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Edwidge Danticat's Immigrant Artist at Work


Last night I had the pleasure of attending Edwidge Danticat's presentation at the second annual Toni Morrison Lecture at Princeton University. The title of Ms. Danticat's presentation was "Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work." Ms. Danticat delivered an exceptional lecture layered with allusions Albert Camus, Sophocles, and Toni Morrison. Each allusion, each citation, each anecdote facilitated a return back to her central theme, the capacity for and necessity of artists to "create dangerously for people who read dangerously."

Ms. Danticat began her talk by referencing Marcel Numa and Louis Drouin two members of Jeune Haiti, thirteen Haitian expatriots who returned to Haiti in 1964 intent on overthrowing then dictator Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier. Numa and Drouin were publicly executed in Haiti's capital, Port au Prince, as a reminder to others who might be considering forming an insurgency against Duvalier. In their coverage of this execution for a November 27, 1964 article entitled "A Warning to Renegades" Time Magazine editors invoke language that would have been eerily familiar to an audience familiar with atrocities occuring throughout the American South:

To guarantee an S.R.O crowd for their execution, Duvalier ordered all businesses closed and schools let out; backland peasants were trucked into Port-au-Prince. As TV cameras recorded the scene, a black and white jeep pulled up to the cemetery, and out stepped the two victims. They were tied tightly to two pine stakes.

This "scrupulously respected" traditional proceeding mirrors lynching scenes that scarred this nation for over a century bringing to bear strange fruit on its flora and fauna. By beginning with this image Danticat brought the listener's attention to what is sometimes at stake for artists creating dangerously in dangerous environments. Both Numa and Douin were poets, and while it was not their poetry lead to their execution, the knowledge-what we might call consciousness-that these two men developed through reading and writing prompted them to identify this particular quest-overthrowing Duvalier-as their seminal/great work.

As Ms. Danticat also points out creating dangerously is not simply a life and death matter. Salvation and myth offered by death avails itself to fewer artists than we imagine, more likely than not creating dangerously requires managing inner personal conflicts and the responsibility of fulfilling one's role as an advocate for others. In essence, we can concede that each day is not guaranteed therefore with each breathe one risks their lives, but can we take the risk and responsibility of saving someone else's. Ms. Danticat uses her own attempts at getting her uncle released from the INS detention center in 2004, which she recently chronicled in Brother I'm Dying, as an example of how an artist can find themselves struggling to save the life of another. Medical doctors are trained knowing that they will not be able to save everyone they set out to help, but artists receive no such training-we speak in hopes that someone will listen and help us fulfill the charge of a particular appeal.

In this vein, Ms. Danticat's quest to save her uncle's life recalls Ida B. Wells' quest to end lynching in the United States. History compelled these women to write dangerously for people who's lives were in danger. To that end Danticat's vision of the immigrant artist recalls Wells' crusade as an itinerant journalist in search of justice, and quests udertaken by women such as Athena, Nanny, and Harriet, and as such, these artists who created dangerously for people who lived dangerously, live on in the hearts and minds of their readers.

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