With tears welling in her eyes, her throat a bit constricted, Edwidge Danticat graciously accepted the Langston Hughes Medal near the close of a festival named after the great writer, at Aaron Davis Hall last Friday evening.
“Let America be America again,” Danticat recited, invoking Hughes’ memorable lines, “we the people must reclaim the land.”
There is nothing in the world like making art, Danticat continued, and her body of work, including such astonishing stories and publications as Krik? Krak!, which was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1995; her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994), and most recently Create Dangerously—The Immigrant Artist at Work, an essay/memoir, is a glowing testament to that statement.
Earlier in the evening’s program she read from Create Dangerously in which she vividly recalled last year’s earthquake and the subsequent cholera that continue to menace the Haitian population. “In Haiti people never really die, spirits never really die…” but struggle to “reclaim a shadow of their past lives,” she read.
That Haitian resilience was more than manifested in Danticat’s words; it also emerged on the stage during other presentations from the Concrete Temple Actors, featuring the commanding presence of Edwin Lee Gibson as the immortal Haitian patriot Dessalines from Hughes’ rarely performed play “The Emperor of Haiti” and in Guy Regis’s “The Father.”
Kalunga Neg Mawon provided an opening song of prayer and interlude music that complemented Danticat’s invocations, their rhythm and folklore mirroring the author’s storytelling ability.
It was a day of celebration for Danticat with a morning panel discussion on Haiti in the Age of Danticat.
According to Gordon Thompson, the Festival’s director and Flo Wiley, who moderated the evening affair, the panel wonderfully explored the topic and in every conceivable way was worthy of Danticat’s profound understanding of Haitian culture and politics.
Representatives from Mayor Bloomberg’s office and Manhattan Borough President’s office presented Danticat with a proclamation indicative of her remarkable and “wonderful career” as CCNY President Lisa S. Coico had recounted several times during her remarks about Danticat.
An engaging conversation between Danticat and Kathlene McDonald gave the large audience additional information about the author and the creative process, particularly the value of the oral tradition in her storytelling. “It’s an ongoing process,” she replied, adding the difficulty and challenge she faced raising two children.
Her children, she explained, did not understand Haiti and America as she did. “They may not know the way I know Haiti,” she said, “but they love it.”
And Haiti and America loves Danticat.
Photo: Herb Boyd