The recent election has brought many democratic issues into stark relief—among them freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, and the power of citizenship. It’s become very clear in the wake of the election that Americans are separating into groups with their own worldview, their own sources, and their own facts. We have lost sight of the vital connection between the symbols, texts, sounds, places, ideas and artifacts that make up the fabric of this nation and the present.
We at the Aspen Institute Citizenship & American Identity Program think building a foundation of common knowledge is an antidote to this trend. That’s why we created What Every American Should Know, an initiative that asks Americans to answer the question: “What do you think Americans should know to be civically and culturally literate?”
This series of blogs highlights significant historical properties and collections that have been preserved by Save America’s Treasures, a public-private partnership between the National Park Service and the American Architectural Foundation. These terms, and all of the terms on the growing list of What Every American Should Know, add up to a common American culture that is even greater than the sum of our diverse parts.
There’s a strong narrative today, judging by the recent flurry of executive orders and actions, that America is being overrun by immigrants and extremists who are taking away jobs and undermining the nation’s future. But we forget that narratives of alien threats have been spun by historical figures both great and forgotten – and that since its founding, America has a legacy as a welcoming home for immigrants.
Almost equally cherished is another bit of popular American lore—the Statue of Liberty and its beacon of welcome.
“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-tost to me.”
The yearning desire in Emma Lazarus’ poem, coupled with the promise of economic opportunity, proved irresistible to millions of immigrants for more than 250 years up to the present. Gold Mountain became the destination for the thousands of Chinese immigrants who sought to escape poverty in their homeland for the riches of the California Gold Rush in the 1840s. What they learned after they arrived was far different than they imagined.
Rather than finding riches, they labored to lay rails through mountains and deserts, connecting the West and the East. They drained marshlands, built fisheries and transformed the port of San Francisco. Their hard work and sacrifice soon ensnared them in a class and labor conflict with white, working men.
Race became embedded in the language of new laws and campaigns to expel them from California and elsewhere. The violence, acrimony and vilification of the Chinese culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. This was the first and only federal law to bar immigrants based on national origin. It suspended Chinese immigration for ten years, and made Chinese people ineligible for naturalization. Chinese immigration became permanently illegal in 1902. Angel Island, in San Francisco Bay, was the golden door to America from 1910 to 1940 for working-class Chinese immigrants who, despite these restrictions, could enter the US if they could prove they were related to an American citizen.
More like nearby Alcatraz than Ellis Island, Angel Island’s immigrants were confined in barracks, fed barely edible food, and had very little opportunity for recreation or time outside. Like some of today’s refugees to the US, they endured extreme vetting with hours of interviews, physical examinations, and questioning. Many of these immigrants had no relatives in America, so they bought papers that identified them as children of Chinese-American citizens. For those that succeeded in convincing their interrogators of every detail of their fake biographies they became known as paper sons and daughters.
Angel Island processed more than a million people, most of whom entered the United States immediately, spending little or no time on the island. In the shadow of this wave of approved immigrants were the Chinese and other Asian immigrants, who often spent weeks and months in confinement on the island until their cases were adjudicated.
Isolated by water and the fog that poured through the Golden Gate, many of the detainees carved poems into the walls to express their frustration, hopes, and fears. The walls and isolation created a neutral space free of shame or judgement for them to write a history of their experience. Hundreds of poems once lined these walls, yet a great many were lost when the immigration station was abandoned and forgotten after World War II. Even by the end of the war, the administration building had burned to the ground, and the women’s barracks were severely damaged by fire.
Poetry became the salvation of what remained of the immigration station. A park ranger came across these poems in 1970, just before all the structures were to be torn down. With this evidence began a decades-long effort to save both the immigration station and the poems.
With a Save America’s Treasures grant, conservators could document and assess the condition of many of the poems, strengthen the walls weakened by rot and decay to support the calligraphy, and peel away the paint and putty used to cover many undiscovered poems. The photographic record of these restored poems is as beautiful and striking as the words themselves. Most follow classical Chinese poetry in form, which is remarkable given most of these anonymous poets were teenagers, with at most a grammar school education. Most of the poems were unsigned, and a few signed only with a surname or hometown. Melancholy, homesickness, interrupted dreams, injustice, and similar themes all depicted Angel Island as a place between worlds.
Although Angel Island closed in 1940 and the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943, a precedent of exclusion had been set in policy and law. In 1941, Franklin Roosevelt with Executive Order No. 9066 added another chapter with the internment of Japanese-Americans.
Almost 120,000 Japanese-American citizens were removed from their homes to ten relocation centers. One of the processing and assembly areas was Angel Island. Once processed, these detainees moved on to camps like Tule Lake and Manzanar, both of which also received Save America’s Treasures grants to preserve and incorporate them into this nation’s shared experience.
Preservation is an act of consecration, whether it be a battlefield, a church, or poems carved in a barrack’s wall. Acts of consecration have been done over and over again by American citizens in the hope that this land and these places can live up to this country’s ideals of freedom, justice, and equality.
Angel Island, Manzanar, and Tule Lake are forebears of today’s immigration system. It’s not uncommon for asylum-seekers to be detained, with more than 400,000 being processed annually. Often transported in handcuffs, identified by number, held in prisons around the country, today’s detainees have much in common with the poets of Angel Island. Immigrants have always looked on this country with hope, and their investment in hope is evidenced by their lives and sacrifices.
These two different visions of America—one aspirational and inclusive, and the other focused on the select few who deserve the privileges of citizenship—are at the heart of today’s struggle and discourse. At stake is more than this nation’s fondness for inspirational poetry. Either Americans transform aspirations into policy and laws embracing diversity and inclusion, or they transmit a legacy of laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act.