We are a commune of inquiring, skeptical, politically centrist, capitalist, anglophile, traditionalist New England Yankee humans, humanoids, and animals with many interests beyond and above politics. Each of us has had a high-school education (or GED), but all had ADD so didn't pay attention very well, especially the dogs. Each one of us does "try my best to be just like I am," and none of us enjoys working for others, including for Maggie, from whom we receive neither a nickel nor a dime. Freedom from nags, cranks, government, do-gooders, control-freaks and idiots is all that we ask for.
Our Recent Essays Behind the Front Page
Friday, August 5. 2011
More Of The Same: Brooklyn College Common Reading A Year Later
Last year’s choice by my alma mater CUNY’s Brooklyn College of the sole Common Reading book distributed to all incoming students for discussion and work in required English classes was particularly marred by the author’s additions of anti-US and anti-Israel comments and statistics that were radical and fraudulent. I had a role in raising the issue to national attention and criticism.
This year’s choice – Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat -- probably won’t raise as many hackles, as the focus is less a prominent political hotspot, Haiti. That may indicate welcome increased sensitivity by the selection committee, but this year’s choice still suffers most of the deficiencies as last year’s.
The book’s primary theme is the author’s upbringing in Haiti, separated from her parents who had immigrated to the US, she and brothers later joining them, and the relations among the extended family. However, the book’s critical attitude toward the US role in Haiti’s sad history of violence, poverty and instability, and the death in immigration detention of the author’s aged uncle, are strong secondary themes that provide the mileau for the tale.
One may argue that these are the author’s acquired views in this personal narrative. But, the prominence of those secondary themes brings the book, and the college, directly into major current political arguments over broader US foreign and immigration policies. This slant is in stark contrast to the author’s reflections exclusion of gratitude to the US for the youngsters’ success in the US. She is an acclaimed writer, her brothers also established in white collar jobs at the time of writing the book. Further, the book does not provide enough political context to allow a better understanding of the author’s criticisms of US policies in Haiti or US immigration practices.
In short, the book is part of the “victimology” and Leftist memoir literature so popular among our liberal elite, compared to earlier immigrants’ books about thankfully escaping repression and poverty in their countries of birth, then struggling and succeeding in the freedoms in the US.
That isn’t to say there isn’t enough in the book to show the horrible conditions in Haiti, that reading between the lines shows the youngsters’ success in the US, that an autopsy of the 81-year old uncle’s death revealed the cause as a previously unknown pancreatic condition, or that the author’s grandfather and uncle had been rebels and the family’s politics aligned with critics of the US in Haiti.
The book is still a poor choice for launching discussion of the political issues raised by the author. It is marred by the underlying anger of the author and her lack of appreciation of the US, her presentation of the US as an oppressive presence in the consciousness of her family, and the lack of underlying contextual details about US foreign and immigration policies. The incoming student will likely read or hear in the classroom discussions little else about the issues from broader or conflicting perspectives or facts.
Among the laudatory comments by some Brooklyn College faculty for the book, a senior professor there – Robert Cherry -- raises some of the problems with the book:
Professor Cherry informs me that the English Department is considering such discussions. If so, one may expect the Left and liberal leanings of the English Department faculty to emphasize the charges of economic imperialism prompting the US occupation of Haiti from 1915-1934, but not that the dominance of its economy by German immigrants was feared in the midst of WWI, the huge building of infrastructure there by the US, or that its liberal constitution was written by then Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt.
One may expect the criticisms by pro-immigration lobbies that detention practices are substandard and harsh, but not that the deaths from all causes in detention are a tiny fraction of detainees (about 107 out of over 2.5 million, about 5 per 10,000, during 2003-2008; even the January 2010 New York Times report of critics says, “In August, litigation by the civil liberties union prompted the Obama administration to disclose that more than one in 10 immigrant detention deaths had been overlooked and omitted from a list submitted to Congress last year.”). The Center for Immigration Studies, opposed to liberal immigration policies, contends this is a much lower rate of death than in US prisons. The comparison, however, raises many apples and oranges measurement difficulties that need to be clarified. Both sides agree that many improvements to detention policies and practices have been made in the past six-years, after the author’s uncle died in detention, and both sides agree that there is much – if differing – that needs to be done. – Of note here is that the author’s 81-year old uncle, with a valid visa to enter the US, was fleeing gangs that wanted to behead him and asked for temporary political asylum instead of just entering the US on his visa and overstaying it as so many do, so he entered the detention-adjudication system for a few days, dying there from a previously unknown pancreatic condition despite blood/urine and scan tests provided.
