Sunday, February 19, 2012

'All The Lands Of The Earth Make Contributions Here'

At Battery Park in lower Manhattan, where tourists come from around the world in good weather or bad to catch the ferry to Liberty Island, there’s an immigrant statue created by sculptor Luis Sanguino in 1973 which consistently attracts the attention of small groups of tourists as they debark from the tour.

It's an odd assortment of folk rushing out of the hold of a ship, like the animals from Noah’s ark, released from their confinement, greeting the New World which has beckoned them.

There’s a European couple clutching a small child. There’s a Semitic man bending forward and holding his hands out to the soil in reverential supplication. Another figure in some sort of Pharaonic headdress and robes peers up at Manhattan’s ’tall fa├žades of marble and iron,’ clutching a briefcase in one hand with fierce pride of fulfillment, the other hand held to his heart.

And there’s an African who rises up powerfully from his knees, holding links of broken chains in his upraised hands. Unlike the others, he’s looking not out onto the new land, but up at some private and significant heaven.

More than a study in multicultural correctness or the ‘mob’ anonymity of Emma  Lazarus’ huddled masses, the statue's figures have great specificity about them. And seriousness. There’s no easy joy or laughter in Sanguino’s figures, but there’s plenty of intensity. Each has the face of one in the middle of a deeply personal and transformative moment. Each has been borne out of the trauma of their past, and is now confronted with the monumental challenge and opportunity of the land in which they find themselves.

I sat in the park yesterday watching as the tourists, debarking in small groups from a very different sort of ship, slowed to a halt in front of Sanguino's sculpture.

One by one, someone from the group would go sit on a pylon which is part of the sculpted scene, and pose for a picture. Sometimes they would just look directly at the camera and smile their camera smile. But more often than not, they adopted the pose of one of the figures in the sculpture.

Supplication. Reverence. Exhaustion. Resurrection. Defiant Pride.

But one by one, before the camera could click, they broke into an irrepressible smile, or a self-conscious laugh. Try as they might, none of them could hold the pose.

They were having fun. They were in New York City -- they'd come to plug into the powerful joy of America’s great diverse city. There was just too much straightforward joy in the moment for them to recapitulate pain.

These days, as descendants of immigrants are possessed of a schizoid national mindset that both welcomes the world to our shores, and reviles it, the Immigrant Statue, and the response I witnessed to it, is instructive.

‘Give me your tired your poor,’ the Statue of Liberty intones, Emma Lazarus’ words carved into the stone during a very different era, when burgeoning industrialization of the nation demanded cheap labor to fill the factories. Yet we hold those words to be sacred to our national vision.

“All races are here;  All the lands of the earth make contributions here”
wrote Walt Whitman, in City of Ships, in 1865.

"We gotta go and never stop going til we get there," wrote Jack Kerouac in a different era and in different city, reflecting on the lure of America's great diverse urban engine, On The Road.

Walt praised that diversity in urban America,100 years before Jack pounded the keys of his typewriter, and twenty years before Emma lifted her pen. “Proud and passionate city! mettlesome, mad, extravagant city!…I have rejected nothing you offer’d me—whom you adopted, I have adopted;  Good or bad, I never question you—I love all—I do not condemn anything;  I chant and celebrate all that is yours.”

These words -- memorialized in the railings outside the World Financial Center’s Winter Gardens -- is an elegant statement of an America ideal...inclusion.

147 years since old Walt uttered it, we're still trying to learn its lesson. And we're still confronting a lesson found in something missing from the quote -- Whitman’s fighting side. ‘Peace I chanted peace,' wrote Whitman, 'but now the drum of war is mine.’

This missing piece of the poem is significant. In at least one sense, Whitman wrote City Ships as a way to confront the idea that, in order to preserve the ideals of our American union, it may be necessary to take up the struggle against those who would attempt to derail them.

This American union, Whitman reminds us, is a nation wondrously comprised of diverse states, and even more diverse peoples -- our common humanity, our belief in the inherent unity contained in diversity.

That ideal’s among the finest expressions of our individual and corporate personhood to be found in the cosmos. And best celebrated not just in marble or stone or in the railings of the Winter Garden, but through its enactment.

And as Whitman reminds us, worthy of protection when it is attacked.

As xenophobia and revulsion of ‘the other’ is once again used blatantly to bait the fears of an economically stressed people; as anti-immigration hysteria seeks to find its home in our national discourse through code language not much different from the “Americanism“ talk of the Ku Klux Klan 1920s; it is vital for us to hold precious the deeper American ideal of inclusion.

By memorializing it. By protecting it. And by celebrating it, proud, passionate, mettlesome and mad though it may be, and despite the failings of our fellow man.

Like Whitman did, because all the lands of the earth make contributions here.

Like Kerouac did, because 'something will come of it yet...there's always more, a little further -- it never ends.'

And like the tourists do -- by hopping onto the statue of the Immigrant Statue and cracking a defiant grin.

I bet Walt would’ve done that.

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