|Turn of the 20th Century European immigrants crowd the deck of a steamer entering New York Harbor--the very picture of Wretched refuse and the great grandparents of many rabid immigrant haters today.|
Time to pull out an old chestnut, throw it in the fire, and see if it pops.
Back in the early 2000’s a nasty backlash was developing in McHenry County, Illinois against a growing, but still small Latino minority that was beginning to stain the previously lily white communities in rapidly suburbanizing communities.
It manifested itself in a rash of local housing ordinances meant to limit the size of households or how many “unrelated” people could live together often excluding relationships like long-time unmarried couples, step children, nieces, nephews, cousins, and other kin. Although officially color blind, these ordinances were not enforced against white households. Likewise a rash of anti-gang ordinances made displaying gang colors illegal—and that included such common colors as blue, red, black, and silver. It was, of course, a tool of official harassment against Latino youths. No one was going to arrest a white guy in a Cubs cap or a red t-shirt.
The mere mention of a Hispanic name on the TV set at the corner of a bar was sure to unleash a torrent of unfiltered racist ranting. A story in the Northwest Herald celebrating the first McHenry County birth of the New Year and the customary gifts bestowed by local merchants on the occasion cued outrage when the parents were Latino. Some stores posted signs “we only serve those who speak English.”
It was in that atmosphere that the old Hispanic Concerns Committee and later the Latino Coalition as well as the Interfaith Council for Social Justice sought to counter discrimination and promote a diverse community. The old Congregational Unitarian Church of Woodstock and its minister, the Rev. Dan Larsen were heavily involved in the effort. We promoted the establishment of local human relations councils, advocated open housing, protested egregious examples of outright racism, and helped the Latino community adapt and integrate with services like English classes, information on immigration processes, and achieving citizenship.
The annual Diversity Day Festival on Woodstock Square helped promote racial, ethnic, language, and religious inclusiveness. It was one of the few public events in the county where Latinos, Anglos, and others intentionally gathered together. It was my privilege to help organize those events and for several years serve as co-host on the Woodstock Square Gazebo stage with Gloria Urch. It was at one of the events that I first read my long poem Becoming American as a direct response to the historical blindness of many of my white neighbors who seem to believe that their grandparents stepped off a boat from Europe and were magically instantly speaking English.
|Hosting a Diversity Day Festival on Woodstock Square with Gloria Urch. These anual events were one the few intentional multi-racial, ethnic, and linguistic gatherings in the County. Becoming American was first read at one|
When I submitted the manuscript of a poetry collection to Skinner House Books, a publishing arm of the Unitarian Universalist Association in Boston, I considered Becoming American to be one of the most important pieces. My editor thought otherwise. In fact she was horrified. I began the poem with a string of the common ethnic slurs historically applied to European immigrants as a stark and dramatic reminder of reality. Unitarian Universalists could not possibly use those offensive words in any context! She was adamant. So was I. I refused to remove the offensive but powerful words.
We Build Temples in the Heart was published by Skinner House in 2004. Becoming American was not included. Neither was another important poem Nits Make Lice was also expurgated for being too frank in its description of a vicious cavalry charge against a sleeping Native American village To me, both examples of censorship exposed the common liberal folly of being more offended by language than by the outrages it exposes.
Skinner House did an otherwise marvelous job on that collection. I am proud of it and after all of these years several poems from it are routinely re-printed and often included in UU worship. But I don’t think I will submit the new collection I am working on to them, nor do I think they would even want to see it. Neither my language nor I have mellowed with years.
But after so many years would the very nice folks at Skinner House still object to the language? On one hand, the rise of hip-hop, slam poetry, and spoken word performance has made inroads into the more genteel tradition of high minded UU poetry. Tough language can be heard at church coffee houses, many events sponsored by local congregations including protests and rallies, at General Assembly, and even in Sunday morning worship. Strong stuff has been printed in the UUWorld. And there has been praise of honest expressions of personal experience and social outrage.
|Becoming American never made it into this collection|
On the other hand what the right wing demeans as political correctness and progressives treasure as simple respect for the feelings of the oppressed is on the rise. UUs and other liberals and progressives often tread on verbal eggs for fear of giving even unintended offense. In fact any objection by an offended party is apt to be enough to sink controversial verbiage.
Here in McHenry County and in the rest of the country, Becoming American has never been more relevant. Here we have battled and beat back the racist vigilante Illinois Minuteman Project, marched for immigration justice on May Day, and are now rallying to protest Donald Trump’s Zero Tolerance immigration policy, family separation, and a vicious and rabid ICE.
