We the People: Voices of the Immigrant Experience

Artist: Shepard Fairey / Photographer: Ridwan Adhami

Artist: Shepard Fairey / Photographer: Ridwan Adhami

At the beginning of this century, the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago asked me to compile texts of the immigrant experience for a public reading in celebration of America’s rich diversity. In this shameful time of immigration bans and brutal deportations, may these voices remind us of our common origins as strangers and sojourners. In a country beset with what Canadian scholar Henry A. Giroux has called the “violence of organized forgetting,” remembering is a crucial act of resistance.

 

Sing to me, call me home in languages I do not yet
understand, to childhoods I have not yet experienced,
to loves that have not yet touched me.
Fill me with the details of our lives.
Filling up, emptying out
and diving in.
It is the holy spirit of existence, the flesh, the blood,
the naked truth that will not be covered.
Tell me everything, all the details – flesh, blood, bone.

– Lisa Kahaleole Chang Hall

 

From Asia, you crossed a bridge of land,
now called the Bering Strait, now swallowed
in water. No human steps to follow,
you slowly found your way on pathless grounds…
Travelers lost in time – walking, chanting, dancing –
tracks on mapless earth, no man-made lines,
no borders. Arriving not in ships, with no supplies,
waving no flags, claiming nothing, naming
no piece of dirt for wealthy lords of earth.
You did not come to own; you came to live.

– Benjamin Alire Sáenz

 

America is also the nameless foreigner,
the homeless refugee,
the hungry boy begging for a job,
the illiterate immigrant…
All of us, from the first Adams
to the last Filipino,
native born or alien,
educated or illiterate –
We are America!

– Carlos Bulosan

 

She is the woman hanging from the 13th floor window
in east Chicago…
She sees Lake Michigan lapping at the shores of
herself…She sees other
women hanging from many-floored windows
counting their lives in the palms of their hands
and in the palms of their children’s hands.

She is the woman hanging from the 13th floor window
on the Indian side of town…
crying for the lost beauty of her own life.

– Joy Harjo

 

I am not any of the faces
you have put on me america

every mask has slipped
i am not any of the names

or sounds you have called me
the tones have nearly

made me deaf
this dark skin, both of us have tried to bleach…

– Safiya Henderson-Holmes

 

I know now that I once longed to be white.
How? you ask.
Let me tell you the ways.

when I was growing up, people told me
I was dark and I believed my own darkness
in the mirror, in my soul, my own narrow vision.

when I was growing up, my sisters
with fair skin got praised
for their beauty and I fell
further, crushed between high walls.

when I was growing up, I read magazines
and saw blonde movie stars, white skin, sensuous lips,
and to be elevated, to become
a woman, a desirable woman, I began to wear
imaginary pale skin.

when I was growing up, I was proud
of my English, my grammar, my spelling,
fitting into the group of smart children,
smart Chinese children, fitting in,
belonging, getting in line.

– Nellie Wong

 

These men died with the wrong names,
Na’aim Jazeeny, from the beautiful valley
of Jezzine, died as Nephew Sam,
Sine Hussin died without relatives and
because they cut away his last name
at Ellis Island, there was no way to trace
him back even to Lebanon, and Im’a Brahim
had no other name than mother of Brahim
even my own father lost his, went from
Hussein Hamode Subh’ to Sam Hamod.
There is something lost in the blood,
something lost down to the bone
in these small changes. A man in a
dark blue suit at Ellis Island says, with
tiredness and authority, “You only need two
names in America” and suddenly – as cleanly
as the air, you’ve lost
your name. At first, it’s hardly
even noticeable – and it’s easier, you move
about as an American – but looking back
the loss of your name
cuts away some other part,
something unspeakable is lost.

– Sam Hamod

 

I am Marilyn Mei Ling Chin…
Of course, the name had been changed
somewhere between Angel Island and the sea,
when my father the paper son
in the late 1950’s
obsessed with some bombshell blonde
transliterated “Mei Ling” to Marilyn…
and there I was, a wayward pink baby,
named after some tragic
white woman, swollen with gin and Nembutal.

– Marilyn Chin

 

“This is my country,” we sang,
And a few years ago there would have been
A scent of figs in the air, mangoes,
And someone playing the oud along a clear stream.

But now it was “My country ’tis of thee”
And I sang it out with all my heart…
“Land where my fathers died,” I bellowed,
And it was not too hard to imagine
A host of my great uncles and -grandfathers
Stunned from their graves in the Turkish interior
And finding themselves suddenly
On a rock among maize and poultry
And Squanto shaking their hands.

