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Edwidge Danticat and the Faiths of NYC Haitians

How we handle memories does a lot to determine who we are.

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Edwidge Danticat, who attended the Evangelical Crusade of Fishers of Men Church in Brooklyn before moving to Miami, is probably the most celebrated Haitian author in the United States. Filled with a rich, shimmering language, her novels and stories draw upon her life as a girl left by her US-bound parents to be brought up by her pastor-uncle in Haiti. She was very loved by her uncle and his wife. She recalls fondly her uncle’s sermons, sharing of coconut-flavored ices on their walks through town, and knowledge of “all the verses for love.”

In October 2004, her 81-year old uncle Rev. Joseph Danticat pastored a small church near Port-au-Prince. There he was caught in the crossfire between U.N. peacekeeper tanks, the Haitian police, and armed gangs. He decided to leave Haiti for the United States until things calmed down. Upon arriving in Miami—with correct, complete, and valid documents—he was put in hand and ankle manacles by officers of the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement and sent to Krome Detention Center. He was denied his diabetes medicine. Within two days, he was dead. She wrote to commemorate her uncle and his death in Brother I'm Dying for which she won the National Book Critics Circle award for best autobiography.

How we handle memories does a lot to determine who we are. Long-unforgiving memories lay down distrust and anger. Forgiving memories build houses of love as big as mansions. Sweet nostalgic memories shelter us on bitter days. Haitian memories are full of goodness and bitterness.

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Haiti’s troubled society has thrown people into murderous roles and awkward relations with their pasts. In The Dew Breaker Danticat wrote of the dilemma of a torturer. He awakened, having botched a job the previous night and murdered a Baptist preacher at L’Eglise Baptiste des Anges (The Baptist Church of the Angels). There had been a struggle that left his face bloody, swollen and cut. A woman, Anne, came to stand by his bed with ginger, honey, and herbs to place on his wound. She was that preacher’s sister.

“’What did they do to you?’ she asked him.

The man reflected, “This was the most forgiving question he'd ever been asked. It suddenly opened a door, produced a small path, which he could follow.... It was obvious to him that she now felt she'd been there to save him, to usher him back home and heal him.”

On the basis of Anne’s forgiveness, the torturer saw that he might be redeemed and find a way out of his murderous, rotten life. He married Anne and started his life over in New York City.

The Christian idea of redemption is a powerful theme in Haitian life and in The Dew Breaker. However, Danticat recognizes that Vodou sometimes recasts Christ’s forgiveness as a manifestation of magical power.

In Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994), Danticat wrote sympathetically about the syncretistic religion of many Haitians. The books has parallels to Danticat’s own life.  At age 12 she rejoined her parents in Brooklyn. Two years later she wrote and published  ”A Haitian-American Christmas: Cremace and Creole Theatre.”

In the book Breath, Eyes, Memory, the heroine Martine runs to America to escape the bad memories of her past in Haiti. She visited churches in Harlem and Brooklyn to

Edwidge Danticat started publishing when she was a teenager.

find solace in faith. She was continually drawn to African-American Pentecostal churches.

Martine reflected, “”I feel like I could have been Southern African American. When I just came to this country, I got it into my head that I needed some religion. I used to go to this old Southern church in  Harlem where all they sang was Negro spirituals.’” Turning to her family, she asked, “’Do you know what Negro spirituals are?’”

“’They’re like prayers,’ Joseph said, ‘hymns that slaves used to sing. Some were happy, some sad, but most had to do with freedom, going to another world. Sometimes that other world meant home, Africa. Other times, it meant heaven, like it says in the Bible. More often it meant freedom.’ Joseph began to hum a spiritual. ‘Oh Mary, don’t you weep!’”

“‘That’s a Negro spiritual,’ said my mother.”

“‘It sounds like a vaudou song,’ said Marc. ‘He just described a vaudou song. Erzulie, don’t you weep,’ he sang playfully. In these songs and in the storefront churches of Brooklyn and Harlem, Martine’s memories found a space in which the Christian religion and traditional African religions, as well as the various offspring faiths of these two religions, would co-exist.

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  • Do you know when Danticat will be reading here in the city? Thanks!

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