American Dissonance Or Renaissance

American Dissonance or Renaissance

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, 
With conquering limbs astride from land to land, 
Here at our sea-washed, sunset- gates shall stand 
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame 
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name 
Mothers of Exile. From her beacon hand 
Glows world-wide welcome, her mild eyes command 
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame. 

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” she cries 
With a silent lips, “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, 
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” 

The quote above is from “New Colossus”, written by Emma Lazarus and inscribed on a bronze plaque located in the Statue of Liberty exhibit. It has come to symbolize America's universal message of hope and freedom for immigrants coming to America and people seeking freedom around the world. 

Recently, it has been quoted in reference to protests against the flood of undocumented children arriving in America from Central America; however, this quote has been a persistent presence in my thoughts for the past 5 years, during which fear and disdain of “the other” has been on the ascent in the U.S., seemingly without check. This morning, I felt compelled to express what I have been feeling and internalizing for too long. I have no expectation beyond simply exhaling at this moment.

To me, this quote and the idea it expresses, has become the defining symbol of America to many around the world. And as an immigrant I can personally attest to the power of this symbol within immigrant communities, and to the character of people from around the world that it resonates with. 

The “tired, .. poor,” “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” “wretched refuse;” and “the homeless, tempest-tost"are not diseased, parasites wishing to tear America down. In contrast, these are brave, courageous risk-takers. Souls who dare to be ambitious despite their present stations in life. These souls are among the best, the brightest and the most resilient from each corner of the world. America offers them a chance to be better, to do better. They offer America their hopes, dreams, labor, love and gratitude.

Like the immigrants who came before them they yearn to be their better selves and are eternally grateful to America for giving them hope, and opportunity. For this, they are prepared, like those who came before them, to contribute in small and great ways to realizing and perpetuating the American Dream.

However, unlike earlier immigrants, today's immigrants are seemingly not welcome here. They are largely met with undisguised contempt and xenophobia, driven more by fear and clannish self-interest, than by the grace and esteem commensurate with a great nation and a great people. The opposition is ostensibly based on genuine concern and desire to preserve and "reclaim our country.” Is preservation of the American Spirit, the source of the American Dream – contributed to, sustained and revitalized through successive waves of immigration from the founding of this nation until today – also a concern?

When my own family immigrated to the U.S. over 40 years ago we were met by people who embodied the recognition that the American Dream was the product of the American Spirit – the hopes, dreams, and constructive labor of those born here as well as all who came from elsewhere to these esteemed shores. From gang-ridden Harlem to Connecticut suburbs, our experience was similar. Acceptance first. Judgment deferred until sufficient facts could be discerned about the individual. Ambition was encouraged, celebrated and rewarded. This behavior was uniform. It could be seen in teachers, neighbors, employers, co-workers. There were pockets of outliers, but they were just that, outliers. The mood was set, not by the outliers; but by the enlightened, gracious many.

What happened to the enlightened and gracious many? They now appear to be the outliers. I sincerely hope that they are simply the silent majority now - temporarily overshadowed by a vocal, scared minority. The opposite is a terrifying thought because it would signal a corruption of the American Spirit, the extinguishing of Lady Liberty's torch, the beacon of hope for people all around the world. Hope for a new life in a welcoming land for those fortunate enough to make it to American shores. And hope for freedom and a better life for those who cannot leave their homelands.

As an immigrant who knows first-hand the ennobling power of the idea of America as seen by the “tired, .. poor,” “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” the “wretched refuse;” and “the homeless, tempest-tost,” I grieve and tremble at the thought of this beacon extinguished. In my opinion, the loss of that beacon will be the beginning of a slide into dark self-centered-ness for America and the world .. at a time when the opposite is most required. 

My hope is to see the alternative: public embrace and demonstration of the courage and grace embodied by generations of Americans who believed, and still believe, in the welcoming idea of America, the American Dream and the American Spirit – and not simply America as a place that needs to be protected and reclaimed from “the other.”

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