On April 20, Cuban emigré novelist H.G. “Hache” Carrillo, a resident of Berwyn Heights, Maryland, died from complications related to the coronavirus, according to The Washington Post. Carrillo, whose novels “plumbed the meaning of Cuban American identity,” was chairman of the Washington, D.C.-based literary PEN/Faulkner Foundation.
Carrillo’s stories, focusing on cultural misfits like himself, dealt with the Cuban emigré experience in America. Praise of fiction inspired by his Latino upbringing, such as “Loosing My Espanish,” earned him a position teaching creative writing at George Washington University — except he wasn’t actually Cuban.
Turns out, noted an updated article in The Washington Post, “Carrillo” was originally born Herman Glenn Carroll in Detroit, Michigan, son of two native Michiganders. No one in his family is Latino. Nor, contrary to claims he made throughout his adult life, was he a widely traveled concert pianist. He was largely self-taught in piano, but no professional. He learned Spanish later in life.
After becoming a writer in the 1990s, he adopted the name “Carrillo” and his fictitious backstory. His niece, Jessica Webley, told The Washington Post, “[W]e never saw him much. … Glenn always kept his family and social life separate.”
Why Wasn’t Carroll’s Life ‘Cultural Appropriation’?
One might think that such a story — of a man who made a career out of pretending to be a Latino immigrant, even deceiving his husband Dennis vanEngelsdorp — might elicit allegations of “cultural appropriation.” Not so much. Indeed, obituaries of Carroll in other prominent U.S. newspapers are still referring to him as a “Cuban-born author.”
“Now that I’m looking at it with the eyes of someone who has to take it over, it really is an artistic expression. … Somehow, it exemplifies him,” vanEngelsdorp told The Washington Post. “At first, you’re confused by it. Then you look at it, you watch it, and you get to know it — I mean, Hache was always a hard guy to know — and when you take it all in, it’s beautiful chaos.”
Perhaps just “chaos” is more appropriate. Indeed, it is increasingly difficult to divine the criteria that will stir the masses of liberal-leaning mainstream and social media to decry and “cancel” those who violate their identity-politics dogmas.
One would have thought former Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, who is almost entirely of European ancestry, labeling herself Native American would have immediately disqualified her from political contention. Here is a white woman, lying about her race in various professional capacities, including calling herself a “minority law teacher” at the University of Pennsylvania. Yet Democrats are seriously considering her as Biden’s vice presidential pick.
Certainly, plenty of examples evince a more angry reaction to racial appropriation. Rachel Dolezal, the former president of the Spokane chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) who claimed to be black, was exposed in 2015 to be of entirely white, European ancestry. Dolezal also claimed, falsely, that she was born and lived in a teepee and had lived in South Africa as a child. Not long after her exposure, she was pressured to resign from her leadership role in the NAACP.
Prior to Dolezal, “Margaret Jones,” the author of a widely heralded memoir of a half-American Indian girl adopted by a black family in Los Angeles, was exposed to actually be Margaret Seltzer, a white, middle-class suburbanite. Seltzer’s publisher, Riverside Press, recalled all copies of her book.
In “The Age of Entitlement,” Christopher Caldwell notes that “race is the part of the human experience in which American schoolchildren are most painstakingly instructed. Their studies of literature, of war, of civics, are all subordinated to it.” Race, Caldwell adds, has been “invested with a religious significance.” It has become “an ethical absolute.”
Indeed, many on the left have sought to elevate race to be the preeminent identity-marker in American society, and the most important lens through which to interpret American history, as evidenced by The New York Times’ infamous 1619 Project. Attacks on “angry” or “old” white males are now pro forma.
Racial Identity Politics Is Arbitrary
Thus we find ourselves in a strange catch-22: Various races and ethnic minorities claim victim status, while whites falsify their identities in an attempt to appropriate those minority races or ethnicities for social or political benefit. Writing about Seltzer, Caldwell explains:
She was bartering away a bit of her identity in exchange for moral authority and belonging. She was concealing, as best as she could, her membership in a low-prestige ethnic group in order that she might participate in the national conversation on a firmer footing.
Indeed, when white Americans are maligned simply for being the inheritors of racism because of deeds committed by their long-dead ancestors, the temptation to spurn that white identity for something more culturally acceptable becomes all the stronger. When CNN reporter Anderson Cooper learned that one of his slave-owning ancestors was beaten to death by a black man, he acknowledged his ancestor deserved it.
“I have no doubt,” Cooper told PBS with a confident smile. According to black writer and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, whiteness is a “bloody heirloom.”
“It turns out,” observes Caldwell, “to be a difficult and unnatural thing to replace a system of prejudice with a system of real equality and respect.” That seems true enough, when white American women such as Warren, Dolezal, and Seltzer lie about their identities and try to appropriate minority status in order to procure the social and political capital that comes with it.
Thus we find ourselves confronted with the illogic and inconsistency of racial identity politics. Sometimes, those guilty of cultural appropriation are run out of town on a rail for their ethnic or racial sins. Other times, those same transgressions are expediently overlooked or excused.
Carroll’s homosexual partner, VanEngelsdorp, in an attempt to defend Carroll for pretending to be a member of a dissident family fleeing the very real oppression of Fidel Castro’s Cuba, explains: “I think that in any other century, there were storytellers, like jesters, and in African culture, and in First Nations cultures, and when they told stories, people never expected the truth to be the reality, you know?”
But Carroll wasn’t African, or even a member of a “First Nation,” a term referring to Native American peoples. He was a black American man born in Michigan, to Michigander parents. Fabrications about his identity enabled him to write books and procure a job at a top-tier American university.
The civil rights movement of the 1960s, notes Caldwell, aimed to bring an end to racist social and political thinking. Yet 50 years later, America seems just as beholden to them. The new racialism, pace Carroll, Warren, and Dolezal, is just as absurd.