Haitian-American poet and writer Edwidge Danticat led a discussion on March 21 as part of Cleveland Cuyahoga Public Library’s Writer Center Stage Series, which invites several highly acclaimed authors to speak at Case Western Reserve University’s Tinkham Veale University Center. Danticat’s insights made it clear that our present reality is still linked to history in more ways than we often recognize.
She first introduced the audience to her topic by presenting a video. The video was filmed at the Museum of Modern Art and scripted by Danticat’s strong, soothing voice with a pinch of her French accent. Her narration led us through a discussion about the symbol of black bodies in Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration Series.” Lawrence’s paintings capture the millions of moving bodies of African Americans as they migrated from the south to the north in search of better education and the right to vote during the early 1900s.
In some of the paintings, the bodies have their heads bowed or eyes looking up in hope for the future, while others show bodies fighting off violence by white bodies. In all of the paintings, the bodies are meshed together, moving in sync, cluttered as one.
Looking at these paintings, Danticat thought about the refugee crisis, about police brutality and about how “migration is no salvation.” Despite the fact that bodies migrate to escape their distorted home, where they arrive is no promised land because of discrimination and police brutality. She shared stories about how some of her friends and family members were raped, murdered or beaten because they were black and Haitian. For those who were black Americans, they had no other home to turn to in the first place. This was the only home they knew.
One of the most resonating moments in Danticat’s speech was her recollection of the letter she has written and re-written for her daughters and still not given to them. The letter explains how they might be treated in the United States and the “horrors they might face as black women,” despite the pain their Haitian family tried to run away from when moving here.
“Many of us brought our bodies from somewhere else,” Danticat said to her audience. In the letter to her daughters, she wrote, “Please don’t let hostility restrict your freedom, break your spirit and kill your joy.”