Top Ten Ways AMERICAN DIRT & THE HELP Misrepresent

Posted on January 30, 2020

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This is about freedom of speech and falsehoods. No one stopped either Kathryn Stockett’s The Help or Jeanine Cummins American Dirt from being published. Both books are readily available to the public, and so are criticisms directed at each, broken down to ten quick items on this post, because American Dirt will be utilized at some point by educators, just like The Help was and still is being used worldwide.

 

So, in no particular order:

 

1. Both books push a narrative of POC through a white lens. There is also the tactic of creating sympathy to foster empathy (I’ll go more into that when I update this post). American Dirt has been dubbed  by some critics as “trauma porn.” Of note: Both books were edited/polished up by Amy Einhorn.

Both books employ a “racially ambiguous cover design” because many publishers don’t believe books with POC on the cover will sell to white readers.

 

 

2. Promotional missteps that are insulting and inexcusable. From faux barbed wire table centerpieces at a book launch by the publisher of American Dirt:

Your eyes aren’t deceiving you. Those centerpieces are supposed to resemble barbed wire.

 

Manicured nails painted to copy the book’s barbed wire and blue cover:

 

 

 

To a collaboration between HSN and The Help film, hustling pots and pans by Emeril and fashion reminiscent of the 1960s.

HSN product tie in for The Help. Emeril’s pots and pans were on sale, but thankfully no maids uniforms were part of this misguided promo for the film.

 

See this post for more info:

https://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/the-help-movie-cleans-up-after-itself-the-novel/making-the-help-pay/

 

 

3. Mary Sue/white savior lead characters. Skeeter (The Help novel) frets over not being pretty and missing her old black maid. Lydia (American Dirt) flirts and then frets over cartel head Javier as if she has no idea of the danger, though she is a native of Mexico. Both leads benefit from their socio-economic status until they’re forced to become “woke.”

Mary Sue

 

 

 

4. Shoddy research. The Help novel’s first edition leaves in a Medgar Evers error, where both the author and main character claim Evers died after being “bludgeoned on his front lawn.” Black maids are simply three overused caricatures of black characters in american fiction: The overweight, folksy, loyal black maid-Aibileen is Delilah from Imitation of Life. Wise cracking “sassy” maid – Minny is Mammy from Gone with the Wind. Wise old sage maid – Constantine is an Ethel Waters “Member of the Wedding” rip off. In short, all three are Mammies for a new generation.

Click this link for more info on the Medgar Evers error in The Help: https://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2011/09/24/publisher-corrects-medgar-evers-error/

 

Just like Kathryn Stockett admitted in several interviews that real life events made it into her novel, Jeanine Cummins has admitted reading the works of other Latino writers. A real life event by writer Luis Alberto Urrea made it into her book American Dirt. This info and screenshots are by Geoff Cordner @geoffcordner:

Geoff Cordner
Click the photo to go directly to the original source where you can view larger screen shots

 

 

Many thanks to David Schmidt @SchmidtTales for his indepth review titled HERE BE DRAGONS:

“. . . In fact, at its best moments American Dirt simply copies from these works—most notably, from the writings of Sonia Nazario and Luis Alberto Urrea. One scene describes a garbage dump in Tijuana that appears in Urrea’s 1993 book, Across the Wire, but hasn’t existed for some 20 years. The descriptions of Pastor Ignacio and his migrant shelter in Celaya, central Mexico, were clearly copied from Urrea’s blogs and Facebook posts. Cummins makes one glaring omission, though: Pastor Ignacio provides special attention to amputee victims. I visited his shelter early this January, and heard from migrants who had lost arms and legs. The important thing is, they suffered these accidents on the train, either by falling onto the tracks or falling victim to Mara gang members. These are precisely the kind of facts that Cummins’s story fails to reflect.”

https://brooklynrail.org/2020/02/field-notes/Here-Be-Dragons

 

More Houston, we have a problem . . . 

So what happens when the reason Lydia and Luca couldn’t board a plane is challenged with information on the process of obtaining a birth certificate in Mexico?

Please read this Twitter thread by Ricardo Victoria @Winged_Leo where he explains the process and refutes Cummins research:

 

Ricardo Victoria refutes Cummins research

 

Many thanks @Winged_Leo for allowing me to post part of his rebuttal.

