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‘American Dirt,’ la sequela

February 11, 2020, 6:13 PM UTC

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It’s clear that the swirl around Jeanine Cummins’ novel American Dirt isn’t going to end anytime soon.

The highly anticipated novel about the Mexican migrant experience was denounced almost immediately by Mexican, Mexican American, and a variety of writers of Latinx heritage for its inaccuracies, embarrassing stereotypes, and cultural appropriation.

The outcry also raised important questions about how the overwhelmingly white book industry operates, and who decides what stories are worth telling.

Earlier this month, members of #DignidadLiteraria, a movement created by critics of the novel, held a meeting with Dirt publisher Flatiron Books, an imprint of Macmillan. According to author and Dignidad co-founder David Bowles, they came away with promises to “build in greater representation in Macmillan, both in terms of titles and in terms of the actual editorial staff.”

The critics are making the most of the moment. Last week, some Dignidad members hosted “action forums” in several cities, including a discussion about the Latinx community and publishing at Antioch University in Culver City featuring Roxane Gay, Myriam Gurba, Wendy C. Ortiz, and Romeo Guzman.

And Bowles, citing conversations with fellow writers Gurba, David Schmidt, and Geoff Cordner, has proposed a collective review of the book, chapter-by-chapter, in response to the charge that Dignidad concerns are overblown. “If you’re Mexican, Mexican American, or otherwise intimately familiar with Mexico, I’m hoping you’ll ‘sign up’ below to look closely and critically at a single chapter.”

While this kind of group critique is not new, they can be instrumental in helping mainstream audiences understand how harmful poorly informed literature can be.

In 2010, readers, writers, and cultural experts began contributing to a blog called “A Critical Review of the Novel The Help,” about the best-selling book turned blockbuster film that centered the experience of wealthy white women in a feel-good version of the segregation experience in the Jim Crow South.

One post correctly predicted that unchecked, the “happy slave” narrative would continue to spread.

“After the success of The Help, I figured it was only a matter of time before some other enterprising author wanted their own happy slave, happy domestic narrative,” wrote Kimberly Klaus. “The end result seems to be that…other recent publications sought to find their very own ‘Happy Darkie,’ only this time it’s in children’s literature.”

Sho’ nuff. The best example she cited was the appalling A Birthday Cake for George Washington, a 2016 picture book featuring a good-natured enslaved chef and his young daughter scrambling around—shenanigans!—after they run low on sugar for Washington’s special cake. “Lest you think that this should have been a heart-warming ‘it’s take your daughter to work day!’ tale, it’s important to remember that the book was based on real people who were slaves,” says Klaus. And on real racist ideas that should never have been amplified by an influential publisher in the marketplace.

Amid a broad outcry, Scholastic, the publisher of A Birthday Cake for George Washington, was forced to pull the book.

While we wait for the American Dirt critique blog to populate, it’s worth noting that one part of their site already has.

The Death Threat Quilt is a sobering collection of the online threats and racist attacks that members of the Dignidad have experienced. (By contrast, there were no death threats against Cummins, Dignidad members confirmed at their meeting at Macmillan.)

This should come as no surprise.

“Marginalized writers endure constant threats of violence for speaking truth to power. Such threats are also laced with racist and misogynist hatred,” the introduction to the Quilt begins. “Flatiron books admitted during a meeting with Dignidad Literaria that Jeanine Cummins received no death threats. Meanwhile, critics of her work have been told they should be executed. Scroll through this death threat quilt to learn about this very ugly truth.”

Ellen McGirt
@ellmcgirt
Ellen.McGirt@fortune.com

On Point

Dwyane Wade and Gabrielle Union are exceptional parents Wade was on The Ellen DeGeneres Show recently to promote a new ESPN documentary called D Wade: Life Unexpected. But he took the opportunity to share that the couple’s teenaged child, who had switched to she/her pronouns last December, had also announced that her new name was Zaya. “First of all, me and my wife, Gabrielle Union, we are proud parents of a child in the LGBTQ+ community and we’re proud allies as well,” he told DeGeneres. For grounding, they reached out to experts for information, including friends on the cast of the television series Pose. “I looked at [Zaya] and said you are a leader,” Wade said. “It’s our opportunity to allow you to be a voice.”
Out.com

