If you're a reader, you might be aware of the controversy that engulfed author Jeanine Cummins not long after her 2019 novel American Dirt became a bestseller. As the cultural appropriation brouhaha swirled around Cummins, for reasons I don't clearly recall, I skipped reading her book, though the early reviews and significant buzz about it had initially intrigued me. My reading life continued apace as Cummins suffered withering attacks about "speaking for" a group she cannot claim as her own - un-documented immigrants.
Though I hadn't given much thought to cultural appropriation since the Cummins fracas, the subject and her book both roared back to life recently. Unknown to me when we started our trip, what resided on my wife's phone, a compelling companion during our driving vacation through the South when looking for a break from music? That's right, American Dirt. And here's the rub: I still have no clear idea where I land on the cultural appropriation continuum. (I do know this: Cummins is a talented storyteller and her book is a near-perfect one to listen to while driving - linear plot, not too many characters, strong narrative line.)
On one hand, I'm thrilled cultural critics are raising this issue, especially since oppressed people have often been rendered voiceless by oppressors. But I can think of many examples from my own life when I might never have learned about an injustice had it not been for authors, musicians, or filmmakers who tried using their privileged voices to tell a story needing to be told. I can think of just as many instances when I might have never known of an important talent because my world was narrow. And many well-meaning people around me - educators, family, friends - also unaware of the unheard, didn't bring those talents to my attention. But then, some well known artist championed the previously unheard, in the process helping me to be exposed to those "others".
I'm not convinced the public castigation Jeanine Cummins endured was fair or just. Does that matter? Isn't it better for questions and challenges to be posed even when there are no clear answers? Where is the line about who has the "right" to speak for or on behalf of whom? I can't pretend to know. Can you?