– Gregory Djanikian

 

If I am a newcomer to your country, why teach me about my ancestors? I need to know about seventeenth-century Puritans in order to make sense of the rebellion I notice everywhere in the American city. Teach me about mad British kings so I will understand the American penchant for iconoclasm. Teach me about cowboys and Indians; I should know that tragedies created the country that will create me.

– Richard Rodriguez

 

Names will change
faces will change
but not much else
the President will still be white
and male
and wasp
still speak with forked tongue…
still uphold the laws of dead white men
still dream about big white monuments
and big white memorials
ain’t nothin’ changed
ain’t nothin’ changed at all.

– Lamont B. Steptoe

 

My dream of America
is like dà bính lòuh
with people of all persuasions and tastes
sitting down around a common pot
chopsticks and basket scoops here and there
some cooking squid and others beef
some tofu and watercress
all in one broth
like a stew that really isn’t
as each one chooses what she wishes to eat
only that the pot and fire are shared
along with the good company
and the sweet soup
spooned out at the end of the meal.

– Wing Tek Lum

 

today
we will not be invisible nor silent
as the pilgrims of yesterday continue their war of attrition
forever trying, but never succeeding
in their battle to rid the americas of us
convincing others and ourselves
that we have been assimilated and eliminated,

but we remember who we are

we are the spirit of endurance that lives
in the cities and reservations of north america
and in the barrios and countryside of Nicaragua, Chile
Guatemala, El Salvador

and in all the earth and rivers of the americas.

– Victoria Lena Manyarrows

 

We are a beautiful people
with African imaginations
full of masks and dances and swelling chants
with African eyes, and noses, and arms,
though we sprawl in gray chains in a place
full of winters, when what we want is sun.

We have been captured,
brothers and sisters. And we labor
to make our getaway, into
the ancient image, into a new
correspondence with ourselves
and our black family.
We need magic
now we need the spells, to raise up
return, destroy, and create. What will be
the sacred words?

– Amiri Baraka

 

Living on borders, and in margins,
keeping intact one’s shifting and multiple identity and integrity,
is like trying to swim in a new element…
There is an exhilaration in being a participant
in the further evolution of humankind.

– Gloria E. Anzaldúa

 

We are connected to one another in time and by blood. Each of us is so related, we’re practically the same person living infinite versions of the great human adventure.

– Maxine Hong Kingston

 

When both of us look backward…we see and are devoted to telling about the lines of people that we see stretching back, breaking, surviving, somehow, somehow, and incredibly, culminating in someone who can tell a story.    (Louise Erdrich)

I am a woman who wants to go home but never figured out where it is or why to go there…I have lost the words to chant my bloodline.    (Lisa Harris)

We are the sum of all our ancestors. Some speak louder than others but they all remain present, alive in our very blood and bone.      (Lisa Kahaleole Chang Hall)

I have the same name as 1 grandfather, 3 cousins, 3 nephews, and 1 uncle. The uncle disappeared when he was 15, just took off and caught a freight (they say). He’s discussed each year when the family has a reunion, he causes uneasiness in the clan, he is an empty space. My father’s mother, who is 93, and who keeps the Family Bible with everybody’s birth dates (and death dates) in it, always mentions him. There is no place in her Bible for ‘wherabouts unknown.’         (Etheridge Knight)

 

When the census taker, a woman of African descent…came to my door, I looked into the face of my sister….She did not ask me my racial background but checked off the box next to Black American/African American/Afro-Cuban American/Black African….

I met her eyes and said, “I’m not Black; I’m Other, Mixed, Black and White.” …She did not smile, smirk, or frown, but checked the box marked “Other,” and lifted her eyes quickly to mine again. I wanted to see her erase “Black.” She did not do so in my presence….

I had been focused on my personal freedom, on my right to define who I am, on my responsibility to my sense of self. The dignity of the census taker was not a part of my mental equation…

She thanked me. But the price of my self-definition had been the wall I felt I’d built between us before I ever closed the door.         (Sarah Willie)

 

I am not African. Africa is in me, but I cannot return…I am not european. Europe lives in me,  but I have no home there. I am new. History made me….I was born at the crossroads and I am whole.       (Sarah Willie)

 

Auntie Raylene, an accomplished chanter and dancer, told us about the necessity of remembering and honoring where we come from….During the question-and-answer session, a worried West African immigrant brother asked her, “But…what if our parents and grandparents refuse to tell us anything? They don’t want to talk about the old days. They are afraid. Or they don’t remember.”

