Brother, I’m Dying
by Edwidge Danticat (Knopf, 2007)
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration
by Isabel Wilkerson (Vintage, 2011)
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997)
by Anne Fadiman
Last November, an Alabama police officer stopped a man at an intersection in Tuscaloosa. The driver, a German executive at Mercedes-Benz, was in town on a business trip and had left his passport at the hotel where he was staying. The officer arrested the executive for not presenting proper identification.
When Gov. Robert Bentley learned about the arrest, which was properly executed under the state’s new anti-illegal immigration law, he was quick to react. “We are not anti-foreign companies. We are very pro-foreign companies,” said Bentley.
The Beason-Hammon Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act, or House Bill 56, has been widely recognized as the most stringent immigration law in the nation. Its provisions implicate business owners, school officials, and other non-government employees in identifying and reporting illegal immigrants.
Alabama released the executive once his documents were recovered.
A law that meant to purge illegal immigrants, who are often accused of stealing local jobs, had captured a representative of one the state’s largest employers. Officials treated his case as though it were an anomaly. But for those who are targets, the story of imprisonment might have a more tragic end.
In “Brother, I’m Dying,” (Knopf, 2007), author Edwidge Danticat tells the story of Joseph, her uncle, finding himself imprisoned near Miami on his way from Port-au-Prince to New York. Although Joseph has all of the documents required for international travel, as the German executive did, he does not fare so well.
Danticat’s memoir details her own immigration story. She and her brother moved from Haiti to New York as children, though her parents made their way to the U.S. when she was still a baby. Her Uncle Joseph and Aunt Denise raise her in their absence. After the American Consulate approves her entry into the U.S., she joins her parents and two new baby brothers in New York.
Danticat is an adult – pregnant and living with her husband in Miami – when she learns that her beloved Uncle Joseph has been detained on his way to New York. Joseph is an old man, 81 years old and traveling to see his brother André one last time. André is dying of pulmonary fibrosis.
Joseph has visited the U.S. more times than he can specifically remember. He’s been there to see his family, and to fellowship with churches similar to the one he founded in Haiti. He always travels with the same proper documentation that permits his brief stays in the U.S.
But on this trip to see his brother, Uncle Joseph is undone. Besides his grief for André, he has just survived an awful series of violent events following the ouster of Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. He has lost his church and seen his neighbors dead on the street.
The events in Haiti and Joseph’s state of shock make him suspicious to U.S. Customs and Border Protection Officials at Miami International Airport. Despite his visa and passport, he ends up in a prison called Krome.
At this point in the narrative, Danticat deprives her readers of the foreshadowing that most authors offer to those who are about to learn something terrible. And so my surprise was as great as hers when she found out that her uncle Joseph had died in captivity.
One sad event follows the next. Joseph’s medicine is taken from him at the prison. He isn’t allowed to see family. Edwidge hires a good lawyer to help him, but Joseph is so distraught and the courtroom so threatening that he begins to vomit wildly at his hearing. The lawyer can’t perform his services. Officials see his sickness as an attempt to deceive them rather than a genuine condition.
At each step in his story, one expects uncle Joseph to meet the same fate as the German executive in Alabama. One expects some official to recognize the grand mistake, or to see the humanity in a good old man before him, and to arrange for Danticat to take him home. Instead, Joseph dies alone on a hospital bed, and the brothers never see each other again.
That is the darker version of a story about a person imprisoned under arbitrary immigration laws.
In Alabama, a coalition formed in response to H.B. 56. Its members are working to overturn the bill. Scott Douglas represents Greater Birmingham Ministries in this coalition. “A stinking, rotten corpse of Jim Crow is now stalking Alabama,” said Douglas. “But it also calls to mind the Trail of Tears – the forced relocation of Native Americans in the 19th century. And so H.B. 56 is, at the moment, splitting families. Parents are getting the power of attorney so that somebody can keep their kids in school in case that, when they go to work, they don’t come home.” And parents may not come home if, say, they are stopped at a traffic light and arrested for failing to show identification that proves their citizenship.