The “scrappy” indie startup studio behind Parasite David v. Goliath stories are always fun, and anything that gives industry titans a run for their money gives creative business-thinkers hope. Such is the story of Neon, the 28-person company started by film veteran Tom Quinn and Tom League of Alamo Draft House fame who backed Parasite, I, Tonya, and Three Identical Strangers, among others. Their strategy focuses on the ends of a demographic horseshoe: Pick edgy films that will appeal to under-25 year olds and older folks who turn out for the high tone art house stuff. Then they start in just a handful of theaters and open in more as buzz spreads. “Parasite is reaching an audience that has never seen a foreign-language film,” Quinn said. “Parents are seeing it because their children are saying, ‘You’ve got to go see Parasite.’” And Quinn recognized a unique talent in Parasite director Bong Joon Ho early.
Los Angeles Times

You can’t reduce bias in A.I. without diversity in tech Speaking at an event organized by the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, Charlton McIlwain, a vice provost and a professor of media, culture, and communication at NYU, called bullshit on the tech industry’s effort to diversify. He named the problem precisely: “[W]e’re still at the same place, if not a little bit behind,” he said. “Because there’s not a commitment to the long [process], from beginning to end about what has to be done to produce that kind of diverse workforce that [extends] from the bottom all the way up to the top, which is necessary.”
Wall Street Journal

Maryland unveils statues of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass in the State House It’s been a four-year push to get the statues of the two abolitionists approved and installed in Maryland’s State House in Annapolis, a long overdue honor, and an important counter-measure to the more controversial memorials that had been on the site.  A statue of Roger B. Taney, the U.S. Supreme Court justice who wrote the 1857 Dred Scott decision that upheld slavery was removed in 2017 just days after Heather Heyer was killed in Charlottesville, V.A., as white nationalists protested the planned removal of a monument to Robert E. Lee.
Baltimore Sun

On Background

The other man in the famous Woolworth counter sit-in photo The photo associated with the Greensboro, North Carolina protest on February 1, 1960, is now iconic: Four young Black men sitting at a “whites-only” counter, looking unflinchingly into the camera. But there was another young Black man in the picture. His name is Charles Bess, and he was the busboy. In this wonderful dispatch from The Bitter Southerner, he talks about what it was like to work in the Jim Crow South. “Woolworth was kind of a hard place to work because sometimes the manager would get on you a lot, but she didn’t bother me too much because I did my job,” he says. But because he did his job so well, he was allowed out of the kitchen to be seen by white customers. And that’s the only reason he became a witness to history. Eventually, when the lunch counter was integrated, that same manager made sure that Black employees were the first people they served. “I love meatloaf,” Bess says. “I also had some green beans, maybe a potato salad with it.”
The Bitter Southerner

Tyquan Brehon was stopped-and-frisked by the police in Brooklyn 60 times before he was 18 Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s presidential bid has resurrected important questions about his stop-and-frisk policing policy, and in particular, why it was implemented. This short opinion documentary piece published by the New York Times,explains how it scarred individuals and communities. In 2011, NYPD stopped people 685,724 times. “When you’re you’re and you’re Black, no matter how you look, you fit the description.” If you ask why, they take you in and let you stew in the precinct for hours. “I needed a break from cops,” he said. “I felt like there was nothing nobody could do.”
New York Times Opinion

Quote

"Almost a better question is, have I ever done roles that I’ve regretted? I have, and The Help is on that list. But not in terms of the experience and the people involved because they were all great. The friendships that I formed are ones that I’m going to have for the rest of my life. I had a great experience with these other actresses, who are extraordinary human beings. And I could not ask for a better collaborator than Tate Taylor. I just felt that at the end of the day that it wasn’t the voices of the maids that were heard. I know Aibileen. I know Minny [played by Octavia Spencer, who won a best-supporting-actress Oscar]. They’re my grandma. They’re my mom. And I know that if you do a movie where the whole premise is, I want to know what it feels like to work for white people and to bring up children in 1963, I want to hear how you really feel about it. I never heard that in the course of the movie."

—Viola Davis, in an interview with the New York Times.