She looked at him with great love and said, “Then you go back further, to the source,” and her hand swept back with assurance to the beginning of time, to the birth of life.

– Lisa Kahaleole Chang Hall

 

Remember your birth, how your mother struggled
to give you form and breath. You are evidence of
her life, and her mother’s, and hers.

Remember your father. He is your life, also.
Remember the earth whose skin you are:
red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth
brown earth, we are earth….

Remember that you are all people and that all people are you.
Remember that you are this universe
and that this universe is you.

Remember that all is in motion, is growing, is you.
Remember that language comes from this.
Remember the dance that language is, that life is.
Remember.

– Joy Harjo

 

Related post:   Remember

We the People art images are available here as free downloads. The texts are drawn from several wonderful collections: UA:Unsettling America: An Anthology of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry , ed. Maria Mazziotti Gillan & Jennifer Gillan (Penguin,1994)… N: Names We Call Home: Autobiography on Racial Identity, eds. Becky Thompson, Sangeeta Tyagi (Routledge, 1995) … and another anthology which has vanished from my library and my memory, though I have traced original sources for most of its selections. In order: Hall (N 241), Sáenz (Calendar of Dust), Bulosan (http://bulosan.org/in-his-words), Harjo (UA 29-30), Henderson-Holmes (UA 60), Wong (UA 55), Hamod (UA130), Chin (UA 134), Djanikian (UA 215), Rodriguez (source unknown), Steptoe (UA 250), Lum (UA 322-23), Manyarrows (UA 330), Baraka (UA 155), Anzaldúa (Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza), Kingston & Erdrich (third anthology), Harris (N xv), Hall (N 241ff.), Knight (The Essential Etheridge Knight), Willie (N 276, 278), Hall (241ff.), Harjo (She Had Some Horses)

We are the singers of life, not of death

A Choir of Angels (detail), Simon Marmion, 1459

A Choir of Angels (detail), Simon Marmion, 1459

“The great truth that is too often forgotten is that it is in the nature of people to do good to one another.”

– Marilynne Robinson[i]

Gonna rise up, burning black holes in dark memories,
Gonna rise up, turning mistakes into gold.

– Eddie Vedder[ii]

One of my favorite stories by the naturalist Loren Eiseley recalls a moment of awakening. He was napping in a forest glade when a sudden commotion of birds roused him from sleep. They were circling a raven which clutched their small nestling in its beak. It was not only the nestling’s parents crying in protest. Birds of half a dozen other species also began to join in. “No one dared attack the raven. But they cried there in some instinctive common misery, the bereaved and the unbereaved. The glade filled with their soft rustling and their cries.” The raven sat unperturbed on its perch, a perfect symbol of pitiless mortality – “the bird of death,” Eiseley called it.

It was then I saw the judgment. It was the judgment of life against death … For in the midst of protest, [the birds] forgot the violence. There, in that clearing, the crystal note of a song sparrow lifted hesitantly in the hush. And finally, after painful fluttering, another took the song, and then another, the song passing from one bird to another, doubtfully at first, as though some evil thing were being slowly forgotten. Till suddenly they took heart and sang from many throats joyously together as birds are known to sing. They sang because life is sweet and sunlight beautiful. They sang under the brooding shadow of the raven. In simple truth they had forgotten the raven, for they were the singers of life, and not of death.[iii]

On Sunday night I experienced a similar miracle of transcendent exultation in a new musical at the Seattle Repertory Theater, Come From Away. A musical about 9/11 might sound like a dubious idea, but it succeeds brilliantly in turning the darkness into a song of unconquerable life and resilient spirit.

Like the birds in the glade, Come From Away shifts its focus away from the familiar 9/11 narrative of horror and death to tell a powerful counter-story in which the bonds of community and kindness prove stronger than the forces that divide and destroy. Like the utopian “no-places” of Renaissance romance – say the forest of Arden or Prospero’s island – the small town of Gander in New-Found-Land is on “the edge of the world,” a liminal space where both individuals and social groups, free from conventional and habitual constraints, can explore alternative ways of being and being-together.

An island town of 9000 people, Gander had once been a key refueling station for transatlantic flights, and its remote airport is still relied on for emergency situations. When all North American airspace was closed on 9/11, 38 planes were rerouted there, bringing nearly 7000 people who needed to be housed and fed for six days. The logistical challenges were enormous, but the emotional ones were even greater – so many people from different cultures, stranded far from home in those surreal days of uncertainty, shock and anxiety. Their planes had found a place to land, but what about their hearts?