Link to the complete twitter thread: https://twitter.com/Winged_Leo/status/1230173856335265802

 

I can already hear the nay-sayers “But-but she was desperate and she probably wasn’t thinking clearly and she was right there at the counter only the attendant didn’t suggest any of this.”

A fictional character thinks and behaves any which way the writer (and editor) chooses for them. And in this case, for the “thriller” plotline Lydia and Luca had to become migrants and hoof it on foot/train to the border. It’s left up to the readers to suspend belief. And unfortunately, too many publishers think female readers don’t care or won’t care about facts. But see, some of us do. 

 

 

American Dirt – click this link for more in-depth reviews by critics:

acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/a-list-of-critical-reviews-for-american-dirt/

 

 

5. Dialect that’s supposed to represent POC. Spanish used in American Dirt reads as intro to Spanish – Google translate. However, bougie Lydia and her son speak “impeccable english” though her son claims he learned the language by watching YouTube. The author turns Luca into a “magical minority” trope, where the kid has a photographic memory that comes in handy as he entertains American tourists and while on the run.

The Help novel saddles black characters with southern fried ebonics, while white characters have no regional accent. The movie rectified this error, but not some of the cringe worthy dialogue:

“Frying chicken make you tend to feel better about life” – Minny, from the movie The Help

“Minny don’t burn no chicken.” – Minny, from the movie The Help

“You is kind, you is smart, you is im-po-tent” -Aibileen, from the movie The Help

 

 

6. Males of color are the boogey men of each book. In The Help it’s not segregation the maids gripe about or should be afraid of, but their “no-account men.” The black brute stereotype (Leroy) is used to the fullest. In American Dirt, Javier the cartel leader is the Latin lover stereotype who has a wife, a mistress and just can’t let Lydia go.

 

 

7. One book to rule them all – Both books were initially proclaimed to be the definitive IT novel. On black domestics in the 60s south, The Help was touted as important as “To Kill a Mockingbird.” American Dirt was crowned with accolades such as “a Grapes of Wrath for our times” and  “a new American classic.” Needless to say, after a deeper look at the issues within the pages of both, those glowing reviews are now the subject of much debate.

 

 

8. The author’s notes in both novels end, each expressing second thoughts and explaining their “intentions” were good.

 

 

9. Color coded to the extreme – The Help (black as asphalt, two young girls so black they can’t be told apart) American Dirt (berry brown and tan as childhood – what does that even mean?). More skin color insults from The Help can be read here:

https://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/should-not-be-in-the-help/

 

 

10. Stung by criticism, publisher changes the tag line to “empowerment” and “sisterhood” (The Help). Suddenly the maids and Skeeter become feminists and rights activists when the book made it clear as well as the author, that neither the maids or Skeeter wanted to change laws or attitudes. They operated apart from civil rights activists during this time period.

 

For American Dirt Flatiron books quickly switches from crowning the book as an authentic voiced Mexican migrant experience, to portraying Lydia as a mother fighting for her child’s survival, now heavily repping the book as a thiller.

 

Let me also add an OT:

Criticisms are met with weak ass excuses about “intentions being good” tone policing “well, if you’d only express your criticism nicer,” “this author is under attack from the cancel culture!” and “If you don’t like it, write your own book.”

 

Lee and Low’s Diversity in Publishing Report shows why that last argument is easier said than done:

Lee and Low Diversity in Publishing 2019

 

And when white conservatives leap to Jeanine Cummins defense, even though Cummins now calls herself boriqua, then sorry Jeanine, these folks consider you white:

Claiming Jeanine Cummins as their own1

I’m not giving the conservative mag that post this attack piece any clicks.

Let me repeat: Cummins hasn’t rec’d death threats, per Flatiron Books meeting with #DignidadLiteraria. And criticism isn’t censorship. 

 

Cummins no threats

 

 

This post is still being UPDATED

For more info comparing American Dirt and The Help, see this UPDATED, longer post:

https://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2020/01/22/rinse-repeat-american-dirt-novel-and-the-help/

 

If I’ve left anything out or there’s an error, please let me know in the comments.

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