[Libs-Or] "American Dirt" and the Social Justice Warriors

Tony Greiner tony_greiner at hotmail.com
Mon Feb 3 22:39:47 PST 2020

Librarianship is in danger of losing one of its foundations- that no one can tell you what you can read, or what you can write.  Let's not let that slip away.  As I hope you know, Jeanine Cummins' new novel American Dirt, which tells the story of a middle-class Mexican woman suddenly reduced to refugee status, has been the subject of attacks from those who want to silence any voice or story they do not approve of. These attacks are not primarily on the quality of the book, but on the idea that a white American woman dare write a fictional story about Mexicans. The censors, and the threats of violence from their supporters have led to the cancellation of Cummin's book tour, including an appearance at Powells.

Paired with that bigotry, the idea that a writer should be silenced if her characters don't match her skin color has been given serious hearings in the media. To my knowledge, only the wise and big-hearted Oprah WInfrey has taken the position that the book should be viewed on its merits, and last I heard, she was still planning on featuring the book on one of her programs.

That said, the advocates of silencing others have tasted victory in cancelling the book tour. They may choose to continue their campaign of censorship by calling for removal of the book from library shelves. With that real possibility in mind (and given the silence from the American Library Association, which has chosen to look the other way,) I offer this defense that librarians may choose to take against the censors.  It is a list of books with white protagonists written by famous people of color.  (Some of the titles on this list were found in the research of Robert Fikes, a librarian at San Diego State University, and Martin Japtok of Palomar College.) If the censors assert that a white woman should not write fiction about a Mexican woman, then ask them if they wish to censor these authors as well.  Included is a thought from a better writer and thinker than I can ever hope to be.

Tony Greiner

“No human culture is inaccessible to someone who makes the effort to understand, to learn, to inhabit another world”- Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Novels with a protagonist of one race or culture written by an author of another race or culture:

Nobel Laureate John Steinbeck:  Tortilla Flat; The Pearl.

Nobel Laureate Pearl Buck:  Good Earth, and others. Buck has also been a target of race-based criticism, but she spoke Cantonese, and her work has been praised by Anchee Min. There is a statue of her in Nanjing, China.

Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro.  Remains of the Day.

David Guterson. Snow Falling on Cedars. Winner of the Pen/Faulkner award for Fiction, 1995.

Dubose Heyward. Porgy. Praised by Langston Hughes, who said that  Heyward's  brings "with his white eyes, wonderful, poetic qualities in the inhabitants of Catfish Row that makes them come alive." This book is the basis for George Gershwin’s opera “Porgy and Bess.”  "Porgy and Bess" has had some criticism, but was also praised by Duke Ellington and recorded by many black jazz musicians. Gershwin’s will stipulates that the opera may only be produced with a black cast.

James Patterson.  A series of detective novels featuring Alex Cross.

James Baldwin.  Short Story: “The Man Child.”

Ann Petry.  Country Place. Petry isn’t well known now, but her first novel, The Street, (set in Harlem) was the first novel by an African-American woman to sell 1,000,000 copies.

Richard Wright. Savage Holiday. Wright’s novel about an insurance executive has no black characters.

Zora Neale Hurston. Seraph on the Suwanee. This novel looks at the life of poor white ‘crackers’ in Florida.

Paul Lawrence Dunbar.  Dunbar, better known as a poet, had two novels with only white characters, The Uncalled (1898) and The Love of Landry (1900) a western.

**tony_greiner at hotmail.com**
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