Author Junot Diaz Speaks at Colgate on Race and Identity


MIT professor  and writer Junot Diaz advised the Colgate community on how to best combat racism.

On Tuesday, January 26, Colgate students, faculty and staff gathered in Love Auditorium to listen to writer and social activist Junot Diaz.

Diaz’s renowned works draw deeply from his own experiences as an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, while also addressing universal issues of love and family. He received the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and his 2012 collection of short stories This is How You Lose Her was a New York Times Bestseller and National Book Award finalist.

In addition to his lecture, Diaz sat down with The Colgate Maroon-News for an exclusive interview. Diaz ran the lecture as more of a discussion, and frequently interacted with audience members, asking for their opinions.

“How’s the school treating you, people of color?” Diaz asked the audience in his opening.  

Much of the lecture focused on Diaz’s desire to see minorities unite to fight more of a collective battle against inequality. He explained this point through the example of the Cuban War for Independence in 1895, in which Jose Marti dedicated his life to raising money and men, gathering Americans, Jamaicans, Haitians and Dominicans to fight for the Cuban cause. This example of collective action was particularly inspiring to Diaz, who feels that a major problem today is Americans’ inability to view an attack on one minority group as an attack on all.

“We don’t think about our identities as what connects us to other people and other groups, but we think of them as a way to exclude other people,” Diaz said.

He would like to see us stop “hoarding” our identities and instead use them as a means of connection rather than division, against the common issue of white supremacy.

“Most of the systems we carry around with us devour us,” Diaz said.

Diaz also discussed the way neoliberalism erodes the country’s sense of value, his experience growing up as a light-skinned person of African descent and how he was perceived because of it, collective privilege, how best to take on white supremacy and how sexual economies are distorted by racial politics.

Diaz’s visit was sponsored by the Latin American Student Organization (LASO), and made possible by the perseverance of junior Manny Medina.

“My freshman year I fell in love with his books and I thought it would be great to bring him to Colgate. So I went online and emailed him,” Medina said.

After about two years of trying to align schedules, Diaz finally had an opening, and following five months of planning by Medina and LASO, the idea became a reality.

Though Diaz has visited Colgate once before as a part of the 2009 Living Writers series, his visit last week was quite different, focusing more on issues of equality and social justice than on his writing career.

However, in an interview with The Colgate Maroon-News, Diaz offered unique advice for young writers. He believes that the best thing young writers can do is read continuously and voraciously, and only begin to write later in their twenties, after experiencing more of life.

“My advice to young artists is to, if they can, resist the mandate to professionalize their art. I think it would make their relationship to their art, and by extension the art form, more powerful. That’s a difficult challenge, given that you guys live in a generation where there’s an enormous amount of pressure for you to justify your existence vis-a-vis a job, an income, a salary. So that’s a tough thing to ask. But if one can aspire to that, I think it would be liberating,” Diaz said.

Diaz’s book, This is How You Lose Her, focuses on the fundamental ideas of how to find and keep love. When asked about his advice to his younger self, or Colgate students, on the topic of love and relationships, Diaz explained that the best thing we can do is strive to view each other with compassion and understanding.

“You do the best you can with what you got. My younger self couldn’t have done any better, he didn’t know that much. I would just simply say that I think that for boys, for straight boys, for boys period, one of the larger challenges that they face is trying to create a space to imagine women in a very human, nuanced way. And there’s no possibility for a real relationship of any kind without that. I think that a lot of women in fact suffer from the same problem, trying to imagine themselves as fully human,” Diaz said.

Even after winning a Pulitzer and making the bestseller list, Diaz still identifies finishing his first year of college as his greatest achievement.

“[What I am most proud of is] that I finished my first year of college being a commuter and having a full time job. That, to me, when I think of my career, is my greatest accomplishment,” Diaz said.

Though not one to shy from controversy when it came to honest discussions about race, Diaz was extremely humble about his own career and work.

“If you’re doing your sh-t, you shouldn’t need applause,” Diaz explained.

Even so, Diaz received a standing ovation from Colgate students.

“I loved [Junot Diaz’s] lecture and how he tried to make what he was saying very relatable for us. He was very engaging and created an atmosphere that was laid back, something that doesn’t happen often with lectures and in the classroom. He definitely had an interesting perspective on current issues or even recurring issues throughout history and it was interesting to hear about these topics from a different perspective. I thought Junot Diaz was a wonderful public speaker. He was funny and extremely open,” sophomore and LASO member Cheyenne Brown said.

Students also enjoyed Diaz’s willingness to speak candidly about race.

“I really like [Diaz’s] bluntness when it came to the issues he discussed. I appreciated that he said what he thought without trying to sugarcoat anything. He was funny, which was nice. Overall, I thought that he did a great job at addressing issues and keeping everyone aware of how he saw certain problems involving race and how he thought they should be addressed,” sophomore Jovan Diaz, also a current member of LASO, said.