Since I’m coming back from a year of serious illness and starting a new round of my longstanding series, Books of Interest by Writers of Color, I thought I’d reprise the blog post that I used to begin this new round just before I ended up in multiple surgeries and treatments. That post was never really followed up on because of the surprise of cancer, so I’ll post it again and list some of the authors I’ll be featuring in upcoming weeks.
In future weeks, I’ll be looking at the recent work of Marjorie Agosín, Kim Shuck, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Linda Hogan, Frances Washburn, Gerald Vizenor, Richard Vargas, Allison Hedge Coke, Juliana Aragon Fatula, Erika Wurth, and many more fine writers. I hope you’ll come back to read about the exciting work they are doing. I started this Books of Interest by Writers of Color series as a resource for teachers and librarians who had asked me for help as I made appearances around the country. And the blog post below helps to explain why I think this is more important than ever.
The other day I had a conversation with a very wealthy and well-educated white man. This conversation still bothers me. Probably because it’s a discussion whose main points I’ve had to deal with many times before with other people. Note: this guy was not some ignorant, insensitive racist spouting ethnic slurs.
Still, he didn’t understand what I was talking about because ultimately he was not yet able to stand outside his privilege of white skin, male gender, and inherited wealth. I say, “not yet,” because I refuse to give up hope for him and others I’ve encountered like him, who have genuinely good intentions but can’t get past the blinders of privilege. Earlier conversations with such people have focused around the difficult lives of women living in poverty, the automatic racism encountered over and over by people of color that can leave them justifiably hypersensitive, and similar topics. This conversation centered on books.
This person condemned a wide variety of fiction and poetry by writers of color, in particular Latinas and Latinos, as “just political.” Good writing, according to him, is not “political posturing.” I looked at the list of books we were discussing, which ranged from Rudolfo Anaya and Manuel Muñoz to Luis Alberto Urrea, Sherman Alexie, and Helena Maria Viramontes and were among a group of books and authors branded as extreme political agitation by a rightwing school board (which led to our discussion), and I realized from things he said that he’d not read most of them himself and was just parroting the judgments politicians had laid on them (probably without reading them, either). I tried to explain that most of these writers weren’t trying to write political novels or poetry as much as they were simply trying to be true to the lived experience of their lives and the lives of their families and communities. He didn’t buy it.
You see, in his experience, everyone is deferential and respectful to him. He has no experience of being deliberately humiliated or seeing his parents deliberately humiliated because of the color of their skin, their accent, their Hispanic last names, and/or their poverty. He has no experience of deliberate, offhanded cruelty directed at him or his family or neighbors for no reason other than because the inflictor can get away with it. He has no experience with living in grinding poverty, seeing his parents (and possibly himself) forced into dangerous, unsafe, and unfair working conditions for the tiniest possible wages.
In his world, such things are unreal. Therefore, they must be made up or vastly exaggerated for political purposes. To him, therefore, any writer who simply writes of her childhood misery working in the fields as a migrant laborer as Helena Maria Viramontes does or of the poverty and casual, racist cruelty encountered as the child of an immigrant as Luis J. Rodriguez or the residual trauma of genocide and racism as Sherman Alexie does must be dishonestly fabricating in order to inflame the reader’s emotions for political purposes. Writers speak the truth about their lives and the lives of many in their communities, and because the reality they describe is so unacceptable to privileged white Americans, they are told they must be making it all up for radical political purposes.
I know, unfortunately, that this is a common stance, even among some well-meaning people. So perhaps it’s not surprising that the person whose conversation with me began this post believes that poor people of color writing about their lives and history must be inventing out of whole cloth for inflammatory political purposes. I’m not angry with him. I’m sad for him—and others like him. The only way to get past the blinders of privilege is to take a journey way out of their comfort zones, to walk into the world of the disenfranchised (of whom they are afraid). Or they could read the works of the many gifted Latina/o writers, African American writers, Indigenous writers, Asian American writers, and LGBTQ writers and discover the world these writers and their people live in deep underneath that bright surface of the world of American privilege.