The Dust-Up Over American Dirt

By Glenda Cohen

Almost as polarizing as last week’s presidential impeachment proceedings has been the cross-fire about American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. Full disclosure: I haven’t read the book, but given the number of excerpts that have appeared in columns and online, I feel like I already have.

Cummins, who identifies as white, writes a story of a Mexican migrant and her son who are trying to elude a drug cartel. Respected voices have both panned the book (Myriam Gurba) and praised it (Julia Alvarez, Sandra Cisneros). The ferocity of the debate has led to the publisher cancelling the book’s publicity tour over concerns for Cummins’ safety.

Initially, I was confused as to what was at the heart of the argument: Was it that the book was bad or was it that the story was not Cummins’ to write? 

American Dirt is not the first poorly written book and it will surely not be the last. So it seemed to me that the issue of appropriation was really what was inflaming critics like Gurba who writes: “ Cummins tossed together American Dirt, a ‘road thriller’ that wears an I’m-giving-a-voice-to-the-voiceless-masses merkin.” 

Whose permission should one ask before writing a story, painting a picture or composing a song? To stand in another’s shoes requires empathy and getting out of our own narrow box of experience, and that is something each of us should strive to do. Some of the most moving works of art and literature have appropriated the lives and experiences of other people. A few examples: John Steinbeck, who was white, wrote movingly of the indigenous of Mexico in The Pearl; Ernest Gaines, a black man, portrayed the struggles of an African-American woman in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman; sculptor Maya Lin, an American woman of Chinese descent, created the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. Talented artists have opened a window for me to view the lives of others that I would never have experienced had I not read their books, viewed their art, or watched their performances. Maybe, I thought, Jeanine Cummins is just getting a raw deal. 

I was curious to hear directly from Cummins about how she was coping with the tidal wave of criticism, so I listened to a thought-provoking segment on the controversy by NPR’s Maria Hinojosa. What I heard completely turned around my perspective. 

Hinojosa interviewed author Myriam Gurba, who made the case that Cummins was sloppy with her research into basic facts about Mexican culture and folklore. One example that Gurba cited was Cummins’ use of conchas, a common Mexican sweet bread, as a romantic gesture to woo Lydia, the book’s female protagonist. Gurba said, “It’s like using a glazed donut to seduce someone.” According to Gurba, other plot points were so poorly researched that they feed into “the worst tropes about Mexican life – that it is primitive and uncultured.”

Hinojosa also spoke with author Luis Alberto Urrea who said that details in American Dirt  were strikingly similar to those in his book By The Lake of Sleeping Children, published in 1996. Urrea describes a scene where a young boy who is playing in a dump is crushed by a garbage truck. “I buried that child. I didn’t lift that passage scene from someone’s book. These were boys that I knew.” He terms Cummins’ book as “a minstrel show.”

But it is the words of the author herself that I found to be most damning. Hinojosa’s masterfull questioning revealed Cummins’ shocking lack of awareness, not just about Mexican culture, but of how her own actions and words might be seen as offensive. Cummins (who begins her book writing, “I wish that someone browner had written this story.”) admits to reading Urrea’s book, but says that she has no memory of the specific passage that she is accused of lifting. “I just didn’t put it together. It’s very distressing to hear.”

She refers to the controversy about floral arrangements with barbed wire used at the book’s launch party as a “dust-up.” “I didn’t see the symbolism until someone pointed it out to me just last week.” Cummins also tweeted out a picture of a woman whose manicure used the book’s barbed wire illustration, which some have disparagingly termed “border chic.” Cummins lamented that she had no idea what these actions conveyed. “I’m mortified now,” she said.

Cummins seems to feel she deserves a pass for her ignorance and intellectual laziness about Mexican culture. Her words come across as “Sorry, not sorry.” And given that she has received a seven-figure advance, and the book is at the top of this week’s New York Times best seller list, whatever guilt she may feel about perpetuating Latino stereotypes is probably not that difficult for her to carry.

Cummins may be a writer, but she is no artist. Artists empathize; they don’t exploit. Art endures over time; it doesn’t require an Oprah ad campaign to prop it up. That’s why American Dirt may be on the bookshelves today, but it will be in the dustbin tomorrow where, true to its name, dirt belongs.

Please share your thoughts. Click on this article under Recent Posts (on the right) and scroll to the bottom to leave a comment.

Students’ Use of the N-Word: It’s Not Always Black or White

By Glenda Cohen

Forum on use of the n-word at the Framingham Community Baptist Church. From left: Edie Bassett, Angela Kalissa, Mira Donaldson, Christopher Finan, Glenda Cohen, Gloria Pascual. Photo: Zane Razzaq (Metro West Daily News)

As a veteran high school teacher who identifies as white, I felt I was on firm footing all of these years by having a zero tolerance approach to students using the n-word. My rule: if you say that word in my class or in the hall, it’s hate speech, and there would be serious consequences resulting in suspension.

