We, The Other People

November 15, 2016 § Leave a comment


The election of Donald Trump to the presidency last week has many people in the United States worried or scared, or both.  Anxiety is running rampant across the nation.  He was elected with something less than 25% of the vote of the voting age public, which is a problem in and of itself.  He lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton.  These are all things we must keep in mind.  Many people are feeling worried about their place in Donald Trump’s America.

Many of us feel like we don’t belong, like the nation held a referendum on our right to exist, and we lost.  People of color, immigrants, women, Muslims, LGBTQ people, disabled people and many others find themselves devalued and vulnerable to harassment. Let’s join together to hold the incoming President accountable for the fear, anger and hate he has stirred in our country. Let our voices be heard; we will not allow hatred to hold sway.

We believe that if we speak truth from the heart again and again and again, our words and stories have the power to affect change.  We create a record of our dissent.  We demand our system of government work for us, not against us.  We stand our ground in a way that honors the office of the Presidency and the promises of freedom and justice for all. ’

We, the project organizers, are documentary filmmakers and public historians who are deeply committed to making sure that all people are able contribute to the historical record. We believe that stories matter and that everyone has a right to make their voices heard.

We, The Other People is a project to collect letters from Americans and immigrants who live here.  We are all protected by the Constitution of the United States of America.

So why letters? Glad you asked:

Letters to the President of the United States (POTUS) have a long tradition. Revolutionary War veterans wrote to President Washington seeking pensions that were promised but not delivered.  Escaped African American slaves petitioned President Lincoln on behalf of their families. Children beseeched President Roosevelt to help them survive the Great Depression and Jewish Americans pleaded with their President to help get their relatives out of Nazi Germany.   Japanese Americans wrote to Reagan asking him to remember the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the Cold War raged.

Across centuries, letters to the President have expressed the concerns, hopes, fears and expectations of our nation’s people. They have called on the holder of the seat of power to hear them and to be their leader.

We are collecting them for now on our website.  But, come January, we will deliver them to the White House, to deliver our message for an inclusive United States, to the president.  This will also ensure that the letters enter the official record and eventually end up officially documented in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

Immigration in the United States, plus ça change

August 7, 2014 § 8 Comments

I am doing a bit of research into the Know Nothing movement of the 1840s and 50s in the United States.  The Know Nothings were a secret society that eventually evolved into a political party, based on the premise that immigration was bad for the United States.  In short, the Know Nothings, who also formed one of the bases of the nascent Republican Party in the late 1850s, were nativists.  They believed in a United States for Americans only.  We could, of course, note the irony of that statement, given every person not of Native American heritage in this country is of immigrant stock.  But, we’ll leave that alone.  They were called Know Nothings not because they were ignorant (as my students always suppose), but because, as a secret society and asked about the society replied that they “knew nothing.”

I came across this list of things that Roman Catholics hate about the United States from the Boston Know-Nothing and American Crusader in July 1854.  The Know-Nothing and American Crusader was one of the main newspapers of the Know Nothings, and Boston was a major centre of the nativists.  Boston was ground zero, in many ways, in the ‘invasion’ of Irish immigrants and refugees in the years of the Famine and afterwards.  Here’s the list:

  1. They HATE our Republic, and are trying to overthrow it.
  2. They HATE the American Eagle, and it offends them beyond endurance to see it worn as an ornament by Americans.
  3. They HATE our Flag, as it manifest by their grossly insulting it.
  4. They HATE the liberty of conscience.
  5. They HATE the liberty of the Press.
  6. They HATE the liberty of speech.
  7. They HATE our Common School system.
  8. They HATE the Bible, and would blot it out of existence if they could!
  9. The Priests HATE married life, and yet by them is fulfilled the Scripture, to wit: ‘more are the children or the desolate, than the children of the married wife.’
  10. They HATE Protestants, and are sworn to exterminate them from our country and the earth.
  11. They HATE the name of Washington, because he was a Republican and Protestant.
  12. They HATE all rulers that do not swear allegiance to the Pope of Rome.
  13. They HATE to be ruled by Americans, and say “WE WILL NOT BE RULED BY THEM!”
  14. They HATE to support their own paupers and they are left to be supported by the tax paying Americans.
  15. They HATE, above all, the ‘Know Nothings,’ who are determined to rid this country of their accursed power.

The author of this wonderful list signed his name as “Uncle Sam.”  Newspapers in general allowed correspondents to use anonymous pseudonyms in the 19th century, so this isn’t surprising.  But the nom de plume of our correspondent is telling of the cause of the Know Nothings.

As I am doing this research, I’m thinking back to my experiences in June, when I was told by a table mate that the AP Reading I was at that I don’t belong in the United States because I “don’t love America” (I don’t “love” Canada, either, for the record).  And, thenthen, on the way home, at a layover in Dallas, another traveller, watching the news, told me that all immigrants should be rounded up and deported (this one didn’t know I was an immigrant).  And as I watch the drama unfold about the refugee children from Central America in this country, and see the horrible rhetoric coming from the right wing, I can’t help but think that, even if 170 years have passed since “Uncle Sam” published his list of things Catholics hate in The Know-Nothing and American Crusader, in some ways, nothing has changed.  The rhetoric of “Uncle Sam” echoes that of some far right politicians, commentators, and regular citizens I’ve seen on Twitter in the past month.