So buckle your seat belt if you are easily offended, we are taking a dangerous poem out for another spin.
By the way, this version is annotated in detail due to early complaints that the historic references in the work were too obscure.
|Pick an immigrant group from the ape-like pug nosed Irish to todays would-be bomb throwing Muslims and they were attacked in the popular American press. Jews were especially reviled, but far from alone.|
Becoming American (Annotated Version)
A Thumbnail History of the European-American Immigrant Experience
A Thumbnail History of the European-American Immigrant Experience
Micks, Krauts, Wops, Frogs, Kikes,
Square Heads, Polacks, Bohunks, [i]
our huddled masses, bewildered and frightened
pressed against the Golden Door [ii]
and burst in upon your Yankee yeomanry. [iii]
Ready or not, here we came,
a stinking pestilence, a Popish rabble [iv]
the shucked off waste of Babel [v]
polluting your pristine English stream,
the craven minions
of the Elders of the Protocols of Zion [vi]
with appetites for Christian babes
and usury’s truncheon on honest men.
And you welcomed us with Know Nothing [vii]
wet dreams of Maria Monk’s priestly orgies, [viii]
with No Irish Need Apply [ix]
posted in every clean and comfortable shop
where moleskin and brogan slaves [x]
might yearn for relief from spade and hod. [xi]
You cursed the Dutchy [xii]
who worshiped in his guttural tongue,
idled over beer instead of whiskey,
dreamed of failed revolutions [xiii]
and future one in endless
And, damn it, learn the language!
When you tired of lynching Black men,
you burned your crosses in our yards [xiv]
the purifying, scourging flames
exorcising Roman anti-Christs
and demonic Hebrew cults.
Yet we filled your tenements and slums,
your Hoovervilles and hobo jungles, [xv]
your railroad shacks and company towns,
your Army posts, your prisons,
and your potter’s fields. [xvi]
We dug and wove and dug some more,
we felled the endless forests
and reaped your amber waves of grain, [xvii]
hog butchered to the world, [xviii]
gandy danced and poured the very brimstone [xix]
that steeled the nation’s progress,
we sewed and stitched and vulcanized, [xx]
sailed your Death Ship and dug your graves. [xxi]
We did all of the dirty, bloody labors
that you spurned
and you called us lazy, ignorant, and ungrateful
as we died by the dutiful legion
in your burning pits and suffocating sweat shops.
We were Henry Forded and Taylorized, [xxii]
made mere interchangeable cogs
in the vast machine that made
more, always more,
as our days and years ran on,
a Mobius loop of numbing sameness. [xxiii]
And when we finally clenched our fists in rage
and linked our arms in union,
we were Hay Marketed, Joe Hilled, [xxiv]
Sacco and Vanzettied, Ludlowized, [xxv]
and Republic Steeled, [xxvi]
we sang the new litany of martyrs
and grew strong.
You called your Pinkertons and gun thugs [xxvii]
and when we would not yield,
you tagged us Reds and Commies,
raided and deported us, [xxviii]
wetted your bayonets and gassed us,
and stuffed your prisons full. [xxix]
But we endured and inch by painful inch
we climbed to our place at your table,
now our children’s children’s children
are Yankees, the old tongues and ways
abandoned with no regret,
we have mixed our blood
until there are swarthy Olsens
and Hebrew Fitzgeralds.
Now we hear our progeny say—
“Why don’t they just learn English?
They breed like rabbits
and lay around on welfare.
Go back to where you came from!”
Truly, they have become American.
[i] Irish, Germans, Italians, French, Jews, Scandinavians, Poles, Bohemians.
[ii] The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus
[iii] Free men subject to militia call.
[v] Tower in Genesis struck down by Yahweh scattering the builders across the earth with mutually unintelligible languages.
[vi] Forgery purporting to prove an international Jewish Conspiracy to dominate the world.
[vii] Secret anti-immigrant political party, 1825-1860.
[viii] The Autobiography of Maria Monk, a popular anti-Catholic book of the 1840’s purporting to expose sexual perversion among priests and nuns and the practice of anti-Christian rites.
[ix] Signs posted by merchants in Boston Shop windows from the 19th through the early 20th Centuries.
[x] Soft, heavy material used in trousers by Irish workers and the heavy laced shoes that they wore.
[xi] A devise for carrying bricks or mortar. Irish workers frequently “carried the hod.”
[xii] German from Deutsche.
[xiii] The great German migration began after the failure of the 1848 uprisings throughout the German states.
