Revolution#112, December 16, 2007

Check It Out

Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat

From a Reader

“I am writing this only because they can’t,” Edwidge Danticat writes in her remarkable memoir, Brother, I’m Dying (Knopf, September 2007), which was nominated for a National Book Award. In the book, Danticat tells the life stories of her father and her uncle, who died several months apart in 2004 and 2005.

Many of the things that Danticat describes in her book are the common experience of millions of people who immigrate to the United States—whether from Haiti, like Danticat, or another country: being separated from your family and unable to visit them, leaving your home for a strange country that often treats you as a criminal.

Danticat’s father left Haiti when Danticat was four years old. And two years later, when her mother also left Haiti to join her husband in New York City, Danticat and her brother were taken in by their uncle, Joseph. The two kids were raised by Joseph for eight years, until they were finally able to rejoin their parents in the U.S.

In 2004, Joseph attempted to flee Haiti when UN troops were sent to that country to “restore order.” Brother I’m Dying paints a vivid picture of the murderous role of U.N. troops in Haiti, which should be thought about by anyone who considers U.N. intervention a solution to many of the problems in the world.

Joseph, 81 years old at the time, had a valid visa for entry into the U.S. But he was taken into custody by U.S. immigration at the airport when he said he could not return to Haiti and asked for political asylum. Danticat’s heart sank when she heard that Joseph was being sent to the Krome Detention Center in Miami. She had visited Krome the year before as a human rights observer. Detainees told Danticat of beatings by guards (one prisoner had his back broken by a guard and was returned to Haiti before receiving medical attention), of overcrowded conditions, of cold so harsh they shivered all night, of food that was meant to punish rather than nourish.

“I’d seen men who looked too young to be the mandatory eighteen years old for detention at Krome,” Danticat writes. “A few of them looked fourteen or even twelve. How can we be sure they’re not younger, I’d asked one of the lawyers in our delegation, if they’d come with no birth certificates, no papers? The lawyer answered that their ages were determined by examining their teeth. I couldn’t escape this agonizing reminder of slavery auction blocks, where mouths were pried open to determine worth and state of health.”

The ICE guards took away Joseph’s medicines, mocked him, and prevented him from having contact with his family. When he collapsed during a hearing, a medic accused him of faking it and refused to let Joseph’s son clean off his own father’s vomit-covered face. Joseph was finally taken to a hospital, but he was shackled by the feet to the bed. He died in ICE custody.

Joseph’s death at the hands of the ICE is not unique. At least 65 people have died in ICE custody since 2004. “I think these things happen because few people, unless your loved ones are there, know that these places even exist,” Danticat said recently at a Congressional hearing on deaths in ICE custody.

But Brother, I’m Dying is not just the story of her uncle’s death. It is also a celebration of the lives of her father and uncle and their struggle to survive with dignity and love amidst the harsh conditions in Haiti and the U.S. And it is the story of a young girl growing up in two different worlds with two different families.

Danticat recalls how the neighborhood children in Haiti gathered around the very old Ganmé Melina to hear her tell stories. She tells how Joseph became a preacher in a poor area of Haiti after his hopes for achieving change through the existing political system were destroyed following the rise to power in 1957 of the brutal U.S.-backed dictator “Papa Doc” Duvalier.

Mira, Danticat’s father, left Haiti for New York City in 1971 because he could not support his family and because Duvalier’s private army, the Tonton Macoutes, had made life very dangerous. In the letters he wrote to Danticat and her brother during their eight years of separation, he had to hold back his emotions, fearing that it would only make it harder for the children. When the day finally arrived for the reunion, Mira’s boss would not let him take time off to pick up his children at the airport—so he quit his job as a tailor, vowing that he would never work again for someone else. He became a gypsy cab driver—and Danticat writes that he continued to suffer daily indignities from his customers.

One of the most moving parts of the book is the story of Marie Michelene, another child Joseph adopted. Marie’s father had disappeared after going to the Dominican Republic, where Haitian workers harvesting sugar cane are kept in slave-like conditions. When Marie becomes pregnant, Joseph sends her to another city to finish her pregnancy and give birth because he fears her pregnancy will reflect badly on his church. Marie marries a Tonton Macoute official in order to erase her “shame.” When Joseph learns that Marie is being beaten by her husband, Joseph has to find the courage to both confront the Macoute to rescue his adopted daughter—and to admit that he had been wrong.

At his brother’s funeral, Danticat’s father—recalling the treatment his brother received at the hands of ICE, and looking back at his own life—said, “If our country were ever given a chance and allowed to be a country like any other, none of us would live or die here [in the United States].”

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