Junot Diaz never got any help. A poignant essay written by the acclaimed Latino writer this past April leads with this context before taking readers through the author’s lifelong “coming of age” story where Diaz begins as the abused, becomes the abuser, and awakens with a “second chance” at light and life.
Recent misconduct allegations against Diaz, including claims from authors Zinzi Clemmons and Carmen Maria Machado, have now given Diaz’s victims their second chance. Diaz opened the door for conversation with his confessional “me too” essay, perhaps unintentionally welcoming (or preparing us) for stories about the pain he inflicted upon too many women in the literary world.
As important as it has been for women worldwide to bravely take the stage and share their truths about experiences with sexual assault, misogyny, machismo, and misconduct, it is just as important to measure the weight of telling these stories. If exposing the inappropriate — or just plain disgusting — behavior of wealthy white men is a heroic act, then for us, exposing the misconduct of our powerful and iconic men of color feels Herculean. So what do we call it when victims expose the dark, ugly sins of men of color who not only stand as symbols of entire marginalized communities but are also victims themselves?
Perhaps, it is historic.
With this turning point in the #MeToo conversation, members of the movement and those with a vested interest in evolving the culture — particularly the Latino and Black culture which too often celebrates powerful, genius, yet deeply problematic men — must pay close attention.
The #MeToo movement began as an opportunity to provide a voice to the voiceless; some may say the culture shift began with Hannibal Burress calling out The Iconic Black Man in comedy, Bill Cosby, for his unfathomable lifelong history of raping primarily white women. The conversation only got more real as the movement shifted its gaze toward The Powerful White Man (see: Harvey Weinstein) and his crimes against primarily white women. An uneasiness then became palpable as the movement swept various industries beyond Hollywood; we imagine that many men of color quietly sat by hoping that the behaviors that are often celebrated in their communities wouldn’t suddenly become their downfall. Or maybe not. After all, women of color are routinely overlooked in cultural conversations, with their pain being prescribed as secondary — if at all acknowledged.
Some suggest, however, that Diaz did not nervously sit by, but took a page from Kevin Spacey’s book — pre-empting his outing by outing himself.
The oft-problematic radio show host, Charlamagne tha God has said “Live your truth so no one can use it against you.”
Recent conversations suggest that this will not apply in Diaz’s case. He canceled upcoming public appearances in the wake of multiple allegations of his misconduct, as much of his storied career has begun to fall down around him in light of these allegations.
So if Diaz’s truth can be used against him, then, can it also be used to heal him — and us? Can his healing become a catalyst for change within communities of color where, as he states in his response to the allegations, “we must continue to teach all men about consent and boundaries.” What offers a better lesson than this cautionary tale — a victim silenced by the culture who grows up to become an abuser celebrated by the culture?
The old narrative (“disgusting misogynist, disgusting behavior”) allowed us to quickly acknowledge and dismiss sexual misconduct and misogyny by saying “He’s a piece of shit. Burn him and his career down to the ground. Push him into exile.” The complicated story of Junot Diaz does not fit here either. If Diaz is at fault for his behavior, we hold a measure of responsibility for the culture that created his double identity as victim and abuser. Now, it is up to us to evolve the conversation from simply demanding accountability and responsibility from the abuser. We must seek reconciliation. How do we reconcile a culture that we are proud of, icons who we love, and the cyclical abuse that has harmed the majority of us — and turned some of us into abusers? Seeing him for what he is, what will the culture do next?
Some say “hurt people hurt people,” which could accurately — if not tritely — tell Diaz’s story. I welcome our communities to begin to say “In the quest to break free of our oppressors, we must not become them.” Diaz allegedly pushed many WOC writers into the margins of an already small community. Will we now do the same to him?
It is a difficult conversation. The one where we hold Diaz accountable, demand he takes responsibility, and then ask ourselves the hard questions. What did he need to do to prevent off loading his own trauma and pain onto women? How do we avoid further silencing him and instead demand that he use his story to do the work of educating other men? How do we create a pathway for him to not only learn but also to become an activist for change among those in our community who are also perpetrators — or would-be perpetrators struggling with similar traumas? It’s Diaz’s battle to fight, but we have skin in the game as so many of our men are the victim and the assailant. It’s up to us to rise to the occasion in this next chapter of the #MeToo movement. Perhaps, that is the help Diaz always needed and the help our community needs too.