On the powerful writings through which a prison became something more.
One of the main premises underlying both my motivations in creating this blog and many of the topics with which I’ve dealt here—and, for that matter, much of my scholarly work and teaching more broadly—is that in focusing as we tend to on the overtly and easily inspirational and ideal aspects of our national histories and identities, we Americans elide not only the more difficult and dark sides but also some more genuinely and profoundly inspirational and ideal stories and voices. And I’m not sure any duality can better exemplify that premise than that between Ellis and Angel Islands. Ellis is a great example of an overtly and pretty easily inspirational and ideal site, and I don’t mean that in a dismissive way; while certainly there were more troubling aspects of Ellis (such as the medical tests and quarantines) that we have downplayed, there’s no doubt that the place does represent the point of arrival for many hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of new Americans, and that it is thus without question the physical counterpart to and manifestation of Emma Lazarus’ poem, the first space in which those huddled masses could perhaps begin to breathe free and could certainly embark on the next stages of their American journeys. My own maternal great-grandparents most likely came to America through Ellis around the turn of the 20th century, so I get the place it holds in our individual and collective narratives for sure.
Angel Island, in San Francisco Bay, served as the “Ellis Island of the West” (as it was sometimes known) for a much briefer time, from 1910 to 1940, although it is estimated that at least two hundred thousand and perhaps as many as a million immigrants (most but not all from China and Japan) were processed through it during those decades. Yet the realities of the immigration laws under which Angel existed—first the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and then the even more restrictive and xenophobic Asian Exclusion Act of 1924—made Angel Island into a much more complicated space than Ellis, one that at best entailed extensive interrogations and challenges to its arrivals and at worst (and much of the time) became a prison, one in which Asian immigrants could expect to live for years before they were offered the opportunity to travel to the mainland (if they were not simply turned away). And just as prisoners often carve their voices (or at least their chronologies) into their cell walls, so too did many of Angel Island’s inhabitants create an amazing body of impromptu communal poetry on its walls—those folk literary texts, which were collected and published as early as the 1930s and are given new voice for the 21st century at this site, are an amazing record of heartbreak and hope, of the squalid and painful conditions that greeted arrivals at Angel and yet the continuing faith with which they endured their years there and because of which they continued to fight for the chance to join the nation that lay outside its walls.
Yet the story of Angel Island, like the story of Asian immigration in this time period (and really up until the 1965 immigration act) more generally, entailed more of the heartbreak than the hope for far too high of a percentage of those who experienced it. And it is those darker sides that are at the heart of one of America’s greatest short stories, Sui Sin Far’s “In the Land of the Free” (1912; most of it, although unfortunately not the conclusion, is available at page 93). Only the final, briefest and most devastating section of Far’s story is set on Angel Island itself (or a parallel holding station), since the story’s two adult characters (a Chinese American husband and wife) have been lucky enough to gain entry to the nation and begin to create a new life here, in San Francisco’s Chinatown; but since it is their infant son who has been detained upon his first arrival to America at the story’s opening (the wife returned to China to care for her dying mother-in-law and gave birth while there), it is quite literally the case that their family and future are likewise detained, held in a state of uncertainty and limbo as the story’s events play out. No paraphrase or summary can do justice to Far’s concluding section, nor to her story’s overall engagement with the ideals and the realities of American life through the lens of this fictional family and very real place and issue; but since that conclusion is apparently not available online, I will say that it is both understated and yet one of the most profoundly tragic moments in American literature, a moment that for any parent—and any empathetic person for that matter—brings home the human cost of the period’s exclusionary laws and of the worst possible meanings of Angel Island.
The Chinese Exclusion Act and its aftermath created some of the most adverse and painful situations faced by immigrants and Americans; and yet, as both the Angel Island poetry and Far’s story illustrate in their own ways, in the midst of those most brutal experiences we can find some of the most inspiring and ideal American words, identities, and voices. More tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Powerful responses to adversity you’d highlight?10/22 Memory Day nominees: A tie between two nearly mythic American icons whose actual experiences and identities, while complex and controversial, also comprise some of the bravest choices in our history, Daniel Boone and John Reed.
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