America: A nation of paradoxes
America is a nation of paradoxes. On one hand, it is a nation that has symbolized freedom to many immigrants, as poignantly illustrated in Emma Lazarus' poem "The New Colossus," a poem included on the famed Statue of Liberty that greeted so many refugees as they strove to escape from Europe and avoid intolerable situations. The Lazarus poem proclaims the dawning a new America, free of class restrictions, which can offer prosperity even to the poorest new arrival. Yet federal policies in regards to African-Americans and Native Americans have been marked by injustice and prejudice. The American Dream of egalitarianism exists next to an ugly strain of racism that has run through the thread of American history since its inception.
Emma Lazarus' poem is perhaps the most explicit, famous rendition of the American dream: "Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp... / Give me your tired, your poor, / your huddled masses yearning to breathe free" (9-11). The poem creates a clear contrast between the oppression of Europe, despite its supposed superior culture, and the promise of America. The statue is called the 'Mother of Exiles' who offers "world-wide welcome" to all. This is the American ideal, the America of popular myth.
During the early 19th century, America indeed seemed to embody some aspects of the Lazarus poem in reality. America did become considerably more diverse in terms of its ethnic composition. "The most visible manifestation of diversity in 1900 was the multitude of nationalities, languages, and cultures within the white population….more than one-third of the U.S. population was composed of immigrants from Europe and their children. About half the immigrants in 1900 were considered to be 'old immigrants,' meaning that they came from the traditional sending countries of Great Britain and northwestern Europe. The rest, including Italians, Slavs, Greeks, Poles, East European Jews, and many other groups from southern and eastern Europe, were labeled 'new immigrants'" (Hirshman 595). In fact, a greater proportion of the U.S. population was made up of immigrants in the 19th century vs. The 21st. "Only 54% of the population in 1900 was native-born white of native parentage, compared with 62% in 2000" (Hirshman 595). However, these immigrants often faced considerable prejudice and the 'new immigrants' were often considered to be nonwhite (including the Irish and Italians) and treaded accordingly.
Yet in the poetic rhetoric of the age, this diversity was often celebrated, despite the difficulties faced by new immigrants. The ideal of American democracy is similarly embodied in Walt Whitman's vision of New York City in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry." Whitman paints a picture of the ferry that depicts it as something that all human beings in New York can enjoy and benefit from: when he uses it, he participate in a larger conversation with American democracy, a conversation which will continue even after he is gone.
"Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high;
A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,
Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring in of the flood-tide, the falling back to the sea of the ebb-tide (17-19).
However, this sunny, uncomplicated vision of America is not enjoyed by all. In the essay "Will Smith's defense of his race," the writer notes "to the Negro alone, politics will bear no fruit" (Smith 749). While Irish immigrants have been able to mobilize and generate common support politically according to Smith, African-Americans have been denied their voting rights due spurious claims of miscegenation and rape. The Irish, once despised, now dominate politics in the North while African-Americans are segregated and denied parity with whites. Historians have since argued that "the Irish 'became white' by distinguishing themselves from those who were not [White]. As longshoremen and steelworkers, they...
It was argued that a "Negro educated is a Negro spoiled" and that education was 'wasted' upon the Negro, yet "of what use has education been to you in the upbuilding of the political and social structure which you designate the United States of America," asks Smith (Smith 750). Smith implies that a good education is worth very great deal, underlining the role education plays in social mobility in America. Racism is the root of any alleged crimes of African-Americans against whites, stresses Smith, underlining the lack of party of the social conditions of the races an also the fact that the South in particular is not a place where African-Americans can "breathe free" like the immigrants of the Lazarus poem.
Of course, it could be argued that prejudice was at the foundation of America, given the destruction done to the Native American way of life at its inception. As noted by Walter Echo Hawk in his essay "Justice, Injustice, and the Dark Side of American Indian Law," although the courts did strike down segregation against African-Americans in Brown v. Board of Education and even allowed the religious minority of the Amish to suspend formal education at eighth grade (arguing that protecting their religious freedom was more important than compulsory high school) in the case of Native Americans there have not been similarly liberal protections (Echo-Hawk 30-31). Furthermore, even though eventually the U.S. Supreme Court did grant parity to African-Americans in education, this was only after many years of using the law to deny them their rights, as seen in cases like Plessy v. Ferguson and the Dred Scott decision. No matter how great the proclamations of American freedom have been, the enforcement of freedom has often been wanting.
This irony is also seen in "Unguarded Gates" by Thomas Bailey Aldrich who begins his poem with the words:
WIDE open and unguarded stand our gates,
Named of the four winds, North, South, East, and West;
Portals that lead to an enchanted land (1-3)
However, that enchanted land of America is not enchanted equally for all. "But if a slave's foot press it sets him free. / Here, it is written, Toil shall have its wage," notes Aldrich. Aldrich ends his poem with an ominous warning of the legacy that hate and denial of justice can lead, ultimately leading to the destruction of the American dream:
Have a care
Lest from thy brow the clustered stars be torn
And trampled in the dust. For so of old
The thronging Goth and Vandal trampled Rome,
And where the temples of the Cesar's stood
The lean wolf unmolested made her lair (37-41)
For African-Americans, the struggle was the desire to become a part of the American firmament: returning to Africa was no longer a possibility for most, given the degree to which they had assimilated, for better or for worse, into American society. But for Native Americans, the struggle was the opposite -- to preserve their culture in a land which wished to deny it. Perhaps the most scarring legacy of American prejudice upon the Indians of the 19th century was the development of so-called Indian boarding schools in which young Native American children were taken away from their families and forced to copy the mannerisms of whites. The idea for the schools came from an Army officer named Richard H. Pratt, who supported "removing Indian children from their culture and subjecting them to strict discipline and hard work would force their assimilation into mainstream society" (Vanderpool 14). "Pratt's famous dictum was straightforward: 'Kill the Indian and save the man.' School officials prohibited children from speaking native languages, and punished transgressors" (Vanderpool 14). The rationale behind the 1897 program was extremely ruthless and cynical: it was deemed cheaper to socialize and convert Native Americans than it was to fight them. There also may have been a not-so-subtle desire…
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