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A Black Feminist Comment on “American Dirt”

Updated: Feb 19, 2020

I just had a moment. “American Dirt”

Feminist Art in Peru. Courtesy of Oni Hawkins.

is on the New York Times Best Sellers List. My immediate reaction, shock followed by disappointment. Now, I’m asking myself with a bit of incredulity, am I disappointed that folx still bought the book or in myself for believing they wouldn’t. I’ve decided that like all things in life, it’s a bit of both.

The drama around “American Dirt” has been circling for a few weeks and while almost everything that needs to be said probably has been, I feel compelled to weigh in as an Afro-Latinx, first generation daughter of immigrants parents from Central America who spent time undocumented themselves (and who by the way, came here by plane), Feminist bookstore owner. How’s that for intersectionality!

It’s important to name my particular social identities as it is what informs just about every decision I make on a daily basis to include this blog, why I decided to open a bookstore and more specifically, a Feminist one. To get granular, my specific identity informs what books I choose to buy with my limited capital and of those, which ones are forward facing. Yes, it’s that serious. Representation matters. More on this later.

My Standpoint:

I belong to the camp that asserts Jeanine Cummins should not have written “American Dirt” in its current form. I am also of the of the camp who believes Jeanine Cummins should have the right to pursue her wildest dreams. I believe she, like all womxn, should be rewarded spectacularly for telling rich stories of nuanced and complicated womxn and if qualified, womxn of color. I believe stories written by and about womxn should all have rigorous marketing plans to include leveraging cultural influencers. I stand in militant solidarity with womxn; I will not dehumanize or invisibilize another a sister comrade. However, I also will not ignore when harm has been done. Solidarity means holding our sisters accountable while recognizing their full humanity. I hope to accomplish that here.

I am not afraid to say that stories as specific as the one written by Jeanine Cummins should not be written by white-identified folx or those who recently discovered they're people of color or kin to one. There is a privilege and a hubris in thinking that as a white-identified person; as an outsider who historically has been socialized to see folx of color as “the other,” writing our stories is a better option than supporting writers of color in doing so. The surge of emotions welling up as I think of white identified folx believing that they can write our stories better, more authentically, is unbearable.

To add insult to injury, some have had the absolute audacity to ask “does this mean people of color can’t write white characters and stories?” Lets be clear, despite our resistance, there is an entire machine designed to socialize people of color to see the world and even ourselves through the lens of dominant culture. So, I feel comfortable in saying we’ve been exposed to and may have internalized enough of the oppressor, that writing from the dominant culture’s perspective can come as second nature. So yes, James Baldwin slayed in “Giovanni’s Room” and I thoroughly enjoyed it!

The general lack of regard and respect for the voices and experiences of people of color in either scenario can be debilitating at times. Except this time.

Cancel Culture:

When I learned the Latinx community assembled and launched a full blown public accountability session, I was so damn proud.

There has been a lot of discussion around cancel culture, what we owe to Jeanine, blah, blah, blah. I find it interesting that when people of color raise their voices to demand recognition and that results in “cancellation;” whatever that means and to whom, there’s all this hoopla about supporting folx consciousness raising and growth. Please.

As a toned down community organizer, I’m all for calling folx in. And, when earned, calling them out. Justified rage and hurt coming from communities of color are patently disparaged and met with violence. Both responses has historically been sanctioned in our society leaving us vulnerable for simply being smart and believing we're entitled to have a say. Often, we’re described in ways that imply we’re overacting, being unreasonable. It‘s a silencing tool; a tired one at that.

My question is where were these same voices when publishers were canceling authors of color from the jump start by denying their original and sometimes first person stories access to a fraction of the amount of support Jeanine Cummins received? Haven‘t people of color been living in a perpetual cancel culture of sorts? Come on...let’s stop the foolery and instead talk equity 2020.

“The Personal is Political.”

Feminist literature and inclusive, respectful representation feels urgent and necessary at this specific socio-political time. My commitment to centering the stories of systemically marginalized folx with attention to womxn and girls is on blast. I spend hours researching and listening to podcast to find books from lesser known womxn of color authors. A crazy amount of my almost 2.5 hour daily commute is spent scouring the new releases catalogs for book covers that are representative.

See, as an Afro-Latinx, first generation daughter of immigrants parents from Central America who spent time undocumented themselves (and who by the way, came here by plane), Feminist bookstore owner, representation matters. The cover of a book is as important as the content of the book itself; it is inherently political. Many people of color, understand what it means to use every tool within our reach to send the message ”that we did not come to play.” We can relate to and appreciate the role of beautifully designed book covers which affirm our humanity.

As a bookseller, I feel a sense of responsibility to my community to curate a space that invokes a sense of recognition, pride and inspiration. And to be clear, those are the books that greet you, cover facing out.

Jeanine Cummins choice of a book cover lacks sensitivity and really, the political solidarity with communities who have physically and mentally scaled barbed wire in the fight for our lives and dignity. For all that Jeanine hoped to accomplish, she managed to choose a cover that is at its core, traumatizing. One central tenet of allyship is: do no harm.

In Militant Solidarity:

Jeanine, this isn’t all your fault; you’re a cog in the machine. However, Sis, you said there was a moment when you considered if you should be the person writing this narrative. I want to believe that was the “bruja” in you. It was your recently discovered and/or acceptance and/or exploitation of Puerto Rican heritage speaking. I understand that you couldn’t hear it. Maybe you did not understand it; white culture is a colonizing and egotistical one. It makes listening to voices of color even those coming from within almost impossible. However, next time, listen. You definitely have many stories to tell; just not this one.

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