The catalyst for bringing Brother, I’m Dying out of our classrooms and into the community was our participation in a month-long local community-wide reading project that chose Brother, I’m Dying as its selected book. The Big Read Holland Area (now the Big Read Lakeshore), run by Hope College, takes place every November in Holland, MI — a small city on the eastern edge of Lake Michigan in the southwest corner of the state. The purpose of this program is to create and foster a culture where reading matters. By uniting the community in one book, the Big Read used this shared experience of reading, discussing, and exploring the themes of the book as a springboard to learn from and listen to each other.
The Big Read is a collaborative effort with over 50 partnerships including various institutions, organizations, and businesses. Its programming scope is intentionally wide and designed to attract participation across generational, cultural, racial, and socioeconomic divides and experiences. Multimodal main events – films, food, music, art, and lectures – provide different perspectives, experiences, and angles for the chosen book. In 2016, the main events featured a keynote lecture by Edwidge Danticat, a Haitian food and educational event, a Haitian drumming and dancing event, and a screening of Poverty, Inc. — a documentary that focuses on the complications of international aid. Additionally, the programming included lectures by a local immigration lawyer, a refugee social worker, a Caribbean historian, a Caribbean linguist, and a memoir scholar. Finally, a student exhibition of learning featured the artwork of 800 middle, high school and college students who created art in response to the book. See the list at the end of this article for a full list of our resources.
Taking Brother, I’m Dying into the community helped tell the complicated story of Danticat’s family’s immigration from Haiti to the United States. Just as Danticat braids her family’s experiences with political history, folk tales, government documents, and personal testimonies, the community-wide reading program’s events and book discussions engaged students from several perspectives. By taking this multi-angle approach, we began to identify the powerful questions and stories rooted within Danticat’s text and our own community. Both “texts” – the book, as well as the reading program itself – became lyric and multi-disciplinary narrative braids that invited our students to engage in new ways of thinking.
The main events and public book discussions of the community-wide reading program, held in a variety of locations, offered a variety of opportunities for student engagement. These opportunities initially represented to us possible supplementary material to how we used the book in our individual courses. We thought that requiring our students to attend main events or book discussions would give them an opportunity to reinforce classroom discussions. What we did not realize was how our involvement in this community-wide program became central to our understanding of the book and issues surrounding immigration.
The public book discussions — held in art galleries, church basements, coffee shops, and breweries — gave students a chance to meet with neighbors, coworkers and strangers. We all came together and listened to local immigrant narratives. Whether first generation or fourth, each community member began to understand the sacrifice and commitment it takes to come to the United States.
Participating in the outside events and inviting community members to visit our classrooms gave our students access to additional “texts” that expanded on and complicated Danticat’s memoir. By sifting through and weaving together various narratives, our students began to read, write, and think in advanced ways. They began holding and considering complicated and disparate ideas with confidence and curiosity.
In the end, we were no longer just studying a writer’s story – we were studying each other’s stories. We identified the lyric spaces and braids within our community and mapped the narratives in Brother, I’m Dying onto larger conversations in order to examine our lives against political, familial, and historical narratives.
Resources we used:
La Belle Vie: The Good Life (2015), director Rachelle Salnave http://www.labelleviefilm.com/
Poverty, Inc. (2014), director Michael Matheson Miller http://www.povertyinc.org/
God’s Vision For Haiti http://www.godsvisionforhaiti.org/
Bethany Christian Services – Refugee and Immigrant Services
Lighthouse Immigrant Advocates http://lighthouseimmigrantadvocates.com/
Daniel Jean-Louis (Haitian entrepreneur) https://www.facebook.com/daniel.jeanlouis.14
Justice for Our Neighbor http://jfonwestmichigan.org/
“My family waited in line, why can’t immigrants today?” Immigration Stimulation Workshop http://justice.crcna.org/church-between-borders (Grand Rapids, MI)
Geraud Dimanche, master Haitian drummer (Detroit, MI) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oMaRPLAv28k
Chez Olga (Grand Rapids, MI) https://www.facebook.com/Chez-Olga-GR-132059110146754/