E Pluribus Unum — “out of many, one” — is a centuries-old statement of our nation’s founding principle. How it ended up as the title of a display in a bookstore in Uptown Kingston is, however, a very modern tale.
In the wake of President Trump’s controversial comments last week in which he is alleged to refer to a number of overseas nations as “shithole countries,” Rough Draft Bar & Books gathered together some volumes by writers from Latin America, Africa and Asia under a sign reading “Writers from S##thole Countries.” Selections included Jamaican author Marlon James’ Man Booker Prize-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings, the autobiography of Nelson Mandela and works by Nigerian author and Bard College professor the late Chinua Achebe.
Anthony Stromoski, who with his wife Amanda opened the combination bookstore, coffee shop and beer bar back in November, said the display was intended as an ironic message of defiance to what he saw as Trump’s racially tinged comments.
“We were upset because of the fairly obvious connection that the places being disparaged were black or brown,” said Anthony Stromoski on Tuesday. “In comparison to Norway, which is overwhelmingly white.”
Stromoski said initial reaction to the display was limited to a large number of likes and shares among the bookstore’s few hundred Facebook followers. That changed on Friday when Brooklyn-based writer and editor Michele Filgate tweeted out a picture of the display, which was in turn retweeted by left-wing author, speaker and organizer Amy Siskind. From there, the tweet “went viral,” getting “liked” and “retweeted” — shared by users on their own Twitter pages — thousands and thousands of times. By Friday afternoon, Anthony Stromoski said, the response — mostly positive — was overwhelming. By 10 p.m. the couple was fielding interview requests from CNN, the New York Post and other major media outlets. By Sunday, the “Authors from S##thole Countries” table had sold out and the bookstore was having its busiest day yet.
“It was an intense weekend, that’s the best word for it,” said Anthony Stromski.
But in 2018, if something online gets enough attention, a backlash inevitably arises. The bookstore owners started to get messages from people who thought the “s##thole” message inappropriate and demeaning. The Stromoski’s said that the display’s ironic intent didn’t necessarily translate when it was divorced from its original context and shared around the world on social media. They said they were especially swayed by local residents with origins in some of the countries disparaged by Trump, who said that while they understood that the display’s intent was to show solidarity, its content remained hurtful.
“As a white couple who own a business, we felt it was important that we listen a little bit more,” said Anthony Stromoski.
So they changed the sign on the display to read “E Pluribus Unum,” the motto of the United States. There was some backlash against that, too, the owners posted, as some people felt they shouldn’t have backed down in the face of the initial backlash. Filgate also deleted her tweet and posted another stating, “Many people I respect have told me that they are offended by my photo and Rough Draft Bar & Books display, so I deleted the picture from my social media accounts. I never intended for my tweet to go viral, but since it has, I am grateful to hear everyone’s point of view.”
So is the bookstore. At the end of its Facebook post explaining why it changed the sign, Rough Draft wrote, “Countries do not need to produce exceptional writers to refute the idea that they are ‘shitholes.’ But as a bookstore that is proud to stock authors from all over the world, we hope their stories can help others gain a better understanding of their homes and their lives. Thank you all for your support and your feedback, and let’s keep the conversation going.”
By Tuesday, the E Pluribus Unum display had evolved from a showcase for writers from underdeveloped nations to a kind of comment on American diversity. Works on display ranged from Ron Chernow’s new biography of Ulysses S. Grant to books on the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement and tomes on Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Stromoskis said they planned to donate all of the proceeds from the display and 10 percent of their total weekend revenues to the refugee relief and resettlement group International Rescue Committee. Meanwhile, the couple said, they have no plans to back off mixing business with social consciousness.
“We are going to continue to be socially conscious and active when we feel it is important and we’re going to continue to have some positive messages we believe in,” said Anthony Stromoski.
“Maybe with a little less snark,” added Amanda Stromoski.