The first three lines of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” rank among the most memorable lines of free verse in the language:
I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
The poem’s success ultimately hinges on whether or not the reader accepts Whitman’s invitation to empathy. Otherwise, speaking from perspectives that range from runaway slaves to opera stars would provoke confusion if not outrage. It works. “Song of Myself” is the first American poem.
Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt, which has been on the New York Times bestseller list for weeks, offers a curious test of such empathy. The novel chronicles the horrible dangers faced on our nation’s southwest border by people fleeing their own nations. It offers a compelling narrative and a moving voice that begs for social justice. Julia Alvarez and Stephen King openly enjoyed the book. Oprah Winfrey selected it for her book club.
But there’s a problem.
Cummins is not Latina.
In the days since Winfrey selected the book for her club, dozens of Latino authors have requested that she retract the endorsement. They believe their story–the real life narrative of people who sacrifice everything to come to America–belongs to Latinos. Cummins has appropriated it and it makes them angry. Threats made against Cummins and the bookstores where she planned to read have resulted in the cancellation of her book tour.
The broad question here involves appropriation–or empathy, if you prefer. Should identity be a prerequisite for “acceptable” narratives? It seems that it shouldn’t. After all, the most popular musical in the last 50 years features an incredibly diverse cast playing the parts of white folks.
When a story is large enough, does it belong to everybody?