Posted by Bruce Kesler in Education, Hot News & Misc. Short Subjects, Our Essays, Politics at 15:05 | Comments (3) | Trackbacks (0)
Display comments as (Linear | Threaded)
If you read with a narrow view, you will always find what you are looking for. Only when you read with an open mind, do you actually discover anything new. The author does a good job of balancing her own story with the history of the US in Haiti and Haiti's own problems. She even mentions the Germans you bring up, but you were too blinded by your own bias to see it. The US Marines who occupied Haiti displayed their own crimes easily, catching natives in blackface and nailing them to doors for history to record. (Google Charlemagne Peralte among others to see for yourself). I don't know who Professor Cherry thinks ordinary Haitians are, but I am one and I know many more of us than Professor Cherry does and I saw plenty of myself (ourselves) in this book, as well as ordinary immigrants of all kinds. The fact that recent reforms were made in immigrant detention policy had a lot to do with the outrage over the author's uncle case. And did you live in the author's building? The fact that it was near a park made it a palace? I too lived in that area while working at Kings County Hospital at the time. Children from those buildings were always coming in with burns and rat bites and when I asked the parents why they didn't move, they simply could not afford it. The author does not present herself as neither a victim nor does she even sound angry. She told a story that made a difference in American policy. She testified before congress. She changed lives with her writing. Gratitude to a nation does not imply following an ideological herd and praising things that are wrong just because you are entrenched in your own ideology. (Older immigrants were perhaps considered more grateful because they suffered in silence, which is why biased immigration policy, especially for people of color still exists to day.) Sometimes pointing out a problem, righting a wrong is a deeper kind of love than blind allegiance. (Martin Luther King for example, might have been considered by you and others to be an ungrateful Negro, but he loved America enough to point out a problem and see the nation live to its full potential by trying to solve it.) Aside from pushing a biased view and heckling all day long, what have you done lately?
I don't think Mr. Kessler would be happy unless Ann Coulter was chosen this year for the common reading. For more nuance-minded observers, here is an article by the author that reflects the way she addresses both the problems and gains, issues of struggle and gratitude, in her own immigration to the Unites States. It was part of a series of essays by immigrant voices published by the New York Times.
November 21, 2004
'New York Was Our City on the Hill'
By EDWIDGE DANTICAT
F you are an immigrant in New York, there are some things you inevitably share. For one, if you're a new immigrant, you probably left behind someone you love in the country of your birth. In my case, I was the person left in Haiti when my mother and father escaped the brutal regimes of François and Jean-Claude Duvalier in the early 1970's and fled the extreme poverty caused by the Duvaliers' mismanagement and excesses.
The plan was for my parents to send for me and my younger brother, André, who were 4 and 2 years old at the time of their departure, when they found jobs and got settled in New York. But because of US immigration red tape, our family separation lasted eight years. The near decade we were apart was filled with long letters, lengthy voice messages on cassette tapes and tearful phone calls, all brimming with the promise that one day my brother and I would be united not only with our parents but with our two Brooklyn-born brothersl.
Still André and I were constantly reminded by our Aunt Denise and Uncle Joseph, who were caring for us in an impoverished and politically volatile neighborhood in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, that we were lucky our parents were in New York. If we dared to disagree with that idea, the Faustian bargain our parents had faced would be clearly laid out for us. They could have stayed behind with us and we could have all gone without a great many necessary things, or they could have gone to New York to work so that we could have not only clothes and food and school fees but also a future.
As my Uncle Joseph liked to say, for people like us, the malere, the poor, the future was not a given. It was something to be clawed from the edge of despair with sweat and blood. At least in New York, our parents would be rewarded for their efforts.
If living in one of the richest cities in the world did not guarantee a struggle-free life, my brother and I didn't realize it. New York was our city on the hill, the imaginary haven of our lives. When we fantasized, we saw ourselves walking the penny-gilded streets and buying all the candies we could stuff into ourselves. Eventually we grew to embrace the idea that New York was where we were meant to be, as soon as the all-powerful gatekeepers saw fit to let us in, and if we could help it, we would never leave once we were again at our parents' side.
