for her unflattering attention and Rutledge’s inability to understand the offense aren’t recommendations for a vote for Rutledge for higher office. Elliott attempts to help Rutledge understand.
The original email was written from a position of power about people who were practically powerless. When vulnerable people come to you for help and later you decide you have valid reasons for sharing their plight, it should not be done with a tone of condescension and/or in a language that marginalizes them as you relate their story. The context informs me that this exchange between the clients and the professional should have been done in a professional, dignified manner. Any sharing of the exchange should have mirrored what I can only assume was a professional rendering of service. I was a teacher of speech, communication and literature for thirty years. I understand literary technique, context, setting, appropriateness of diction, and other nuances that inform the message. The use of the dialect in the email is not demanded by context. Just the opposite, unless that is how Ms. Gardner spoke to the people in need of her assistance. Nothing suggests that to be the case. For a writer to suggest that the reader cannot credibly—if not certainly—infer race from what almost anyone can recognize as Black dialect is a real stretch.
Leslie Rutledge doesn’t get it. Worse, she doesn’t WANT to get it.