This is how you lose her.
On Friday morning, allegations exploded across the Internet about author Junot Díaz’s history of sexual misconduct and verbal abuse against women in the literary world.
The news came just weeks after the Dominican American author’s widely hailed New Yorker essay about his experience of having been raped as a child, and how the experience has haunted him (and his Pulitzer Prize-winning work) throughout his life.
Dismay seems to be the prevailing emotion among those responding to the news, that and a lack of surprise. It’s not all that surprising a revelation, considering the way that Díaz’s work has consistently engaged with themes of machismo, misogyny and women’s hurt as a pathway to male enlightenment.
But we’re also rounding a corner of anger, part of the backlash that has dogged the #MeToo moment and its constant sexual assault revelations almost from the beginning. “Can’t I enjoy one beautiful essay without finding out that the author is a horror? Hasn’t this movement gone far enough? Will no one be spared?”
And there’s a strain of frustration that is particular to communities of color, one that makes the accusations against Díaz feel particularly bitter after last week’s guilty verdict in the Bill Cosby retrial. Accusations of sexual assault have historically been used in the United States to tear down the achievements — and the lives — of men of color. Will the movement be used to kill our heroes — the rare Latino literary star, “America’s [Black] Dad”? So what if there was misconduct? Protect our men. We need them the most.
It’s an understandable reflex, in a time and place where, despite advances, people of color are still underrepresented and frequently disrespected, and feel (rightfully) that we must grasp on tightly to what achievements we’ve obtained, lest they be taken away.
But it’s the wrong one.
It may be painful to admit that Díaz is an abuser, not just an author. Many in the black community are still coming to terms with the fact that Cosby is a predator, not a beloved paterfamilias. Carmen Machado, one of Díaz’s accusers, tweeted as much:
But clinging to these flawed heroes does us more harm than good. The false sense of security allows us to choose not to look further afield for those who might be better, and new. And unquestioned loyalty lets us allow things we shouldn’t — the increased vulnerability of women of color, for instance — in the service of some “greater” cause.
Rethinking our regard for figures like Díaz and Cosby may be painful, but it’s also an opportunity. It’s possible to find a brilliant black or Latino writer who doesn’t abuse women. I’m sure we can surface a genius of color without a questionable past. There will be others.
And maybe as #MeToo takes old heroes off their pedestals, it will make room to raise up new ones who actually deserve them.