Jose O. Fernandez
Against Marginalization: Convergences in Black & Latinx Literatures
The Ohio State University Press, 2022
Reviewed by Angela Villamizar
The current cultural and political moment is defined by the dichotomy of increased representation of traditionally marginalized communities and resulting tensions. As the demographic makeup of the United States shifts, prominent trends in pop culture and politics have followed suit. In Hollywood and on sports fields, artists, actors, and athletes of color are enjoying more opportunities than ever before, but their popularity and power depend on their palatability to multiple segments of the population; they must carefully balance the interests of both authenticity and appeal.
Counternarratives that challenge exclusionary structures and stories have gained traction as representation of diverse populations across fields has increased. However, these narratives must honor complex truths while also gaining mainstream acceptance and recognition, which can be challenging in a political climate dominated by book bans, culture wars, and censorship of social studies content. For writers of color, consciousness of the ‘double audience’ of white readers and readers of color, as well as political pressures, can complicate how they authentically represent their experiences in a white-dominated publishing industry and literary scene. José O. Fernandez, an Assistant Professor of Latina/o/x Studies at the University of Iowa, considers how writers of color have navigated the complexities of authentic representation in the context of the American literary tradition in his book, Against Marginalization: Convergences in Black and Latinx Literatures. He details the ideological and literary convergences between selected Black and Latinx texts by analyzing the elements and themes employed by the writers. He also contemplates the historical, social, and economic marginalization of Black and Latinx writers in the American literary scene, arguing that these writers either engaged with, appropriated, or subverted the American literary tradition in their work. The similarities between the experiences and approaches of Black and Latinx writers signal a shared fight against the exclusion and marginalization interfering in producing and publishing their works.
Traditionally, Black and Latinx literature has been examined and anthologized separately, without consideration of connections between the two. The most widely examined connection is the study of Black and Latinx authors as individual ‘others’, distinct from the white or ‘American’ author. Fernandez seeks to illuminate convergences in Black and Latinx literature through an understanding of their histories, themes, and content to promote cross-ethnic unity against literary marginalization.
In each chapter, Fernandez places a text by a Black writer and another text by a Latinx writer in a specific literary genre in conversation with each other. These include the plays of Amiri Baraka and Luis Valdez, fiction of James Baldwin and Rudolfo Anaya, essays of Ralph Ellison and Richard Rodriguez, novels by Alice Walker and Helena Maria Viramontes, and short fiction of Edward P. Jones and Junot Diaz. The wide range of genres, texts, authors, and perspectives represents Fernandez’s intentionality in avoiding essentialism and monolithic assumptions in his work.
Chapter-by-chapter, he conducts a cross-cultural and comparative case study of the hidden parallels between each pair of Black and Latinx texts. Fernandez employs a straightforward, predictable structure that allows readers who may not have previously engaged with the selected texts to clearly follow his observations and arguments. Each chapter incorporates a brief description of the general historical context, the literary trends and elements reflected in the work, and the backgrounds of the authors of the texts, along with the analysis of the texts’ use of literary elements and themes; Fernandez emphasizes that the content and composition of the works cannot be separated from their historical and literary contexts. Whether in the form of theater productions, fictional stories of soldiers of color, social commentaries in the form of essays, slave narratives, or short stories about the urban underclass, themes related to the experiences of Black and Latinx communities are relative to authors’ positionalities, relationships to the publishing industry, and motivations in writing. Thus, Fernandez’s observations of the representation of violence and agency in Black and Mexican theater in the 1960s contrasts with the narratives of personal discrimination, regional subordination, and social inequities in Black and Latinx works of fiction by authors who sought to engage and inform their readers across decades. Other writers of color, such as Ralph Ellison and Richard Rodriguez, propelled less by activist tendencies and more by intellectual and artistic interests, downplayed the marginalization of communities of color and critiqued Black and Chicanx nationalist movements, gaining favor with a more conservative readership and industry. In the incorporation of certain literary elements and themes, Black and Latinx writers decided whether they would assimilate to, subvert, or reject the white literary tradition.
However, Against Marginalization is only an introduction to the connections between Black and Latinx literature, incorporating five genres and ten texts. Fernandez’s main arguments and findings would be strengthened through case studies analyzing other genres and works. He acknowledges that the historical dearth of authors of color results in certain writers gaining notoriety and acclaim, which can be problematic. Allegations of sexual assault against Junot Diaz, for example, caution against the deification of esteemed writers of color; Fernandez calls for a cultivation of a more diverse pool of writers that avoids elevating one author as the sole literary champion of their community. Additionally, future scholarship could go beyond identifying historical and cultural similarities between Black and Latinx literatures and instead investigate how Black and Latinx literary infrastructures and writers may have directly communicated with and informed each other. In his reflection on the future of the Black, Latinx, and canonical American literary traditions, Fernandez could consider the impact of current systemic inequities more critically. For example, although he briefly critiques the capitalist and racialized model of publishing, he does not directly name how different interests may actively conspire to keep the publishing industry exclusive or why there may be institutional resistance to elevating diverse voices.
With Black and Latinx literatures becoming more integrated into the mainstream, Fernandez’s analysis of Black and Latinx literary traditions emphasizes that the struggle against marginalization has been long, arduous, and subtle, yet subversive. He draws upon a robust collection of interdisciplinary sources that includes scholarly articles, books, opinion pieces, biographies, statistics, and cultural commentaries related to history, identity, representation, and literary theory and structures to inform a holistic exploration of Black and Latinx literary traditions. Against Marginalization: Convergences in Black and Latinx Literatures offers insight for scholars interested in American literature, history, and social movements through the lenses of ethnic studies and comparative cultural studies. The book illuminates how social change has informed the development of the Black and Latinx literary tradition and how Black and Latinx texts can contribute to a more integrated understanding of American history and identity. Through intense research and review of a selection of major Black and Latinx writers, Fernandez enhances readers’ understanding of the struggle for Black and Brown liberation and representation in literature and encourages readers to consider the possibilities to come.