[xiv] The 1920’s revival of the Ku Klux Klan gained considerable support in the North as an anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic organization. The Klan seized control of the Indiana state government for a while.
[xv] Depression shanty towns named for Herbert Hoover and the camps of migrant workers near the railroads they used to get from job to job.
[xvi] Graveyard where paupers were buried at public expense, usually without any grave markers.
[xvii] America the Beautiful by Katherine Lee Bates.
[xviii] Chicago by Carl Sandburg.
[xix] Railroad track layers and maintenance workers.
[xx] The process of heating rubber with sulfur so that it will not become brittle in cold or gummy in heat discovered by Charles Goodyear in 1839.
[xxi] The Death Ship by B. Travin.
[xxii] Fredrick Winslow Taylor, an American industrial engineer who originated “scientific management” and “time motion studies” which led to the modern assembly line with each worker repeating highly specialized but limited tasks.
[xxiii] A three dimensional surface that has only one side, a continuous loop crated when a rectangular strip is twisted and the ends attached. Named form German mathematician August Ferdinand Mobius.
[xxiv] The Haymarket in Chicago, site of a labor rally in support of the 8-hour day which was attacked by Police on May 4, 1886. A bomb was thrown at the police, killing and wounding severs. Eight labor leaders, all but one German, were convicted of conspiracy and murder, though none could be tied to the crime. The youngest, Louis Ling, committed suicide. Albert Parson, August Spies, George Engle and Adoph Fisher were hanged, becoming America’s first great labor martyrs. Other defendants were later pardoned by Illinois governor John Peter Altgeld. Joe hill was a Swedish immigrant who joined the Industrial Workers of The World (IWW) and became an itinerant organizer. He became most famous as the writer of numerous labor songs including The Preacher and the Slave, The Rebel Girl, and Casey Jones the Union Scab. He was framed on a murder charge and executed by firing squad in Utah in 1915. His final words became a labor legend, “Don’t mourn, organize!’
[xxv] Nicola Sacco, a shoemaker, and Barolomeo Vanzetti a fish monger, were Italian immigrants and anarchists charged with a payroll robbers at a shoe factory in which a guard was killed on April 15, 1920. They were convicted on scant evidence and sentenced to death. Their case became the great labor cause of the ‘20’s. Despite worldwide protests they were executed in 1927. Fifty years later Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis issued a proclamation clearing their names. 1n 1913 and 1914 coal miners, mostly Greeks and Slovaks, struck mines operated by the Colorado Fuel and Iron Co. at Ludlow, Colorado, owned by John D. Rockefeller. During the bitter strike, the company evicted strikers and their families from the company town. The strikers set up a nearby tent city. On April 20, 1914 the Colorado the National Guard attacked the camp with machine guns. At least 39 men, women and children were killed and scores injured.
[xxvi]On Memorial Day, 1937 several thousand strikers demanding union recognition made a peaceful march on the Republic Steel plant Chicago accompanied by their wives and children. The mayor had assured them that their march was legal and would be allowed. They were met by more than 500 Chicago Police who attacked them with tear gas, truncheons, pistol and rifle fire. Ten were killed outright, most shot in the back while on the ground. 90 others were wounded. A newsreel crew caught the whole action on film. Despite attempts to suppress the film and its damning evidence, Senate hearings called by Wisconsin’s Robert Lafollette exposed the truth of the attack.
[xxvii] Allen Pinkerton’s detective service had a long history of service to employers in labor disputes. Pinkerton agent James McParland infiltrated and broke the Molly Maguires, an Irish miners’ secret organization. Years later the same McParland kidnapped IWW William “Big Bill” Haywood and tried to frame him for the bombing murder of a former Idaho governor. Pinkerton guards frequently escorted strikebreakers and attacked union pickets. Gun thugs were simply local toughs employed by companies to intimidate or attack union supporters. The most famous gun thugs were employed by Ford Motor to attack Walter Reuther and other United Auto Workers organizers in the ‘30’s.
[xxviii] The Palmer Raids of 1919, organized by a young J. Edgar Hoover of the Bureau of Investigation, swept up thousands of mostly foreign-born workers and radicals with little or no evidence of any crime. Hundreds were deported.
[xxix] The entire leadership of the IWW was arrested in three groups and held in Chicago, Kansas and California after World War I. Charged with “criminal syndicalism” hundreds spent years in prison for simply belonging to a labor union that the government regarded as dangerous. The McCarthy era of the late ‘40’s and ’50’s saw many more jailed for alleged membership in the American Communist Party.