In her memoir, Brother, I’m Dying, Edwidge Danticat narrates her life experiences in Haiti and in the US without following any chronological order of events. The book’s title could be interpreted as the pain that underlines the stories it recounts. Family separation, suffering in a foreign land, becoming refugees, and afflictive death is some of the horrible experiences that Danticat uses to tell her story.
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With a couple of subsections, this 272-page book is rich in historical accounts of Haiti and the injustices that Haitians have been subjected to due to illegal occupation by western powers among other major themes. However, of interest to this paper is the issue of immigration to the US, the underlying policies, lack of sovereignty, and atrocities that immigrants have to face as they seek to enter the country. Immigrants to the US, whether seeking better life opportunities or as refugees escaping violence in their countries of origin, face injustice and inhumanity, which is supported by the US’ punitive immigration policies.
The Immigrants’ Dilemma
The terms “immigrants” and “refugees” will be used interchangeably albeit they carry different meanings. However, in the context of Danticat’s book and the focus point of this paper, refugees become immigrants once they get to the US hence the decision to weave the two terms into each other. The major dilemma facing immigrants in the US, specifically within the context of Danticat’s work, is the separation of families.
Against a backdrop of dying prospects of ever securing the future of his family, Papa, Danticat’s father has to make the difficult choice of leaving his family behind for the US in 1971. However, the US immigration policies do not allow him to bring his family, thus they have to be left behind. Two years later, his wife and Danticat’s mother, also has to leave her two small children in Haiti and join Papa in the US. For close to a decade, these parents are separated from their children, and this decision has lasting implications. The children become detached and when the parents visit, the detachment can be felt in the author’s narration.
For instance, at the airport to bid their parents goodbye, the children are not bothered that they are being left behind, again. Danticat and her brother Bob do not shed a single tear. She says, “We were much older now and were more accustomed to being without them than being with them” (Danticat 94). The emotional consequences of such separation are lasting. Papa somehow confesses how bad it felt to leave his family behind, by saying, “Whatever I wanted to tell you and your brother was too big for any piece of paper and a small envelope” (Danticat 22).
In light of these arguments, it is clear that Danticat’s parents faced the dilemma of whether to leave their two small children for almost a decade. The alternative would have been staying in Haiti and continue selling shoes without the prospect of ever lifting his family out of poverty. The best option would have been realized if the US immigration laws would allow parents to bring their children along without subjecting them to almost insurmountable conditions that have to be met before families can be rejoined.
Immigration, Laws, and (In)justice in Danticat’s Narrative
The question of immigration policies and the suffering that immigrants have to endure as they find their way into the US surrounds Uncle Joseph’s escape from Haiti. In 2004, protests break out in Haiti after Tropical Storm Jeanne hits the country killing 5,000 people and displacing hundreds of thousands more. Marauding gangs attack Uncle Joseph’s church and school compound and he is forced to flee for his life.
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The US is the most favorable destination for Joseph and his son, Maxo, because he has been in the country before – the two refugees even have valid US passports. However, upon reaching the US border, they are detained by the United States Customs and Border Protection unit. They are finally transferred to the Krome Detention Center, which is the equivalent of prison. The crime of these refugees is that they have arrived in the US without immigration papers. The unfolding of these events underlines the punitive US immigration policies.
First, given the circumstances under which Joseph and his son narrowly escape death back in Haiti, as recounted in the book, it is baffling that the US authorities expect them to have papers. Dufault argues that the events surrounding the detention of Joseph and Maxo allude to the arbitrary and racist American immigration laws (103). However, The issue of illegalizing immigration in the US has a long history going back to the 1880s.
