Race-work, Race-love

The First Time I Read “Drown”: Normalizing the Race-Worker

In Uncategorized on November 2, 2010 at 11:26 am

I remember the first time I read Junot Diaz’s book Drown in college. A Dominican-American writer, there was not one italicized word in sight.

Not one.

Not when the word was in Spanish. Not one when it was in Spanglish. No explanation. No translation.

This book was for us primarily, for the rest of the world secondarily.

I oddly felt at home in literature. For the first time, I felt like I could belong in the literary world.

For years I was reading The Babysitters Club and The Sweet Valley High Twins. I went to high school and had to read books like Catcher in the Rye and For Whom the Bell Tolls (to name a few).

Then I took a class in college during my junior year. A Latino Literature course at Brandeis University. Actually it was called Latin American Literature in Translation. We all knew it was not in translation at all. This literature was written by Latinos/as in English. Latinos/as like me.

This class made me feel like I was in our own kind of Romper Room. Do you remember? When they called every name at the end and you kept wanting to hear your name but never did? Maybe because your name wasn’t Anglo enough?


But I did find this name in Latino/a literature. And my friends’ names too. It felt great.

It felt even better to be in a room full of Latinos who appreciated these books too. The power of critical mass in higher education. Makes me wonder if this is the reason why policymakers deter this from happening…

In that class we learned many things. There, we had a lesson in literature. We also discovered how people other-ed Latinos. One student, a non-Spanish speaking student complained that she couldn’t understand Diaz’s book Drown. When the professor asked her why , she said because Diaz did not translate a particular word. When we looked at the word, we discovered the word was in English – she just did not know its meaning. Rather than feel like she didn’t know something, she chose to blame it on the Spanish-speaking-guy-who-wrote-a-book-she-has-to-read-but-can’t-understand.

Good Lord. Do we laugh or do we get angry at this?

So no italics. No where in sight. And I knew this was where I belonged. This was what I wanted to do. For Ecuadorians. For Latinos. For my students. To make one more person feel comfortable in academia.

Those of us who did not grow up with The New York Times at home or discussions around the table about the news on CNN, those of us who come from the worlds where parents had to work double shifts, graveyard shifts, books were minimal, conversations were scarce, those of us who come from these worlds and also enter the world of the academy – we live in two worlds. We don’t feel totally comfortable in either, but know we belong nowhere else. Part of this comfort level is acceptance of our personal backgrounds and bringing it to the light, not hiding our personal stories from the world.

This era of colorblindness has done a wonderful job at making people feel bad about being people of color. We are shamed into feeling good about being Latino/a or Black or Asian. We hear rhetoric like “I don’t want people to think I’m in college just because I am Latina” — but you never hear a white kid saying that. Ever. Some of my students , who attend a private institution, are ashamed of being known for coming from a low-income background. We are shamed into hiding.

“There is a fine line between hiding and feeling ashamed” (Portia de Rossi on Oprah).

Our current climate of colorblindness makes us walk this line.

We used to live in an era where slogans like “Black is Beautiful” and “Viva la Raza!” were accepted and sung and written and said like mantras. Today, our race-love has diminished into shame. And our young people are being punished for it.

So when I read books by Junot Diaz, Edwidge Danticat, Sandra Cisneros, Sofia Quintero, Ernesto Quiñonez, Toni Morrison, (to name a few) I am reminded of the power of personal stories , the audacity of telling them, and the pride instilled in those who read them.

It’s how we do our race-work.

It’s how we promote our race-love.

One On 1: Author Junot Diaz Translates Local Immigrant Experience Into Acclaimed Fiction


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