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.