According to Hannan, the first piece of explicitly racist restrictive legislation in the US was the 1882 Immigration Act also known as the Chinese Exclusion Act (147). The US immigration policies have been framed in a way to be deliberately hostile against immigrants. This assertion is evident in Joseph’s case and even though he has a valid US passport and tourist visa, he is “treated according to a biased immigration policy dating back from the early 1980s when Haitians began arriving in Florida in large numbers by boat” (Danticat 209). The hostile nature of US immigration would be witnessed in the events following the detention of Uncle Joseph and his son.
At the detention center, Joseph develops some complications and he needs urgent medical assistance. He is having a seizure, which leads to profuse vomiting. However, despite being in such a bad situation, the prison medics accuse him of faking his condition, which implicitly implies that they are not giving him any attention. The poor man is later transferred to Miami’s Jackson Memorial Hospital where he dies exactly eight and half hours after his arrival at the emergency room.
In Necropolitics, Mbembé talks about bio-power as stipulated by Foucault whereby the state divides people into “those who must live and those who must die” (17). In the case of Joseph, the immigration officers at the border, acting under the provisions of the US laws, divide people into two groups – those who should die and those who should live.
Unfortunately, Joseph is placed under the side that should die and there is no escape – he dies a painful and avoidable death. In the face of US immigration policies, human rights are subject to one’s citizenship status. Danticat writes, the Krome Detention Center was a place “that meant nothing less than humiliation and suffering and more often than not a long period of detention before retention” (225).
The author wonders whether her uncle was going to jail simply because he was Haitian or black. According to Knepper, Joseph’s “insensitive treatment at the hands of US immigration officials is reflective of imperialist prejudices towards Haitians” (198). Ultimately, Joseph is exiled, in death, and buried in the soil belonging to the very people that would never accept him. The oppressor and the oppressed are bound forever in eternity through death – the ultimate equalizer.
Sovereignty or Lack of It
The issue of sovereignty is a major theme that runs throughout the book under Danticat’s narrative. Other theorists have addressed this issue and how it ties to injustices meted at refugees and immigrants both at their home countries and at host nations when they finally escape violence and chaos triggered by imperialists. According to Butler, the unparalleled infringement of civil liberties in cases involving illegal immigrants should be re-examined in the process of trying to understand justice and “to take stock of how the world has become formed in this way [through violence and militarism] precisely in order to form it anew, and in the direction of non-violence” (17).
The majority of the problems that the author has to deal with in her life from the separation of her family at a young age to the unfortunate death of her uncle in the hands of medics at Krome Detention Center are tied to illegal occupation of the US in Haiti. According to the author, Haiti has never experienced sovereignty since the US started its occupation in 1915.
Danticat wonders whether her uncle ever saw the irony that he “would soon be the dead prisoner of the same government that had been occupying his country when he was born? In essence, he was entering and exiting the world under the same flag. Never really sovereign, as his father had dreamed, never really free (250). President Woodrow Wilson sanctioned the occupation of U.S. Marines in Haiti from 1915 to 1934 to ensure that the country did not elect an anti-American president (Dufault 103).
The use of the word “elect” sounds oxymoronic in the context of Haiti because the country has never experienced democratic elections reflecting the will of the majority. For instance, in 1994, the US sent its troops to the country to support President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, only to topple him a decade later (Danticat 24). Dufault posits, “It seems that many Haitians have become accustomed if not resigned to such reversals in policies imposed on them from outside” (102). Joseph is well aware of the atrocities that the US had meted against the Haitians.
Danticat writes about an event where Joseph, as a child, witnessed some U.S. Marines kicking a severed Haitian head as if they were playing with a soccer ball (247). In fact, the United Nations Security Council’s decision to send U.S. Marines to Haiti to conduct a stabilization operation is the reason why Joseph is fleeing his motherland leaving behind the school, church, and a clinic that he has built over many years through sheer determination and many sacrifices.
Therefore, the author frames the death of Joseph within the context of the lack of sovereignty in Haiti due to U.S. hegemony in the region. Ironically, when the violence breaks out, Joseph crisscrosses the city looking for papers so that he can escape to the US. However, he cannot find help until he “luckily” gets to the UN, which gives him the support he needs. Ironically, the same UN purporting to help Joseph is the very body that is responsible for his problems.
