“Message to My Daughters” by Edwidge Danticat Summary
Soon after the killing of Michael Brown, Danitcat is in Haiti visiting a refugee camp for hundreds of Haitian people forced to leave the neighboring Dominican Republic without warning or preparation. When Danticat returns to the United States, she reads an opinion piece in The Washington Post written by an immigration lawyer and professor who makes the case that African American people could qualify for legal refugee status and political asylum, just as any other ethnic group systemically targeted for brutalization, confinement, harassment, and murder based on racial characteristics easily would under American law.
Danticat knows this isn’t the first time that the concept of the refugee has been applied to the African American experience. The Great Migration of six million Southern Blacks to the cities of the North in the first half of the twentieth century has been referred to as a refugee flight, as have the mass relocations of Black New Orleanians forced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. At first the designation seemed extreme to Danticat, living as she does in the richest country on Earth, and based on her recent observation of actual refugee conditions. But when she reflects on the living conditions of a childhood friend’s Brooklyn housing project, Danticat sees “all the earmarks of a refugee camp” in the project’s undesirable location and its offering residents only the most “basic necessities.” Danticat’s own “dilapidated” middle school nearby could “easily have been on the edge” of such a refugee settlement, as the teachers were more concerned with keeping the students busy than ensuring they were “engaged and learning.” The message sent to both Black immigrants and Black Americans growing up in these conditions is that they are “members of a group in transit” who should “either die or go somewhere else,” which is the definitive state of the refugee.
Danticat contrasts the “state abuses” she witnessed in Haiti, where she was born “under a ruthless dictatorship,” to those she witnessed in New York, where her family moved when she was twelve, settling in a mostly African, Caribbean, and African American section of Brooklyn. In Haiti, the violence was “overtly political,” involving kidnapping, torture, and gruesome public displays. In New York, however, the violence seemed “more subtle” yet “no less pervasive”; Danticat recalls being a high schooler riding the city bus to school and how little provocation it took for the police to “rush in, drag a young man off the bus, and beat him into submission on the sidewalk.” In those days, there were no cell phone cameras to capture such cases of injustice, and Danticat and her peers were too afraid to speak out, as many of their families had fled their native countries to “escape this kind of military or police aggression” and knew the mortal risk of confronting the authorities.
One of New York City’s highest-profile police brutality cases involved a close friend of Danticat’s family. Abner Louima, a Haitian-born engineer, was falsely arrested and then savagely beaten and sexually assaulted in a Brooklyn police station bathroom in 1997, seventeen years to the day before Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson. Unlike Brown, Louima survived and used his civil damages lawsuit award to relocate, start a successful business, and raise a family. When Danticat asks Louima what he thinks about the past year’s succession of examples of the use of unjustified deadly force, he tells her that it’s simply a “reminder” that “our lives mean nothing.” Danticat emphasizes the bitter irony of this truth with the fact that the reason why they are in the US in the first place is because their “lives meant nothing to those in power where [they] came from.”
Danticat’s two young daughters, to whom her essay is dedicated, had met Louima but never heard about his ordeal. Every time another Black person is killed by armed authorities...
(The entire section is 1,418 words.)