Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1419
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 TheWashington 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...
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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 with racial motivation, Danticat wonders if it’s finally time for her to have “The Talk” with her children about race and the police, to tell them about Abner Louima and “the long list of dead that have come since.” Danticat’s aversion to having the discussion so soon in her daughters’ lives isn’t due to the difficult subject matter, but rather because she doesn’t want her daughters “to grow up as I did, terrified of the country and the world they live in.” Danticat’s daughters are growing up during the presidency of Barack Obama, and in Obama’s achievement, Danticat recognizes the fruition of what Martin Luther King Jr. looked forward to as a “joyous daybreak” and what she refers to as “jubilee.” Yet from the earliest days of Obama’s presidency, his legitimacy was called into question by nativist claims that he, like Danticat and her husband, were “born elsewhere” and “not really American.”
Danticat considers James Baldwin’s 1963 essay “My Dungeon Shook: A Letter to My Nephew” a prototypical version of “The Talk,” in which Baldwin reminds his young nephew that he is perceived as “worthless” in American society. The same letter could have been addressed to many dead young Black people since then, and Danticat begins mentally composing a similar message to her own daughters, warning them that the world might be “hostile or even violent” toward them for no reason other than their race. Danticat exhorts her daughters to reach their “full potential” and to “change the world” so that their generation will be “the last to experience all this.” She tells them to “love deeply” and “be joyful,” signing her imaginary letter “in jubilee,” which is how she wants to live. Danticat then remembers more she wants to tell her daughters about their right to belong in the world, such as that “their crowns have already been bought and paid for.” But, overcome by uncertainty, she doesn’t actually write the letter, instead taking her daughters to the Haitian refugee camp, where they “helped comfort men, women, and children who look like them.” Danticat wants to teach her daughters that the oppression of Black people anywhere in the world constitutes a shared cause, and she looks forward to the day when Baldwin’s message is fulfilled—when the girls can “finally claim those crowns” and walk with their heads held high “in jubilee,” as is their right and heritage.
As the final essay in the collection, Edwidge Danticat’s letter to her daughters serves as a kind of bookend to Jesmyn Ward’s introduction, in that both pieces invoke James Baldwin’s message to his nephew in reminding the next generation of Black American young people that they are loved and needed. Unlike the childless Baldwin, the pregnant Ward, and the someday father Daniel José Older, though, Danticat considers the futures of her own children already born and growing up during the time of the post-Ferguson social reckoning.
The historical significance of the Abner Louima case is twofold, first for its occurring before streaming video and social media could be used to hold the police accountable—an important theme in Emily Raboteau’s piece, “Know Your Rights!”—and also as a marker of the evolution of an increasingly organized nationwide, citizen-led social justice movement in the years since. While the officer responsible for the worst of Louima’s injuries was convicted and sentenced to a long prison term—contrasting with Trayvon Martin’s, Michael Brown’s, Tamir Rice’s, and Eric Garner’s killers, who were all either never indicted or eventually acquitted—there was not nearly the same amount of widespread public awareness and support for the cause of police accountability or public demand to recognize the value of Black lives. While the same horrific abuses persist today as they did in 1997 and in Baldwin’s day, there is at least a new moment dawning in American culture where the public is organized in resistance to the status quo, as Daniel José Older discusses in reference to Baldwin’s essay “This Far.”
Danticat’s repetition of the term “jubilee,” the name of part 3 of the collection, does more than invoke the future as Jesmyn Ward intended. The word is used in the Old Testament, or Torah, and originates from the name of the ram’s horn blown by ancient Hebrew priests to announce the divinely commanded “sabbatical,” in which the enslaved would be released from their bonds. This is the state of the world that Baldwin wished his nephew to inherit and that Danticat waits to rejoice in with her daughters.