Because my students are recent immigrants, they do not have the historical background knowledge as to why the n-word is unacceptable. While growing up in their countries, they have been exposed to American culture through movies and music that ubiquitously uses the word. Consequently, when they arrive in the U.S., they think that it is an acceptable part of our vernacular.

In class, when we encounter the word in works of literature such as Of Mice and Men, I grab the teachable moment and explain why the word is offensive and should never be used. One of the best resources on the subject that I’ve found is an episode of the CBS News program 60 Minutes entitled “Huckleberry Finn and the N-Word.” But even after all of our discussions, some students balk, responding, “I hear it all the time. Black kids use it, so why can’t I?” Each time, my response is absolute: it is never acceptable for anyone to say the n-word, no matter what.

Recently, however, my thinking has been challenged. After a spate of racist incidents in my school and community, a group of black students hosted panel discussions to share their feelings about the use of the n-word, and what they expected from teachers and administrators in the aftermath. What I heard from some students of color, their parents, and other teachers surprised me; it has made me realize that using the n-word is far more complicated and nuanced than I had previously believed.

While all students of color agreed that the n-word was offensive when coming from other kids who aren’t black, there was a divide as to whether it was ok for them to use it with each other. “We’re reclaiming the word to be our own, so no white person gets to tell me if and when I can use it,” said a male student whose family was originally from the Congo. But, another black female student felt differently: “Not in my class, not in my school,” she said.

Parents also voiced concern that if a zero-tolerance policy were enforced, it would be their young, black sons who would pay the price if they used it as a term of familarity with their friends. As a white teacher, I am afraid that expecting other white teachers to make nuanced decisions about the contextual use of the n-word is unfair to both teachers and students alike.

I’m proud that the students in my school started these crucial conversations about using a word that is so explosive and fraught with meaning that we no longer even spell it out . And what I’ve learned is that there are no easy answers. We have a lot more work to do as far as teaching kids the historical origins of the n-word, and the real-life hurt that it causes to black people today. And white people like me need to listen to what kids and parents are saying and respect their opinions – not just impose our own, as I did with my belief that zero tolerance is the only acceptable policy. I learned that sometimes when we think we are doing the right thing by prohibiting the use of the n-word in order to protect students, there may also be unintended consequences that hurt them. I’ve been a teacher for a long time, but I’ve still got a lot to learn about the complex role that race plays in our schools.

What are your thoughts about students’ use of the n-word? Click on this post under the heading Recent Posts and scroll to the end to leave a comment.

Welcoming the Newcomer

My longtime friend and colleague Lourdes Santos recently visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and wrote “I saw these amazing paintings by Kent Monkman, a Canadian artist. He appropriated European and American works and reversed history’s European gaze to explore themes of colonization and indigenous resilience.” While I want the focus of this post to be on Monkman’s stunning work, I will be exploring the topic of appropriation in an upcoming post.

The Truth Is That We Won’t Ever Close the Achievement Gap

By Glenda Cohen

Just this week, I sat through yet another staff meeting with an administrator who said that my goal as a teacher was to get my immigrant students to “meet their targets” on a standardized test. While I shook my head in agreement (because, of course I have to be seen as a “team player”), the image going through my mind was of Sysyphus, the character from Greek mythology whose punishment is to roll a boulder up a hill for eternity, only to have it tumble back down over and over again.

I’ve been a part of similar meetings more times than I can remember, and the message is always the same: teachers are accountable for increasing test scores and closing the achievement gap between students of color, English Language Learners and white students. And, as predictably as Sysyphus’ rolling rock, every year educators are told that our students have missed the mark.

According to the New York Times, one of the top education “takeaways” of 2019 was that the disparity in the achievement gap between these groups hasn’t closed – and it has actually increased – despite spending billions and instituting new programs and policy reforms.

But, let’s be honest: most teachers aren’t surprised. It’s not because we don’t believe students aren’t capable (because they are) or that they don’t want learn (because they do). It’s because unless we face the truth about why there’s a gap in the first place, we will continue to waste time and money trying to repair something that just can’t be fixed.

