Mother Of Exiles

>> Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The poem as Lazarus wrote it

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

-Emma Lazarus, "The New Colossus"


The first immigrants arrived in North America maybe 13,000 years ago. It sort of depends on whom you ask and whose radiocarbon dating you rely on. They were up in the Great White North, a motley group of maybe a few thousand people following migrating game across a spur of land that appeared above Arctic waters for a brief few thousand years; this was during an ice age, and with so much water locked up in ice sheets, the sea level was 200' lower than what we're used to.

You can think of it like this, and maybe you should: that these foreigners were looking for jobs. Career opportunities in those days, you have to recall, consisted of tool-making and hunting and gathering edible plants and making clothing. Lest you get the wrong idea, these were complicated trades and if you think otherwise I wonder how many of you could turn a rock into a spearhead and kill a big furry elephant with it, and then turn the fur into a pair of shoes and maybe a nice coat to keep out the tundra cold at night. Anyway, these folks wandered from workplace to workplace, which was inherent in the kinds of labor they were involved in, following the big game as the big game tried to find food and stay away from the people with spears, until after awhile the people decided here was a nice place to stay or there was a good source of water, and hey, wouldn't it be easier to find edible plants if we put those plants somewhere on purpose to be found, and so these immigrants settled down for a spell.

Until a few thousand years later white people came and stole their shit.

This is condemnatory and not: a large part of history is people going from one place to another and taking whatever it is they found there, from other people if necessary, and sometimes it's not as awful a story as the bill of information makes it out to be. For instance, some of the descendants of those who'd settled down in North America after the Bering Land Bridge sank beneath the waves had gotten it into their heads that the chance of the sun rising tomorrow was directly proportional to the number of people you could stab to death, or something along those lines, which is really a stupid fucking idea even if you've never even heard of Copernicus. So maybe taking their stuff away wasn't a huge loss.

But in other cases, of course, it was tragic and abominable and you wish everything could have been done differently. There were other people living on the land who were really basically just good, ordinary people trying to make a living like anybody else, and they had as much right to their stuff as anyone would, they just didn't have the guns and immunity to smallpox to make their wishes effective, y'know?

But what's done is done. The point, really, is that here came another wave of exiles looking for opportunity. Some of them were sanctimonious pricks and some of them were romantics, some of them were just mercenaries looking for a quick dollar, pound or franc who planned to return home rich and instead just stayed for whatever reason. Immigrants and refugees, every one of them, born in places with names like Castille, Portsmouth, Leyden, Lisbon, Bordeaux....

And then there were the immigrants who were dragged here in chains. For several centuries, the deficit in American labor, the fact that there was more work to be done in what was being called "The New World" than there were people willing to go and do it created a demand, as it ever does, for labor-saving devices, only there was no technology yet invented better than a man, woman or child told to work or die, whipped like an oxen and driven like a horse. People were kidnapped in mass from Africa and piled like cordwood in the hulls of ships, and when they arrived in North America, unwilling immigrants, were treated as beasts, property.

It happened after a time that the children of Europe who'd stolen the lands from the children of Asia finally realized it was a sin to chain the children of Africa, and efforts were made to rectify this situation. In some places it was done by the law and along the Atlantic coast of North America it was done with the gun before it could be done with the laws, and even then it took generations for anything even a little like equality to manifest itself. Which was a sad irony in the context we're discussing--the children of Europe had been children of Africa once upon a time, too, as had everybody on the entire planet Earth if you could have gone back far enough in the genealogies.

You knew this history before I started. Or you should have. So why am I rehashing it?

The other day, my friend Janiece wrote about certain bigots who want to amend the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution, and I wrote in reply:

We are a nation of immigrants and the descendants of immigrants. Even the human beings who lived in these lands before white thieves arrived from Europe crossed from Asia thousands of years ago, the earliest of immigrants to these shores. While I am a materialist and believe in what can be measured versus what one desires to be, the romantic in me cannot resist the poetry that says that if there is something essential to this continent, something spiritual that radiates out of the stones and soil, it is that those who are born here belong here.


I am not a mystic. I am not one who believes places have "energy" or some such intangible quality; of course I don't suppose I can categorically say they don't, either, but I'd like you to prove it if you think so. I wouldn't say a human has a soul (again, show me if he does), so I wouldn't be inclined to say the dirt has something like that, either. But places have the qualities we give them, the significance that our symbol-seeking brains assign to them; if they have no supernatural force of their own, they nonetheless reflect back to us the emotional power we perceive and then give back, an arcing circuit of feeling, of meaning.

Here we have a place--a continent, later carved into countries--that for thirteen thousand years has been a place for the refugee, the exile, the wanderer to call home. This is what one sees--or should see, if they have a heart in their chest--this is the knowledge within that is reflected back from the outside. And what we see in this reflected knowledge is an indisputable historic fact: that those born here belong to this land, wherever you would try to send them, and not the reverse.

When Emma Lazarus called the Statue Of Liberty the "Mother of Exiles," she was, by extension, naming the land represented by the statue. And aptly. This land, even before she was given names, opened her bosom to sojourners and nomads. I will concede that it may be necessary to break this mother's heart by tightening the lines men drew on their maps, but I cannot concede that is necessary to drive a knife through her heart by trying to say that those who are born to her are no longer to be given their proper place.

As I said, they belong to her.


5 comments:

Janiece Wednesday, August 4, 2010 at 9:54:00 AM EDT  

Agreed. As I said over at HCDSM, revising the 14th Amendment in this way just feels unAmerican.

And as I am uniquely American, I can't support it.

prell = didn't that used to be a shampoo?

Leanright,  Wednesday, August 4, 2010 at 12:52:00 PM EDT  

Eric, this was a fantastic post. I actually shared it with a couple of folks at the office.

There had better be a good, no, GREAT reason to ever amend the Constitution. Political gain is NOT a reason. I too, believe in a path to citizenship; I just hope those with a desire to become American can find that path easily, and take the appropriate steps to achieve.

I went over to Janiece's blog to read her post, and truly enjoyed that as well. I didn't comment, due to references to me being "The troll under the bridge".

Janiece, for what it's worth, I agree with virtually everything you wrote. So....THERE!

patio=where I enjoy a few beers each weekend in the beautiful Southern California Sunshine.

Janiece Wednesday, August 4, 2010 at 4:27:00 PM EDT  

Leanright, I have little patience for specious argument, but if you have a legitimate, defensible point to make, you are welcome at my blog, and you're welcome to comment.

timb111 Thursday, August 5, 2010 at 1:12:00 PM EDT  

I read Janiece's post so I could understand the issue a bit. I have to agree that changing the US Constitution (I'm Canadian) in a way that produces a permanent class of residents who have no citizenship anywhere is a really bad idea. I also realize that this is a very emotional issue for US citizens. In that respect Canadians and Americans in general seem to have very different emotional response to different people.

Janiece Friday, August 6, 2010 at 10:58:00 AM EDT  

timb111, I recently returned from a college trip to Canada, and I noticed the difference in attitude that your refer to. It really saddens me that we here in America seem to have forgotten our heritage. I'm glad Canadians are inclusive in their attitudes, but I wish we could follow your lead on this one.

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