Appropriation Sensation

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?

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12 Responses to Appropriation Sensation

  1. Alexandra Magee says:

    I can see both sides of the argument about appropriations. A lot of black Americans take offense to the audacity of some rich white young affluent Americans taking on a black American features such as full lips, full hips, round rumps, and a colloquial dialect. They have not suffered the injustices of black Americans: direct descendants of slaves; political and financial oppression; or systematic miseducating practices. So to be so flip about young urban youth is a slap in the face. Latino writers are screaming that there are more stereotypical types of words in the book by Miss Cummings than the actual people who are suffering. So, she does not deserve a voice. She was not in the trenches at the border. She has not suffered.

  2. Ebenezer Scrooge says:

    To answer wether or not identity should be a prerequisite for acceptable narratives one must ask themselves what identity actually means. I find that personal identity always beats out that of a group identity (be it race, sex, political parties, etc.). I’m not my race. I’m not my sex. I am my own human being. So the idea that someone must be a certain ethnicity to voice their opinions about any topic is offensive.

  3. Bart says:

    Unlimited empathy sounds nice, but I doubt Cummins has the experiences needed to claim a true story. I understand why people would be outraged, this person has probably never been through what American Dirt would detail and while that should not discount the book it should not be claimed by someone like Cummins. The credit should go to those who actually have testimony on what happened.

  4. Jesse Tran says:

    While I agree that Cummins’s novel may not be as personal as other Latinos’ stories, the criticism that she faces is outrageous. Often, the claim brought against Cummins is that she was not there, living the dehumanizing troubles faced by the people at the border. People argue that she does not possess the necessities to be describing the events taken place at this tragedy; however, during an event at Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C., she reveals that she lived over five years, speaking to the families suffering, volunteering at local community centers, and following the fighters at the front line of this event. Although she is not Latina, she felt that her experiences could contribute even the slightest to this issue. Furthermore, she regards the other stories as being incredible and told by “beautiful and impressive voices.” Cummins’s acquired fame and publicity should not be her fault. She should not be blamed and ridiculed for being an unauthentic story. She never dismissed other stories about the event, so what makes it right for us to do it to her. This was blown out of proportion. Cummins is allowed a voice in this matter whether she is Latina or not.

  5. Ethan Hill says:

    I hate the idea of a group of people not being able to speak on a topic because of the color of their skin. To me that is simply at its roots racist and yell at me all you want but that is exactly what it is. It would be one thing if the person speaking didn’t know what they were talking about or if they were somehow biased, but to discredit them simply because “How can you know what it’s like, you’re white.” is one of the most God awful, childish, and outright ignorant things someone can say. Just as all racist things stem from- ignorance. It’s the same reason some authors take on pen names because they know it won’t be possible for their work to gain as much credit as it deserves if everyone knew the true identity of who wrote it. This is simply outrageous.

  6. Gracie Rowland says:

    To me, the logic here is simple. Her story did more good than harm; therefore, it is unproblematic. She raised awareness about a terrible issue and held good intent while doing so. If her intent had been to exploit an ethnicity or race through her book it would be an entirely different discussion. However, her goal was not to profit off of the injustice and pain experienced by those she described; rather, she wished to chronicle their hardships in order to help improve the situation.

  7. Alisha Burch says:

    She could have written about how she’s someone who lives near the border and has an interest in these issues. She could have easily wrote from this point of view and it would have been a better story. She identifies as a half-Latina lady so she could have grappled with her own identity. That would have been a better novel. She would be writing what she knows and understands. I know that plenty of authors have been writing first person fiction about characters far different from them, but in the society we live in today if you do something like that you’re most likely to be attacked and I feel her career shouldn’t be cancelled because of this. I think she should have taken a different approach to her writing.

  8. Aja says:

    More than likely, the story may have been slightly better if Cummins was of Hispanic heritage, but it’s not like she’s claiming that she can make horchata better than anyone else. Have we all forgotten that The Help exists? It’s a book about the African American struggle in the 1960s written by a white woman, and yet, we continue to praise the book. The author, Kathyrn Stockett, received numerous accolades for her work and the novel was eventually made into a movie adaptation. As an African American, I can admit that even I enjoyed the book and the movie. Being able to speak on race issue is so much more than skin color; it’s about solidarity. I can understand the outrage behind her novel. It does seem as if she is profiting off of experiences that weren’t hers, but how would society feel if Caucasians continued to keep their lips sealed in the midst of issues involving POC?

  9. Alyssa says:

    I believe you have to live a narrative to tell the narrative in something as detailed as a book or even a movie, if it is based off of truth. It’s the same asking a rich white male if he feel as if he discriminated against when dealing with the court of law, he will say no. But if you ask a poor white man from the other side of the tracks, usually labeled a thug just a black man would be, then his answer would be different, he might say yes, but his narrative would be different from a black man. And of course this goes with anymore especially when considering race, gender and class. There are only some things that you can explain when you actually live the narrative. There are many people I know who’s parents made a long journey and struggled to make it to America for their children to grow up here, only for those children to be terrified that they might might see their parent again, and they have to put on a bright smile, even after it happens. I can tell you their stories all day long, and I can say that I empathize with them, but I can never sympathize with them because it’s not a threat looming over my head when I sleep. This book should not be disregarded though, but it should be looked at as a neutral. It’s like a biography where someone is telling the story of others, where it holds some truth, but not every hear wrenching moment that an autobiography would.

  10. Tee says:

    Empathy is definitely present here, but when the topic is so sensitive and controversial, I think that is that minority’s story to tell. I definitely would not want a white person writing a story about the systematic racism that colored people experience, because how would they truly know how it feels? That situation is unique to the parties involved, the outsiders can only observe and provide commentary, unless they are activists. Cummins has taken a story that is unique to Latino immigrants, and made it her own (not typically ideal). Maybe she had good intentions, or maybe she wanted to create a story with depth and meaning, either way, it wasn’t her story to tell.

  11. Piper Britt says:

    I can most definitely see how it bothers Latinos that this white lady is making money off of their story as if her white privilege is not enough she has to steal another culture’s story as well. Whether we care to believe it or not, white privilege is a very prominent thing. The reason your (Dr. Easterling) car does not get searched every time you are pulled over is because you are a white man with a nice vehicle. Latinos have a story that is very important to their culture. And it does not matter how you define your identity, this woman lacks the experiences she needs to write a Latino narrative, that is like getting a Poodle to talk about what it is like being a Doberman. They are both dogs, but obviously the Poodle does not know exactly what it is like to be a Doberman, so why would we do the same thing with humans? I think that she could have handled it differently and then it would not be such a big deal like she could have written her book from the Latinos’ point of view by interviewing them and including that.

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