Truth #1: Low-income students need to work

Recently, I asked a student why he had been absent so many times in the past few weeks. He said, “Because I just got a new job. My father and mother both just lost theirs.” Although this student lives with his family, others live by themselves and are self-supporting. The need to work in order to pay bills is a reality for many low-income teenagers, leaving them exhausted, with little time to devote to their school work. I cannot tell you how many times a day I find myself admonishing students to “Wake up!” as they lay collapsed on their desks after working late into the night at restaurants, supermarkets, or cleaning houses. These kids are simply unable to stay awake and engaged in their school work. The incentive that drives them is their financial survival, and doing well in school, unfortunately,  is just not something that is their priority.

Truth #2: There’s a lack of counseling support

I’ve helped my three children apply to college and know first-hand that it can be a confusing, time-intensive exercise, especially for students who are the first in their family to attend.  If they don’t have assistance from parents in completing applications, writing college essays and filling out financial aid forms, then students need to rely on their school counselors. Regrettably, college counseling support is lacking in the schools where students need it the most. According to the National Association of College Admission Counseling, the average school counselor has such a large caseload that she is able to spend an average of only one hour a year with a student to discuss their college plans. At my high school of nearly 2,400 kids, our college admission counselor is funded to work only part-time. If students can’t get the help they need to map out a college plan, then they have little incentive to reach high when it comes to their academics.

Truth #3: Paying for college is out of reach for just about everyone

Very few students are able to pay for college without some form of financial aid. Increasingly, “aid” has actually become a synonym for loans, with the lowest-income students taking on the heaviest debt. Moreover, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, 40% of those who enroll at a four-year college will drop out before they graduate. The motivation of even the brightest students fades when they realize that they can’t afford to begin college, and even if they do, they’ll likely run out of money before they get a degree.

Truth #4: No documents means no college for immigrant students

Most immigrant teens arrive in the U.S. excited to be in a new country and learn English. They want to take advantage of all the educational system offers them. Soon, however,  they start to give up on school after realizing that going to college is nearly impossible if they are undocumented. States such as mine (Massachusetts) set lofty goals using words like “rigorous,” “meaningful curriculum,” and,”high standards” when describing their vision for English Language Learners. But the reality is that our government is forcing them to live life in the shadows. These days, the legal status that would allow them to attend college is nearly impossible to attain. So why should they care about coming to school regularly and doing well on standardized tests?

Closing the achievement gap has become an industry unto itself, with consultants and policy makers descending on school systems to share their “expertise.” But until we face the truth about why there is a disparity to begin with, the achievement gap will never close. If we don’t give all kids – not just well-off white ones – reasons to do well in school, why should they even try?

New Year, New Resolve

By Glenda Cohen

In an effort to ward off burn-out, boredom and frustration after nearly 20 years as a public high school teacher, I’ve resolved to kick-off 2020 by launching my new blog: “Teaching is a Political Act.” My focus will be on examining political, policy and social justice issues that affect the lives of teachers, students and their families. 

As each year passes, I’ve seen first-hand the mandates on the federal, state and local levels that have impacted my students and my profession. Regrettably, few of these actions have resulted in positive student outcomes, whether they be academic or social-emotional. Rather than place sole blame on policy makers, I accept that educators have been far too passive in inserting themselves in the political process. For too long, we have been satisfied with having our unions speak for us. This past year, unions in places like Los Angeles, West Virginia, Chicago  have had major success in spotlighting issues such as building conditions, class size and support staff wages. But these successes have not been uniform throughout the country and vary according to the strength and leadership of each local union. 

My own personal experience with my district’s teachers union has been frustrating. For example, when a group of us urged our leadership to be more transparent on its expenditures and accounting practices, we were rebuffed.  When we urged the union to be more vocal on school safety and more active in endorsing local candidates running for office, union leadership refused, preferring instead to continue its politically safer focus on battling funding for charter schools. Though I believe in the concept of unions and their important role in protecting working conditions, we kid ourselves if we believe that all locals are well-managed and assertive in defending the rights of educators. Rather than relying solely on our unions to make political change, educators must become more engaged in the process themselves. 

Some educators are reluctant to wade into the minefield of politics for fear of being accused of partisanship by parents or administrators. A recent article in the Washington Post framed it this way: “The big open question, of course, is where does teaching about politics end and partisan political teaching begin?”

I understand that there are times in our lives when it may be career-threatening (or outright ending) to speak up and take a stand. However, educators must each think globally and critically, and act ethically and on principal.  As Desmond Tutu wrote: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” To extend this metaphor further, it’s time to speak up for our students, who are being stepped on and ill-served by politicians and administrators who craft misguided and misinformed educational policies. Let us each resolve to devote this year to reclaim our classrooms to make social change that will improve the lives of our students.

Let me hear from you. Leave a comment and tell me how you will be more politically engaged this year. And if you don’t plan to be (or feel you can’t), why not?