author – activist – faculty – mom
When I was getting my MFA in 2008, my fiction workshop teacher was Leonard Chang. He offered our class a photocopied list of books, and instructed us to choose six that we would read during the term. Drown, a collection of short stories was the only book by Junot Diaz on the list. I nominated his first novel, …Oscar Wao, which had just come out. Leonard and the class agreed. The discussion of the book took place over a few weeks. White students consistently complained that the footnotes and the Spanish and urban language were too difficult for them. In between their comments, another Latinx student reported that the book had won the National Book Award, then the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. As an Afro-Latina writer, it was wonderful to see this conversation unfolding. These white literary writers were willing to struggle with the language of Shakespeare and the sci-fi/fantasy writers were willing to look up references in Klingon. But Spanish and hood slang were too much work, because they were convinced that it was our job as people of color to make ourselves easily understood for white people. In that moment, those prizes represented the universe clapping back in real time.
Also in that moment, Junot Diaz became the chosen one. Being chosen didn’t stop him from being a champion for low-income communities of color. Sadly, it has recently become apparent that he has followed in the footsteps of so many men of color who disrupt white supremacy and classism, but whose behavior lines up lock-step with male domination.
So for a decade, Diaz has been showered with accolades in the white literary establishment, from his teaching position at MIT to his spot as chairman of the Pulitzer board to his numerous New Yorker articles. In one of those articles, he disclosed on the legacy of childhood trauma and having been raped as a child. He made connections to his mistreatment of women in his adult life. But his vague “I hurt people” didn’t tell enough of the truth. In the past month, stories have been surfacing of forced kissing, verbal abuse, and bullying. In response, Diaz has stepped down as chair of the Pulitzer, but hasn’t left the board. He won’t be teaching at this year’s VONA workshops, which he co-founded. And today, the literary journal The Boston Review, has stated that he will be keeping his position as fiction editor.
My twitter feed is filled with expressions of outrage. According to author Chen Chen “Maybe if we stop thinking that ‘diversity’ happens bc one special writer of color has been given the power to let in other writers of color…” According to Evette Dionne, editor of Bitch Magazine, “Shame on the Boston Review for being so enamored by Junot Diaz’s clout and influence. There are so many fiction writers, Zinzi Clemmons included, who could’ve stepped into this role.”
Cortney Lamar Charleston also chimed in: if “you’re willing to dismiss testimony from women he’s harmed as “not that bad,” then you have been failing in your supposed mission.” Cortney Lamar Charleston
Shailja Patel put it succinctly: “Bye @BostonReview.”
And to me, the pattern is painfully clear: could Boston Review be trying to make Junot Diaz their house negro?
In US slavery, the majority of enslaved Africans worked in the fields, but a few were needed to do more intimate and domestic work that whites didn’t want to do in their own houses: cooking, cleaning, nursing and raising children. They had a higher status, more access to resources, and were more likely to be subject to intimate violence (ongoing sexual assault in a “relationship,” emotional abuse), as opposed to field workers who were worked to death and who were subject to more brutal violence (sexual assault without pretense of a “relationship,” whipping). In addition to doing domestic work and tolerating abuse, the house negro’s job was to mistreat field negroes and to regard them with contempt. That was the deal.
So is Boston Review is following in this proud tradition? Is Junot Diaz is doing the unsavory domestic work of diversity scouting for them, work that they apparently are unwilling to do on their own behalf? In this scenario, it’s easy to dismiss the accusations of women outside the circle, because the chosen one’s mistreatment of them is perfectly in line with the paradigm. Do our dirty work and we don’t care what you do to/with the women down in the quarters. The Boston Review gave the pretense of having reviewed the evidence, but it has barely been thirty days since the first accusation surfaced. Can we really pretend that we have the whole story of his misdeeds? I suspect there are women right now talking to their friends or family or therapists about going public about accusations. But even if no additional accusations surface, the pattern is clear and if the literary community cares about women, there need to be consequences.
I don’t want to demonize Diaz. I think he’s a brother who has a lot to account for, but I have stood consistently in compassion for his humanity. But watching these white institutions cape for him is hard to bear.
Because the ultimate message they are sending is that they trust him to be their ambassador to the global south nation of writers of color, a place they don’t want to have to visit. They have gotten comfortable with him, and god forbid they would ever have to build the necessary relationships with a wide range of people of color in order find another editor of color to do the work he’s been doing.
And some of his work has been really good work. I know more than one feminist of color whose work he has championed and who considers him a close friend. Women whom he’s treated well. But that doesn’t absolve him for the scores of women whom he has mistreated.
And there are more than two choices here. The Boston Review could have asked him to step aside while they had a guest editor for six months. They could have made a statement that they were concerned about the accusations and were listening to see what else unfolded in the next period of time. Yet to rule on the side of their comfort with the chosen one and not to impose any consequences shows their priorities: they’re happy with their house negro. Don’t rock the boat.
To be clear, Diaz never seemed to be applying for the position of House Negro. He said and did and wrote things that challenged the white literary status quo. Many of these white literary institutions may not have liked him at first. A generation or even a decade prior, he might never have risen to this level of prominence. But now he has, so the industry’s white supremacy has accepted him as the exceptional colored guy. And he does not appear to be exiting the house voluntarily.
Really, that’s what I’d hope for from him. That he would keep writing and reflecting on his journey of healing, but that he could see that he needs a break as gatekeeper in the places where he abused his power. Maybe not forever if he can clean up his messes. Maybe not forever if he participates in some restorative justice so that those he’s hurt feel a sense of reparation. Maybe not forever if he puts in the work and restores the trust of women in the community. And it would be a wonderful thing if literary institutions could take the lead on pushing for accountability.
Instead, their death grip on the diversity he brings just shows how little they think of the rest of us writers of color. With a special spot of worthlessness for black and brown women. Their message is that none of us other writers of color could never do what he does—write, edit, network, mentor, teach, evaluate, refer—in spite of the fact that so many of us do it every day, except we do it outside of elite white institutions. This is the wrong call. The entire poetry editorial staff quit over it. Boston Review, please reconsider your position. Defending your house negro is a very bad look.
Yes, Aya. All of this. It’s so true that there is more than one choice here and that the Boston Review took the easiest, most damaging road. I had not thought about the House Negro analogy – this is smart. And it’s particularly important that he represents and is willing to do the work with parts of the world/literary community that the editors of the BR are not willing to engage. They’d rather keep up this relationship and send a toxic message than be more responsible for stepping into the diversity void that he fills.
May the Lord continue exposing injustice in preparation for His RESTORATIVE JUSTICE.
Blessings & favor to you, Aya, & ALL other authors of color who have been “in the fields” doing ALL of the work while white folk luxuriate in their “comfort” zones of not having to “try to learn” anything of value.