The original Jim Crow, a 79-year-old law that legalized segregation on the basis of race in the American South, actually spawned its own migration story. Between the early 1915 and 1970, an estimated six million African-Americans left the South for Northern and West Coast cities. Although studies have looked to the economy and other factors to explain this exodus, journalist Isabel Wilkerson’s remarkable book, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” (Vintage, 2011), reveals a people unwilling to risk their lives and prospects under the deadly whims of Jim Crow.
Wilkerson tells the story of three migrants who represent the hopes and fears of numerous African-Americans who left the south during that period. Ida Mae Gladney, a Mississippi sharecropper, moves to Chicago soon after her employers nearly kill a man they for a petty crime which, in the end, he did not commit.
Though this is the closest Ida Mae has been to such an act, she knows it to be commonplace in the South. Her husband sees the possibility of a different life for himself and his family in the north. So they save what they can and board a train in stealth, never saying goodbye to their employer.
The Gladneys do well in the North. They work tremendous hours at low wages and eventually save enough to buy a house in a good neighborhood. But in Chicago, as in many American cities at the time, nearly impenetrable color lines separate black neighborhoods from white ones. Some African-Americans see their houses set on fire when they move into majority white neighborhoods. Others witness their new white neighbors move out en masse. The Gladneys experience the latter.
Yet the Gladneys present nothing from which to flee. They attend church every Sunday; they work hard; they’re committed to their children and education.
Perhaps it is utopian to imagine a scene in which Ida Mae’s new neighbors, as their first step, seek to learn about her life and how she has come to live next door to them. Imagine Wilkerson’s artful retelling of Ida Mae’s life in front of them at that moment. Would they have seen Ida Mae as an asset to their neighborhood? Would they have been able to leap over the tremendous barrier between races, and tell Ida Mae their own stories?
Among the most fundamental problems with Alabama’s immigration law is this: It is written exclusively from the perspective of the stalwart. It has made no attempt to understand, or even acknowledge, the immigrant’s story.
Anne Fadiman exposes both sides of an immigration crisis in “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997).
Like Wilkerson, Fadiman alternates between history sections and narrative sections in her book. The history portion unravels the little-known story of the Hmong people, their life in Laos, and the war they fought there at America’s bidding. The narrative sections deal with the specific case of Lia Lee, an epileptic child who, at the story’s climax, nearly dies after suffering a massive seizure.
For years, Lia’s doctors and parents baffle each other to the point of impotence in their struggle to save her. Fadiman reveals the crux of their misunderstanding to be a fundamental difference in how the two cultures perceive the body. For the Hmong, the body and spirit are inextricably tied, especially in the case of epilepsy, and should be saved together. The American doctors treat the body as a vessel to be saved by any means available, whether invasive surgery or mood-changing drugs.
In pivotal moments, neither party understands the other and both ascribe incorrect motivations for the other’s behavior. The doctors exert greater control over Lia’s life by exercising the power that their hospitals and government agencies afford them, sometimes with tragic results. Yet over time, the key doctors commit themselves to the Hmong community and to Fadiman’s research. At a very deep level, they commit themselves to the truth.
Fadiman’s account proves that those who receive immigrants are as much a part of the immigration story as those who move to new places.
I imagine that one day an immigrant who is surviving Alabama’s law at this very moment will publish a book that uncovers the terrible course of events she suffered under H.B. 56. If that book came out today, and if everyone read it, would there be an impact?
An oppressor is able to tell his story not from his heart, but from the actions he takes in his seat of power, however meager that seat may be. Such is the case in Alabama. I would like to ask the lawmakers there: How would you tell your own stories, if not through your ability to exert power over others?
That question may be impossible to answer for a person who has not yet relegated a measure of his own power. Perhaps these three books, in their sincerity, open some space for the stories of those who receive immigrants. Without question, though, these books fill space in the giant chasm between groups of people who do not fully understand one another – a chasm people most often fill with silence, fear, or their own misguided wills.
Related audio vignettes: Coming to MIT
Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China
by Leslie T. Chang (Spiegel & Grau, 2008)
Learning to Die in Miami: Confessions of a Refugee Boy
by Carlos Eire (Free Press, 2010)