The author highlights the cynical fact that “those who are most able to obliterate you are also the only ones offering some illusion of shelter and protection” (Danticat 204). On the one hand, the U.N., which is synonymous with the U.S., has triggered mass protests leading to Joseph’s attack. On the other hand, the same U.N. is the only body that can help him out of his problems by facilitating his escape from the country.
Therefore, Haiti cannot be classified as a sovereign country and this long-standing lack of sovereignty has contributed significantly to the many problems that the country faces in contemporary times. Joseph is a victim of circumstances that he has no control over. He is running for help from the very nation that has plundered his motherland and caused his problems. Unfortunately, he meets his untimely painful death because he is unwanted, hence unwelcome in the US.
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Reading through Danticat’s narrative has been an eye-opener and the book has revealed several lessons about refugees or forced immigrants. According to Shacknove, “The term “refugee” conjures up a melange of bleak images: a teeming boat adrift on the South China Sea, a bloated child in Bangladesh, a shantytown reduced to rubble in Beirut” (274). Better still, the mention of the term “refugee” or “immigrant” conjures up a caravan of thousands of Hondurans crossing into Guatemala then into Mexico, and approaching the US border.
This assertion holds, especially during a time when political rhetoric and the current Trump administration are capitalizing on this issue to gain political mileage. The picture that comes to mind is a group of people deciding to leave their countries, for whatever reason, and head for the US in search of a better future for their children.
However, reading Danticat’s book introduces a new perspective about refugees – as people who love their countries and they would do anything to remain, but circumstances force them to leave. For instance, when Uncle Joseph visits the US for the first time for treatment, he has the opportunity to remain in the country and enjoy a better life. However, he decides to go back to Haiti because he believed he would be more useful there as compared to staying in the US.
The takeaway lesson here is that contrary to the common belief that people seeking asylum in the US are economic opportunists, some would choose to remain in their countries if they had a better option. Joseph had chosen to live and die in Haiti doing what he believed God had commissioned him to do.
Brother I’m Dying is a personal narrative of Danticat’s life experiences starting from Haiti to the US mainly defined with pain and loss. One of the main themes in the book is the issue of immigration and the underlying policies that inform law enforcers when dealing with immigrants and refugees. Joseph’s death in the hands of the United States Customs and Border Protection unit is unfortunate.
However, Danticat’s narrative would be incomplete without this incident, which forms the mainstay of the immigration theme throughout the book. The US has played a significant role in contributing to the problems that Haitians face back in their country. Therefore, it amounts to injustice for Haitian immigrants seeing asylum in the US to be detained and deported back to face the chaos and violence that has been created by the US. Nevertheless, Danticat’s story is a tale of resilience, of a people not afraid of death and a celebration of life connecting the past, present, and the future.
Danticat, Edwidge. Brother, I’m Dying. Vintage Books, 2007.
Dufault, Roseanna. “Edwidge Danticat’s Pursuit of Justice in “Brother, I’m Dying”.” Journal of Haitian Studies, vol. 16, no. 1, 2010, pp. 95-106.
Hannan, Charity-Ann. “Illegalized Immigrants.” Immigrant Experiences in North America: Understanding Settlement and Integration, edited by Harald Bauder and John Shields, Canadian Scholar’s Press, 2015, pp. 144-163.
Knepper, Wendy. “In/justice and Necro-natality in Edwidge Danticat’s Brother, I’m Dying. “ The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, vol. 47, no. 2, 2012, pp. 191-205.
Mbembé, Achille. “Necropolitics.” Public Culture, vol. 15, no. 1, 2003, pp. 11-40.
Shacknove, Andrew. “Who is a Refugee?” Ethics, vol. 95, no. 2, 1985, pp. 274-284.