Over those six days, remarkable bonds formed among both Newfoundlanders and passengers. It was an experience of love and goodness which none of them would ever forget. Ten years later, many of the “plane people” returned to Gander for an anniversary reunion to re-collect that extraordinary experiment in community. Two Canadian playwrights, Irene Sankoff and David Hein, went there as well, spending a month listening to thousands of stories. In four-hour interviews with hundreds of people, Sankoff and Hein compiled a remarkable record of the human spirit.

The play’s title is a Newfoundland colloquialism for “immigrant.” In a time when many are bashing immigrants as “them,” such a powerful reminder that we have all “come from away” feels like a well-timed gift of grace. As the Bible puts it, we are all strangers and pilgrims on this earth[iv], and the essential human project is the overcoming of fear and division to make connections and create community.

Sankoff and Hein were fascinated to learn that Newfoundland is where all the continents crashed together eons ago. “So, geologically,” they said, “there are pieces of Africa, Europe and America all right there. It’s this wonderful metaphor for the world coming together.”[v] The theologians say that we are made in the image of a God whose essence is relationality, and that human nature is most fully realized in communion. What happened in Gander was a test of that thesis.

The stories collected in 2011 were gradually consolidated into a coherent musical drama, with 12 actors representing nearly a hundred characters. There are no flawless heroes, exempt from the fears, frailties and foolishness common to all of us. There are no villains either. They are just people making their way through an unknown land without a map, exhibiting an innate desire to do good to one another. Both recognizable and sympathetic, these characters stood in for all of us, and what we might become.

And how brilliant to make it a musical. The driving Celtic rock score by a nine-piece onstage band was irresistible, and the songs made you want to shout and dance, even as tears streamed down your face. Beautifully crafted by Sankoff and Hein, the infectious music made us all believe in our common vocation as the singers of life against all odds.

In her book on the musical genre, Jane Feuer observes that “musicals are unparalleled in presenting a vision of human liberation … Part of the reason some of us love musicals so passionately is that they give us a glimpse of what it would be like to be free.” But she cautions that the genre can also fall into the trap of being about nothing more than its own energy. “In its endless reflexivity the musical can offer only itself, only entertainment, as its picture of utopia.” In such a case, the musical remains self-enclosed fantasy, untranslatable into daily reality.[vi]

But Come From Away, grounded in remembered stories of real goodness, offers something more than a temporary escape into fantasy. It proposes the richness of human community as an authentic prospect, however imperfectly realized in actual practice. The merging of Christian, Jewish and Muslim prayers into a single song was but one of many scenes in which the characters discovered that their best selves were grounded in the interrelatedness of mutual belonging.

And to the extent that this play manifested an ideal by which our failures to love one another might be measured and found wanting, it was not unlike liturgy. Neither theater nor liturgy are “real” life, but they can still exert a transformative power. Through symbol and metaphor, song and story, they can suggest a hypothetical alternative to our tired old stories of decline and fall, luring us toward a higher vision of human becoming. When we rose to our feet at play’s end for a prolonged ovation, we were not just thanking the company for a good time. We were, at least for the moment, subscribing to its vision. Whatever it was they showed us, we wanted to be part of it. As Marilynne Robinson puts it, human community is “a work of the imagination”[vii] – a life-giving story we tell as we strive to make it real, in ourselves and in our world.

When the house lights come up, we all go our separate ways, and the vision weakens in the glare of ordinary time. The same thing happens after a liturgy. Yet something of the dream remains. The intuition of a better way of being lodges deep within us, and over time, if properly nourished, it may produce real outcomes.

 

 

Related posts

 

Remember

No Place like Home

After Paris and Beirut, what kind of story shall we tell?

 

 

[i] Marilynne Robinson, “Imagination and Community,” in When I Was a Child I Read Books (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), 33

[ii] Eddie Vedder, “Rise”, from the film, Into the Wild (2007)

[iii] Loren Eiseley, The Immense Journey (New York: Random House, 1957), 174-5

[iv] I Peter 2:11

[v] Interview with Shirley Fishman, Come From Away program notes (Seattle: Encore Arts Programs, Seattle Repertory Theater, Nov. 2015), 15

[vi] Jane Feuer, The Hollywood Musical (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1982), 84

[vii] Robinson, 29