Caryl Phillips - Official Web Site

"A Beacon in Dark Times"

A poet writing 150 years ago defined the Statue of Liberty as 'the mother of exiles.' As America prepares to celebrate Thanksgiving next week, Caryl Phillips reflects on the very different welcome its immigrant communities receive today. (The Guardian, November 23, 2003)

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses...

The Statue of Liberty has been one of the most universal symbols of political freedom and democracy. Dedicated on October 28, 1886, it became an iconic emblem for the 12 million anxious immigrants in steerage and third class who, between 1892 and 1954, entered the United States through the port of New York.

For them the sight of Lady Liberty with her upraised torch meant their journey to the New World was almost complete. They knew they had finally reached a place of refuge that would shelter them from poverty, religious persecution, hostile, oppressive governments and tyrannical dictators, and they knew that in this new land they would be free, perhaps for the first time, to embrace opportunity. In 1903 a bronze plaque was affixed to the pedestal of the statue, and inscribed on the plaque was a short poem entitled "The New Colossus" by a poet who had died 16 years earlier, aged only 38.

Emma Lazarus was born in 1849 into a prominent Jewish family in New York City, and she devoted her short life to literature. She published a novel, a play and two collections of poetry, and she regarded Ralph Waldo Emerson as her model. Her concern with nature, her undefined faith and her transcendentalist ideas gave her writing an ethereal quality, although "The New Colossus" was, for her, an entirely different type of poem.

Moved by the lamentable conditions of the hordes of immigrants arriving in New York City, in 1881 Lazarus visited a temporary immigrants' shelter on Ward's Island in the East River and soon became an advocate of refugee interests. Her poem honours the Statue of Liberty, and its enduring genius is that it gives the statue a raison d'être that it previously lacked. She calls Lady Liberty "the mother of exiles" and imagines her standing at the "golden door", the threshold of this new American land, and speaking with her silent lips, crying out to the old, pompous lands across the seas:

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!

Some years ago I decided that I too wanted to live in the United States, albeit for a short while, in part because of the idealised optimism of the country's national motto, E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, One). Thirteen years later I still live in the United States, in recklessly hybrid New York City, where 40% of the population is foreign-born, where 120 languages are daily spoken, where every major religion is practised.

In this teeming metropolis, rich and poor, black and white, Hispanic and Asian, Jew and Christian, citizen and refugee are thrown together and compelled to interact with each other. The tension and energy of the city is positive, if not quite annealing - and then came September 11, 2001. A different United States began to emerge, and the new national mood is undeniably having a great effect upon the city of New York.

Immigrants have come from all corners of the world and sailed past the Statue of Liberty and into the heart of the global city. On that mournful September morning, people from more than 90 different countries lost their lives in the twin towers. Immigrant city. But after September 11, immigrant city betrayed. In truth, the national motto should now be "Out of Some, One." This is not the programme I signed up for.

A few days ago I rode out into New York Harbour on the Staten Island Ferry for a close-up glimpse of the Statue of Liberty. As I suspected, this different United States of America is proving difficult for Lady Liberty to bear. I swear she now has her eyes closed.

In the late 19th century, when immigrants were pouring off the boats from Europe, anti-immigrant sentiment was often strong. A great number of the large influx of immigrants from Ireland, Russia, Germany and other European countries were Roman Catholic or Jewish, which encouraged many Americans publicly to voice anti-immigrant, and specifically, anti-Catholic and anti-semitic, sentiments.

On arrival these "exotic" newcomers were regarded as "not-quite-white", but most were actively in the transitional stages of becoming "white". This upward mobility would, of course, eventually open doors for them in terms of union membership, social benefits and housing. Inevitably, as they moved up they locked non-whites, particularly African-Americans, into the lowest-paying jobs or worse, kept them from jobs altogether.

In today's United States, immigrants from the Hispanic world or those from the east Asia represent those who are in the transitional stage of becoming white and, a century on, their upward mobility merely confirms the existence of a racially discriminatory system that effectively keeps blacks pegged to the bottom rung of the socio-economic ladder. After September 11, however, immigrants from the Arab, south-east Asian and Muslim worlds, many of whom might, in normal circumstances, have been considered transitional in today's United States, now find themselves trapped at the bottom of the pile, and below blacks.

This situation has come to pass because, in the wake of the 2001 attacks on New York City and Washington DC, the founding principles of the American legal system have been severely undermined. On October 25, 2001, attorney-general John Ashcroft presented the USA Patriot Act for ratification. Astonishingly, 98 out of 99 voting senators passed the 342-page document without public debate and before most of them had even read it. This act ushered into being the terrorist information awareness programme, which actively encouraged individuals to spy on their neighbours, and it allowed the FBI to collect data on the ordinary activity of citizens, including their credit-card charges, library-book withdrawals and enrollment in university courses.

Anti-war demonstrators, pacifists and members of certain groups were to be systematically listed in computer data banks of potential "traitors", and the programme gave the government the right to indefinitely seize and hold US citizens deemed to be "enemy combatants". The secret detention and deportation of immigrants without having to charge them with a crime was now permitted, and the administration had the right to refuse to release the names of any detainees, and to hold their court proceedings behind closed doors.

The people most affected by these developments were not immigrants who were white, or well on the way to becoming white, they were immigrants who because of their religion or ethnicity looked as though they might be terrorists. This post-September 11 government crackdown on targeted immigrants was extended in November 2002 when the immigration service issued a special registrations directive announcing that men over 16 years of age from 25 "suspect" Arab, south-east Asian and Muslim countries were to register with the department of justice.

Citizens and those with green cards were exempted, but those teaching or studying or on extended business trips, tourist visas, or visiting family or friends, were to report. This included individuals whose visas or papers had expired, or those with pending applications for either a green card or naturalisation: 82,000 people came forward and registered and approximately 13,000, or 16% of them, suddenly found themselves facing deportation for immigration violations. In fact, many were arrested for simply not having "sufficient" documentation with them when registering.