Our parents might have had utopian fantasies of their own when they sold most of their belongings to pay for passports, visas and plane fares to New York. I can't imagine making the choices they made without being forced, mapping out a whole life in a place that they'd seen only in one picture, a snow-covered street taken by my mother's brother, who lived there.
Later my parents would tell me that what kept them trudging through that snow to their factory jobs was their visions of their two New York-born children playing with the children they'd left in Haiti and the future that we might all forge as individuals and as a family.
When I finally joined my parents in Brooklyn, in 1981, at age 12, I became acutely aware of something else that New York immigrants shared. If they were poor, they were likely to be working more hours than anyone else, for less money, and with few if any benefits.
For years my father had worked two minimum-wage jobs to support two households in two countries. One job was in a textile factory, where my mother also worked, and another in a night car wash. Tired of intermittent layoffs and humiliating immigration raids, my father finally quit both jobs when André and I arrived so he could accompany my brothers and me to and from school.
That same year, our family car also became a gypsy cab, a term that, when I first heard and researched it, led me to think that we were part of a small clan of nomads whose leader, my father, chauffeured other people around when he was not driving us.
Though my brothers and I weren't aware of it at the time, our financial situation was precarious at best. Once my parents paid the rent and utility bills and bought a week's worth of groceries, there was little left for much else. My father never knew from day to day or week to week how much he would collect in fares.
Winter mornings were more profitable than summer afternoons. But in the winter, our needs were greater: coats and boots for four growing children, and regular hospital trips for my youngest brother, Karl, who was prone to ear infections and, as one doctor pointed out to us, might have suffered through 25 different colds one long winter.
We had no health insurance, of course, and each of Karl's visits to the doctor, or those for my brother Kelly - the only child I knew who got migraines, which we later discovered were a result of some kind of pressure on his optic nerve - were negotiated down at Cumberland Hospital's payment services department when my father took in my parents' joint tax return.
I remember going to the same hospital's women's clinic with my mother for one of her regular checkups when I was 16. She had a headache, her blood pressure was high, and the doctor told her that she'd have to be hospitalized that day if she wanted to avoid a stroke.
"Doctor, I have children at home and work tomorrow," my mother said, before signing papers declaring that she'd been advised of the treatment for her condition but had refused it. On the bus home, I watched her carefully, fearful that she would keel over and die for our sake, but she made it home, and despite the persistent headache, she went to work the next day.
I don't know what a catastrophic illness might have cost our family financially. But it was something my parents always had in mind. My father tried to pay all his bills religiously so that if we ever needed a bank loan for a sudden emergency, we would have no trouble getting it.
What we would eventually need a loan for was our house, which my parents purchased 18 years ago in East Flatbush. The day we moved in was one of the scariest and most exhilarating of our lives. My parents invited groups of church friends over to celebrate and bless our new home, but at the same time, they warned my brothers and me that the biggest battle they'd face from then on would be to try to keep it. The mortgage was nearly double the amount they'd paid in rent, and some months my father drove his cab both at night and during the day to make the payment, which he then took to the bank, in person, during the final hours of the grace period.
IT is the burden of each generation to embrace or reject the dreams set out by those who came before. In my family it was no different. My parents wanted me to be a doctor, and when I wasn't accepted by a Brooklyn high school specializing in the health professions, my father met with the principal and persuaded him to reverse the decision.
When I decided, after a brief school-sponsored internship at Kings County Hospital Center, that medicine was not for me, my parents were disappointed, but accepted my decision. My brother André has never forgotten the day he turned 14 and my father took him to the post office to buy a money order for the application fee for his first summer job. And over time we have all nearly wept when tallying small loans and advances from Mom and Dad on salaries spent way before they were collected.
Over the years, I have also come to understand my parents' intense desire to see my brothers and me financially stable. They had sacrificed so much that to watch us struggle as they had would have been, to quote a Creole expression, like lave men siye atè - washing one's hands only to dry them in the dirt.
These days, if you're an immigrant in New York, you might not consider yourself an immigrant at all, but a transnational, someone with voting privileges and living quarters not just in one country but in two. This was my parents' dream until they reached middle age and realized that with their decade-long friendships and community ties in Brooklyn, they didn't want to live anywhere else.
