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Barbed wire, taut across handmade tiles of fanciful bluebirds in flight—such is the jacket art for American Dirt (2020) by Jeanine Cummins, its title referenced toward the end of this novel. Guatemalan migrant Soledad, fifteen years old, spits through the fence at the Nogales border and leaves some of herself in the American dirt, so desperate she is to cross over, her beauty a magnet for sexual assaults.

The author succeeds in portraying other fleshed-out migrants fleeing death-wielding cartels. Among them is Lydia, the young mother of Luca, having escaped the slaughter of her entire family at her niece’s fifteenth birthday party in Acapulco. Grief emboldens Lydia to protect her eight-year-old and flee to Tucson, not without extreme hardships and scrapes with death. However hard the migrants seek to escape, the cartels’ Intel keeps their victims within the cross-hairs of their AK47s.

Cummins’s five years of research and numerous trips to the United States-Mexican border crossings and beyond, offer an immediacy to this hostile terrain: its sights, smells, tastes, sounds, and touch wheedle themselves within readers’ imaginations and compel interest for yet another chapter.

Only Cummins’s artistry with words prevents this novel from becoming a horror binge. Much she leaves out, prompting her readers’ deeper engagement.

What surfaces from the experience of reading American Dirt remains unsettling. There seems no political/religious will to dismantle the drug cartels because of their octopus-like monitoring, because of lucrative payments to their spies, and because of their victims gunned down on the streets, overcrowding morgues. Monstrous greed sparks this human tragedy as migrants continue fleeing for their lives. Still they come.

America Dirt speaks to the present impasse at our Southern border.

 

 

Long has been my passion for the Crucified Cosmic Christ: the mortal wounding, the shuddering silence, the lens through which to view human atrocities, specifically lynchings of Southern Black men, women, and children: Victims of white supremacist mob rule, they were hung from trees or lampposts, beaten, whipped, burned, castrated, flayed alive, mutilated, or shot.

But James H. Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree (2011) tripwired my passion anew. Within the fiery cauldron of his psyche, he theologized the cross with lynching. Other than Black artists with the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, no theologian, White or Black, had attempted this configuration.

Cone, former Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary, was curiously adept to write these five essays; he fused his segregated childhood in Arkansas with advanced degrees in theology from Northwestern University and the teachings of Dr. King and Malcolm X. What agonized Cone the most, however, was the blind eye cast by Christian churches and state and federal authorities upon lynching—like it was all right. Cone’s family felt its probability at any time.

It was only Black churches, alive with Gospel hymns and spirituals of the Crucified, together with Friday and Saturday juke joints alive with the blues, jazz, and dancing that sustained families from this psychic oppression and moral disintegration. Over time, however, passive suffering with their Lord morphed into nonviolent resistance and the Civil Rights Movement. The rest is history.

In my perception, The Cross and the Lynching Tree is a dense and rich study that warrants reflection and prayer—most appropriate for Lent. Annotations and indexing offer opportunities for further study.

 

 

Listening for the stream of words coursing through the unconscious, then expressing them opens writers to the bedrock of their identity and the resiliency of change.

Such discipline Etty Hillesum (1914-1943) imposed upon herself at the behest of Jungian-trained psychoanalyst Julius Spier whose guidance she sought when twenty-seven years old. He also recommended she steep herself in the Bible, St. Augustine, Rilke, and Dostoyevsky’s novels. Through assiduous study, Etty’s incipient God flamed within her psyche, pried open childhood scars whose bondage had kept her miserable, then empowered her to let them go. Inner freedom smiled through dark eyes onto the world of Hitler.

From 1941 to 1943, Etty filled ten notebooks that tracked this amazing psychic transformation: the Nazi terror in Amsterdam, prayer to her Companion God, humor, sensitivity to beauty, Russian classes to private pay pupils, translations, the ups and downs of relationships with Hans Wegerif and her analyst, and aches in her stomach and head. Within this mix, she learned to embrace the tension between opposites: evil and good, dark and light, disharmony and harmony, etcetera: All find resonance within her God, experienced not as savior but as One to help reverse evils that wracked His world. Loving others patterned her days, despite the ever-tightening noose of the Nazis, intent upon annihilation.

This attitude accompanied her cattle-car transport to the work camp at Auschwitz in 1943 where she died of starvation and typhus.

An Interrupted Life – The Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum first appeared in English in 2002, and since has been translated into sixty-seven languages. Her legacy continues, for those inspired to do likewise.

 

 

 

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