Such "violations" committed by a Mexican or Albanian immigrant would not be pursued, enforced, nor punished in the same way. A number of those who have now been deported were entirely innocent people who had been waiting for months or years for their official and legal applications to be processed, and then suddenly they found themselves caught up in a bureaucratic nightmare. Profiled because of their Arab-sounding names, their countries of origin or their religion, the situation would be farcical, were it not so tragic.

It was John Quincy Adams who pointed out in 1821 that if the United States were tempted to "become dictatress of the world, she would no longer be the ruler of her own spirit". For much of the 20th century this great nation of immigration, reinvention, new beginnings, and yes, freedom for so many people, has managed to maintain its vigour and enthusiasm. But it has done so, in part, by averting its eyes from the stain of genocide and slavery at the inception of the republic, and the bullying and posturing that has characterised its adventuring in other people's countries throughout the past century.

However, the present administration has brazenly used the events of September 11 to justify its expansionist foreign policy, quickly fusing the name of Osama bin Laden with that of Saddam Hussein, and suggesting that a "war on terrorism" is somehow the same thing as a military assault on Iraq.

This is lamentable, but perhaps the most treasonable of all deeds it has carried out has been its assault, in the name of "security", upon immigrants. The United States has, to use a phrase ascribed to the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, stepped on the throat of its own song. Adams was right; the policy of targeting immigrants - the very lifeblood of the nation - because of their ethnicity or religion, means the country has betrayed itself. Indeed, she is no longer the ruler of her own spirit.

Some time after September 11, a journal of remembrances was opened at Liberty Island and visitors from all over the world were invited to share their thoughts. Predictably, the sentiments ranged from the insightful and thought-provoking to the truly banal, but the word most commonly used was "freedom". An entry from Georgia was typical: "They may have taken the Trade Centres, but they can never take our freedom or pride. This gorgeous statue represents so much!"

Indeed it does. But in a way "they"—meaning the catch-all phrase, terrorists—have, in fact, succeeded in taking away so many, many freedoms along with the twin towers. But let us be clear; the people who organised the removal of these freedoms were, of course, the United States government. Not only are Lady Liberty's eyes closed tight, she is also squirming in shame.

The great and enduring strength of the United States is that it is an immigrant society subject to continual waves of replenishment from outside. Such is the desire to participate that one person every day is killed trying to enter the country. These "new" people bring with them new narratives, which grow and flourish in the very heart and bosom of the society, narratives that find expression in music, theatre, dance, film, and literature. These "new" people are not only vital to the economic health of the country, they are also the keepers of the cultural and artistic flame. However, after September 11, it is precisely these people who are being hounded and persecuted by the government, and their fealty to the country is being questioned. Their desire to construct narratives has not been stilled, but their new tales are counter-narratives, which seek to explain their situation.

The urge to tell a story is the oldest of human impulses, for it clarifies and orders the relationship between the private and the public, our inner and outer worlds, and it records the dissonance between these two spheres of existence. This being the case, storytelling has always been a logical form for the migrant to utilise to try to capture the conundrum of his own, often precarious, situation in the world. While I remain dismayed by the domestic and foreign chaos that the United States continues to unleash upon its own people, and millions of foreign citizens, I am comforted by the knowledge that her folly will be recorded and exposed by the narratives of those whose private and public lives have been thrown into turmoil by the iniquities of White House policies.

This new work will be written and performed in English, and it will tell us what happened when the Americans arrived, uninvited, in their country. This work will tell us what happened when the FBI came to lock up daddy. Or why grandad ended up in a jail cell in New Jersey for two years, when he had committed no crime. This work will tell us what happened when one morning, after 10 years of tax-paying, law-abiding residence, the police threw us out of our home. What happened when a neighbourhood gang burned down our mosque. What happened when the immigration officer took away our passports. Narratives of belonging and betrayal.

Earlier this year in New York City, In What Language?, a piece of musical theatre by Vijay Iyer, the son of Indian immigrants, opened off off-Broadway. The work explored how ill-formed suspicions of Arabs, south-east Asians and Muslims in American airports are making life in transit impossible for this group of the population. (The phrase "Flying While Brown" can now be added to that equally pithy, but accurate description of American discrimination, "Driving While Black".)

At another theatre in the city, a play entitled Come Undone recently premiered; a series of moving monologues, from a young girl's bewilderment at her father's disappearance, to an immigration service agent's rant, to a Sikh woman's humorous conversation with an arsonist. In My Own Skin is a filmed documentary meditation with five young Arab-American women talking about their lives in the unforgiving climate most have had to endure in the past two years. Films, plays, poetry, dance pieces, artistic installations, short stories and monologues already exist, but more work will follow, and we are probably witnessing the birth of a new kind of American artistic and literary expression; work that brings us the voices of people who feel stunned and bruised by the abuses of American power at home and abroad.

The present-day United States of America is faced with a familiar situation; in some ways the eternal stand-off. On the one side we find the poet and on the other side the emperor. Whose version of history do we wish to listen to? Whose version of history will prevail? Already I hear an insistent whispering from the poet, and ultimately it is the poet who will revive the spirit of the nation and lend dignity to the people.

During the past century we have heard, in Latin America, in eastern Europe, in Africa, in China, the moral authority of the individual voice raised against tyranny, the voice of a person who refuses to look the other way, who is determined to explain himself, who is unafraid to challenge the might of the emperor, who insists on telling his truth.

It is the poet who will eventually enable Lady Liberty once more to open her eyes, and when she does so she might glance down to her feet and there she will find the words of a poet. "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses." Such dignity. Such dark times.