Last year, when my father became ill with pulmonary fibrosis - a result, some doctors say, of environmental pollution, to which he was especially vulnerable from working such long hours in his cab - he began to have long talks with my brothers and me, fearing that as the disease progressed, it might become harder and harder for him to speak. While I was writing this, we talked a little about how New York had changed from the time he arrived.
The most striking difference, he observed, is that these days, like most New Yorkers, he has to worry about terrorism, both becoming a victim and being blamed for it. He also worries about the high cost of everything from food to housing, about doors closing behind him, and thousands of families never having the kind of opportunities that we've enjoyed. When he first got to New York, all he did was work nonstop and pray to see his children and grandchildren grow up. Looking back, it feels like a simpler time, but maybe it wasn't. Then and now, he whispered wistfully, one can only hope that the journey was worthwhile.
On Nov. 3, after this essay was submitted, my Uncle Joseph died at age 81. More formally known as the Rev. Joseph N. Dantica, he died in Miami after fleeing gang violence and death threats in Haiti. He was detained by Department of Homeland Security officials after requesting asylum in the United States and died in their custody. The department said the cause was pancreatitis.
Edwidge Danticat is the author of the novels and story collections "Breath, Eyes, Memory,'' "The Farming of Bones,'' "Krik? Krak!" and "The Dew Breaker.''
Author Edwidge Danticat has very alert defenders or defense network, the above two Commenters. They don’t appear to be regular readers of Maggie’s Farm. Pacific Time, their Comments are 6:07AM and 7:07 AM. At 7:47AM I checked Google for “Eldwidge Danticat”. There were 84 entries for the past 24-hours, which encompasses my post at 12:05 (again Pacific time) the previous afternoon. None were for or linked to my post. It may be interesting how these Commenters became aware of my post.
For Natasha Sterlin, I’ve really never read anything by Ann Coulter. My conservative friends know that I don’t watch talking-heads TV, and avoid extreme conservatives. Indeed, a post of mine criticizing a snippet of Rush Limbaugh I caught on the car radio led to many critical Comments. For Richard Mercier, my view isn’t “narrow”, a knowledgeable academic who previewed my post calling it “quite balanced.”
That said, my post could not be an exhaustive history of Haiti nor exhaustive exploration of the author nor all she said in her book. My point made is that the book is mostly one-sided, and that the expected discussion of it at Brooklyn College will likely also be.
Mr. Mercier says, for example by way of criticism, “She even mentions the Germans you bring up…” In fact, a German merchant is once mentioned in the book, but not the role that German residents of Haiti played in spurring the US occupation in 1915. As historian Hubert Herring wrote, (http://latinamericanhistory.about.com/od/historyofthecaribbean/p/08haiti1915.htm ) “Europe was at war and Germany was faring well. President Woodrow Wilson feared that Germany might invade Haiti in order to establish a military base there: a base that would be very close to the precious Canal. He had a right to worry: there were many German settlers in Haiti who had financed the rampaging cacos with loans that would never be repaid and they were begging Germany to invade and restore order.” The exposure of the Zimmerman telegram from Germany in 1917 to encourage Mexico to wage war on the US (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zimmermann_Telegram ) should clarify that such US fears of Germany’s intentions had merit.
That said, the occupation of Haiti was a hot topic of debate in the US at the time. As the notes to a document in the Library of Congress says (http://myloc.gov/Exhibitions/naacp/newnegromovement/ExhibitObjects/USOccupationInHaiti1915.aspx?Enlarge=true&ImageId=6369c94f-71f9-4d10-b75b-3cd13e4ac4ec%3aaf587318-8ba4-4085-ad4a-3df7b091a6f6%3a173&PersistentId=1%3a6369c94f-71f9-4d10-b75b-3cd13e4ac4ec%3a16&ReturnUrl=%2fExhibitions%2fnaacp%2fnewnegromovement%2fExhibitObjects%2fUSOccupationInHaiti1915.aspx), “In 1915 President Woodrow Wilson ordered U.S. Marines to occupy Haiti following a coup d’état. Stirred by reports of widespread atrocities related to the American occupation, in March 1920 the NAACP sent James Weldon Johnson to Haiti for six weeks to investigate. Johnson exposed the abuses he found in a series of articles for The Nation, which roused international attention and led to the abatement of the worst excesses. He also briefed Warren G. Harding, the Republican presidential candidate, who used the issue to defeat Democratic candidate James Cox. When Harding became president he ordered a special Senate investigation. The NAACP pressed for the restoration of full Haitian sovereignty. The U.S. finally withdrew from Haiti in 1934.” James Weldon Johnson’s The Nation articles are available online (http://www.archive.org/stream/selfdetermhaiti00johnrich#page/18/mode/2up). Johnson, as most Blacks at the time, was a Republican, a distinguished writer, a former US diplomat in Latin America. His articles were truly disturbing. As historian Herring writes, “The Americans managed to irk every social class in Haiti: the poor were forced to work building roads, the patriotic middle class resented the foreigners and the elite upper class was mad that the Americans did away with the corruption in government spending that had previously made them rich.”
