Friday, July 1, 2011

Famous Speech Friday: Edwidge Danticat's testimony on death in detention

Edwidge Danticat's "second father" was her uncle Joseph, the man who took care of her and her brother in Haiti after their parents had moved to New York City in the 1970s. In her book, Brother, I'm Dying, the award-winning novelist and MacArthur genius describes her profound attachment to her uncle--who schooled her with sermons and sweets--and the lingering sadness she felt to be separated from him when she joined her parents in New York at age 12.

It's a family memoir with a shocking ending. In 2004, battles between Haitian police forces and neighborhood gangs forced the frail and elderly Joseph Dantica to flee Haiti and seek asylum in the United States. Despite having a passport and valid visa to enter the U.S., Dantica was detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials in Miami, and died in their custody soon after being taken off his regular medications.

In 2007, Danticat testified before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee about her uncle's treatment. (You can read the full transcript of her testimony here.) Her short but heartbreaking statement soon became a rallying point for immigration reform efforts, and open up a window into the detention practices and oversight of ICE. Why was Danticat's testimony so effective?
  • It was in her own words. Personal stories have power, especially when the topic is a complicated one of bureaucracy, law and competing political agendas. Danticat is a gifted storyteller, but her testimony gains its power not from wordplay but from the simple and short description she gives of her uncle--not as "Alien #27041999" but as a vibrant and well-loved person that anyone would miss and mourn:
His name was Joseph Nosius Dantica and he was 81 years old. He was the patriarch, the head, of our family. He was a father of two and grandfather of fifteen, an uncle to nearly two dozen of us, a brother, a friend, and even, after having survived throat cancer, which took away his voice, a minister to a small flock in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
  • She describes a vivid scene. Halfway through her testimony, Danticat's "voice" shifts gears as she relates a horrifying scene during her uncle's detention hearing. She's unflinching with the details, but also tells this part of the story with dialogue, like a scene from a movie or novel. The technique draws listeners into her story, as if they were observing the events firsthand: 
To those who saw him, including his lawyer, he appeared to be having a seizure and he began to vomit. Vomit shot out of his mouth, his nose, as well as the tracheotomy hole he had in his neck as a result of the throat cancer operation. The vomit was spread all over his face, from his forehead to his chin, down to the front of his dark blue Krome issued overall. 
  • Sometimes, facts speak for themselves. As Danticat recalls how her uncle's health rapidly deteriorated within hours, her testimony begins to sound like entries from a medical chart. But each change in his condition gets a time stamp that gives the testimony a relentless pacing, like a ominous drumbeat:
At 7:55PM, his heart rate rose to 110 beats per minute. An electrocardiogram (EKG) was performed at 8:16PM. The next note on the chart shows that he was found pulse-less and unresponsive by an immigration guard at 8:30PM. He was pronounced dead at 8:46PM.
You can hear more about Joseph Dantica's detention in three short clips from the Washington Post's audio archive on immigration issues. In these clips, Danticat speaks in a conversational style that makes the issue of asylum seem more personal than political. For more stories from Brother, I'm Dying, check out this reading from the C-SPAN video archives. Below, see Danticat speak about how storytelling and its oral tradition informs her writing:

(Freelance writer Becky Ham contributed this Famous Speech Friday. Photo and video courtesy of the MacArthur Foundation.)

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