This year I have been teaching a new American literature course, entitled “Coming to America: Literature About Immigration.” To quote my own course description, “In this course we approach America’s literary tradition through the study of fictional and non-fiction narratives that depict the varied experiences of those who came to this land and began new lives – from Northern Europe, Central and Southern Europe, China, India, Mexico, the Caribbean – as well as those who fled here as refugees or were compelled to come here as slaves.” In the fall term we read from such authors as Charles Simic, Henry Roth, Bharati Mukherjee, Edwidge Danticat, Willa Cather, Olaudah Equiano, Bernard Malamud, Judith Ortiz Cofer, Mary Anne Sadlier, Junot Diaz, Mohja Kahf, Sheri Venema, and Mario Puzo. In the weeks ahead we’ll be reading Amy Tan, Chang-Rae Lee, Jhumpa Lahiri, David Henry Hwang, Richard Rodriguez, T.C. Boyle, and Sandra Cisneros. If I could recommend one piece that we’ve read and studied so far, it would have to be a recent work of long form journalism from the New Yorker: Kathryn Schulz’s “Citizen Khan,” about a Pakistani immigrant who came to Wyoming in the late 19th century and lived a prosperous but barrier-filled life, a life that reaches into our time and contains in one story all the inspiration, heartbreak, and moral outrage that can be found in our national story of immigration.
I could go on at length about these texts, but instead (lucky for you) I’m thinking of a single statistic, one I came across as I studied the history of American immigration in order to prepare to teach the course. A revealing statistic. Due to a number of factors – mostly severe immigration restrictions imposed in the 1920s that lasted until the mid-60s but also the Great Depression and World War II – the percentage of foreign-born Americans living in the U.S. declined from 15% in 1910 to about 5% in 1970. That number has ticked back up to 13% today.
I think those numbers go a long way toward explaining the crisis we’re going through about immigration today. I was seven years old in 1970, and living in a place that had not been a major destination for immigrants even when the great waves of immigration were at their strongest. To the best of my recollection, my grade level in school – a few hundred people - contained one kid from Peru and one kid from India. The rest of us were either white or black. That was diversity. That was our international component.
Reading that 5% statistic and reflecting on my own experience gave me a better handle - I think - on why so many people of my generation are freaked out about the new immigrants. Other than the coming of the internet, the most dramatic change in the world I’ve seen in my lifetime is the ethnic composition of the community where I live and work. It is profoundly different. As much as I would hope that whites of my generation would embrace this new reality and the opportunities it offers, I understand their disorientation. I have experienced some of it myself. But too many of us have allowed that disorientation to curdle into fear, a fear that is largely baseless and turns us away from the better angels of our nature, causing us to mistreat people who deserve better from us.
My students of immigration literature are working on essays about the current immigration crisis. In the instructions for that assignment I wrote, “You will not become experts on immigration policy or refugee resettlement or national security practices, or anything close to it.” I can say the same thing for myself. I’m not qualified to make pronouncements about possible economic effects of the wall or the legal intricacies of the executive order or what the theology of my church obliges me to do in this crisis. But I do sense in the election results and the administration’s haste to impose restrictions an animus toward this generation of immigrants, and that makes me want to say something on their behalf, based only on the immigrants I have known.
I like to save a few cents by reusing manila folders. Sometimes I purge my overstuffed file cabinet, emptying the contents of a file on some unit I’m never going to teach again and putting the empty folder in a stack I’ll draw from as needed. Recently I grabbed a newly empty folder for some papers I needed to grade. When I got home I found a list of names and numbers on the folder, names from an AP English class I taught 20 years ago. Evidently I had been scoring some essays on Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part One and left my gradebook at school so I wrote the names and scores on the folder to be transferred to my gradebook later. Here are the names (but not the scores). A roll call of the new America:
Chris Ronnie Calvin
Mehdi Fahd Abhi
Sungnam Naomi Hannah
Danny Kajal Kim
Leslie Sherol Sara
Kung Tim Josephine
Ginny Sooyoun Christine
Kumida Brandon Colleen
The names were from the mid-nineties, when I was teaching at Meadowcreek High School. 1990s Meadowcreek , serving a lower middle class no man’s land between Norcross and Lilburn, was the harbinger of today’s multi-ethnic Gwinnett County. It was one of those schools that celebrated an International Day and hung flags in the cafeteria from the many nations of origin that were represented among the student body. Meadowcreek was not the easiest place to work. Poverty, transience, and an inability to coalesce as a community often made it hard to get things done there. The work of teaching could be very difficult, frustratingly so. But our best faculty were ever mindful of their students' personal struggles, met them where they were, and their frustrations as teachers were tempered with knowledge that, for those with eyes to see it, there was something special about this school and its students. Linguistic obstacles hampered many students, but so many of them brought that courageous, striving energy of immigrant families to their endeavors at school. Lack of a single dominant group gave Meadowcreek an enlivening social fluidity. No, it was not a place that throbbed with a spirit of kumbayah, and we were not a paragon of educational equity, but there was a lot to appreciate there. A journalist reporting on the school once described it as being like “a cheerful port city on market day.” At its best, that’s how Meadowcreek was.
At Meadowcreek we were always “celebrating our diversity.” I played along with that idea, but part of me felt that this “celebration” was sort of a consolation prize for us being unable to compete with the county’s more homogeneous and well-to-do schools. Last in football, last in test scores, but first in . . . number of flags in the cafeteria! Of course Meadowcreek was never the athletic or academic dead zone so many perceived it to be, but for a long time I privately thought that by trumpeting our diversity so loudly we were kind of conceding that we were losers. I should have known better. I should have been proud. Finding that list and seeing those names reminded me why. As individuals they were delightful, both as young people and as students. As a group they opened my eyes to the rich possibilities of an ethnically transformed America. I can’t even connect a face to many of those names, but I’m still in touch with many others. Several of them are immigrants or children of immigrants. It is a pleasure to know them. All in their late thirties now, they've led interesting, exemplary lives. They may be the main reason I'm teaching "Coming to America" today. Sadly, some of them have the sort of names that could make them and their families targets of hate or misbegotten policies in our current political climate. When I think of them, and think of the many, many other immigrant or child-of-immigrant students I got to know at that high school and the two other high schools where I have taught, I’m appalled at the spirit of unwelcome for such people that has taken hold in so many places, especially places of power. It was not then, nor is it today, a burden to have such people among us. It was and is a privilege.