The specific anecdote told the author by her uncle Joseph about Marines using a Haitian head in 1933 as a soccer ball may be factual or embellished or false. Yet, as Marine Corps hero (one of only two ever to receive two Medals of Honor) Smedley Butler (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smedley_Butler#Haiti_and_second_Medal_of_Honor), credited with in the space of months in 1915 putting down the caco rebels, said later, they “"hunted the Cacos like pigs." By 1933, when the occupation was ending, such an event is questionable. Perhaps her uncle confused the dates, but he wasn’t born in 1915 so he may have been conveying exaggeration.
The centrality of this tale to the author’s narrative, along with the justifiable current or retrospective criticisms of early 1900s US foreign or occupation policies in Haiti or Latin America, would surely be fodder to those who seek parallels to today’s US foreign policies. Without a careful examination of the book’s narrative and the actual events, unlikely to occur in freshman English classes, especially led by liberal professors or adjuncts, not experts, such unjustified parallels are likely to hold sway on shaping students’ understandings.
Just these few reply comments by me are taking as many words as my post, so I’ll end by briefly addressing their criticism of my post about Ms. Danticat’s immigrant appreciation of the US. Her parents were illegally here, allowed to stay because of having a child born in the US. Working hard, they raised successful children, and even bought a house. Regardless of whether the apartment they lived in before had problems, it was better than the one nearby that I grew up in, and without insurance we also depended on the emergency rooms at Kings County Hospital. The medical treatment of her 81-year old uncle Joseph (and I emphasize that I am not a physician) appears adequate in light of what I read about pancreatis (http://www.emedicinehealth.com/pancreatitis/article_em.htm), the previously unknown condition from which her uncle died while in immigration detention. I certainly sympathize with Ms. Danticat’s anguish, having lost my 30-year old sister and 65-year old mother, in excellent NYC-area hospitals, to treatment misfortunes. Ms. Danticat may have contributed to improving detention procedures, but the mortal result for her uncle may not have been different.
It is well-documented and agreed that there are about 10-12 million illegal immigrants in the US, most uneducated and poor who create burdens on the already burdened governmental purses, even though some’s children or grandchildren may later succeed due to the opportunities in the US. As much as some may argue for open borders, it is unrealistic to expect of the US. Natasha Sterlin posted the text of Ms. Danticat’s NYTs op-ed “New York Was Our City On The Hill” for its opportunities, as surely the US is for many from impoverished and violent countries, but they all can’t move here. Again, it is unlikely that will be a prominent part of classroom discussions. There is no appreciation expressed by Ms. Danticat in her book for the opportunities he family gained due to US freedoms and largesse.
The Progressive calls itself “a monthly leftwing magazine” and “is fortunate” to have Eldwidge Danticat “grace its pages.” (http://www.progressive.org/audio_defeat_liberalism_money.html) It is not surprising that is the company Ms. Danticat keeps. Nor is it surprising that is the genre, “victimology” memoir, from which Brooklyn College has again chosen the 2011 sole Common Reading required of its entering students.
The Commenters and I could likely fill many more tens of thousands of pixels in discussion and debate. The students at Brooklyn College will probably not be so fortunate to hear more than one-side.
Tracked: Aug 06, 06:20
Tracked: Aug 06, 06:20
Tracked: Aug 06, 06:20
Tracked: Aug 06, 06:20
Tracked: Aug 06, 06:20
Tracked: Aug 06, 06:20
Tracked: Aug 06, 06:20
Minding The Campus blog, from the Manhattan Institute, is one of the preeminent venues for discussing issues in higher education. Today, my third annual shock at what is presented as required reading for incoming students at my alma mater and at many othe
Tracked: Jun 05, 12:19
Tracked: Jun 06, 06:52