Of course, the Know Nothings were never a majority of Americans, any more than those so violently opposed and hard-hearted to the plight of children today are even close to a majority.  The overwhelming majority of Americans then and now do not have a problem with immigration and immigrants.  But, then as now, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

On Immigration, Redux

June 21, 2014 § 2 Comments

In response to my post on immigration and immigrants, my friends and I got into a discussion on Facebook, comparing the political rhetoric in the US, Canada, and the UK.  Certainly, attitudes such as that expressed by my Dallas friend exist in Canada and the UK.  And there are similarities and differences between the old Anglo-Atlantic triangle.  Canada takes in more immigrants per capita than any other nation in the world (bet you didn’t know that) and the United States takes in more immigrants in absolute numbers than any other nation in the world (bet you did know that).  Canada, however, while it does have some undocumented immigrants, does not have the same issues as the United States (which likely has the highest number of undocumented people in it) and the United Kingdom.  The UK gets the undocumented through Europe and its former empire, as aspirants sneak into the nation, or overstay their visas (if you want a heartbreaking account of the undocumented in the UK, I point you to Chris Cleave’s Little Bee, or, as it’s called in Cleave’s native UK, The Other Hand).

But. There is one fundamental difference between the three nations.  In Canada and the United Kingdom, the political parties that pander to racism and anti-immigration positions (and let’s leave the undocumented out of this for now, ok?) are not in the mainstream.  Certainly, these types exist in Canada’s governing Conservative Party, but they are not in the centre of the party, at the cabinet table, etc.  And in the UK, there are certainly a few in the governing Conservative Party that express these views, but they are also similarly on the margins, and the odious UKIP party is a fringe movement.  Whereas, here in the United States, the Republican Party panders to this mindset.  It doesn’t mean, of course, that the GOP does much about to tighten immigration laws when in power, but, it still gives credence to arguments such as my Dallas friend’s.  It seeks the vote of the likes of him.  So, ultimately, anti-immigration positions are very much nearer the mainstream in the United States than in Canada or the United Kingdom.

On Immigration

June 20, 2014 § 8 Comments

Earlier this week, I was told I shouldn’t be living in the United States because I don’t “love America.”  Dismissing this comment was easy enough, it came in response to the fact I am not cheering for the US at the World Cup (France, Argentina, and then any underdog, if you must know).  But. Yesterday, at the Dallas/Fort Worth airport, a wealthy-looking, white, middle-aged man went on a rant about immigrants (not knowing I am one, he assumed because I was also white and middle-class, I must be American).  Something was on FoxNews on the TV in the lounge, I wasn’t paying attention.  I presume that’s what set this guy off.  He told me that immigrants do not belong in the United States, that they do not bring anything to the country, that they’re a drain on the resources of “this great nation.”  He opined that no immigrants whatsoever should be let into the country.  He didn’t go so far as to suggest they be rounded up and deported, though I have seen that opinion expressed on Twitter a few times.  At any rate, when I told him I was an immigrant, he looked a little confused for a second and then said, “Oh, I don’t mean you.”  I pointed out he clearly did, he said “all immigrants” are a drain and that “none” should be let in.  I walked away, leaving him looking like the idiot he was.

This unsettled me.  It’s one thing for an idiot to get mad at me for not cheering for the US in the World Cup.  That’s just knee-jerk idiocy.  It’s another for a guy to have a well-formulated, if ignorant, argument about the cost of immigration.  And before someone dismisses this as “well, that’s Texas,” let me point out that Texas is an immigrant-rich society, and not just Mexicans and other Hispanics, but also South and South East Asians.  And, for the most part, Texas, at least the cities, have integrated cultures.

At any rate, I stewed over this the rest of the day and on the flight home to Boston.  And then I got a cab home. My cabbie was from Guinea.  He couldn’t be much older than his early 30s, and he said he’s been in the US for 11 years, and made sure to note he has a Green Card.  We talked about the heat (it was hot here yesterday), the World Cup, and Montréal, and we spoke some in French.  I was his last fare of the day, the end of a 12-hour shift, 6am-6pm.  The end of a 6-day run driving a cab around Boston and the North Shore.  Today, he was up at 3am to get to work at 4am, at Dunkin’ Donuts, where he worked 4-12, as a baker.  Tomorrow, he’s back in his cab, 6am-6pm, but he is off Monday.  He works 60-70 hours a week driving a cab, and another 8-16 hours baking at Dunkin’ Donuts for a very simple reason: he needs to take care of his parents, his brother, his nieces and nephews back in Guinea.  He hasn’t been home in four years, but he keeps working to send money home.  Meanwhile, he’s also got a son here in the States, who he gets to see sometimes when he’s not working, though he supports his kid.

We often talk about how tired we are, because we’re always busy, working, etc.  But this guy was exhaustion personified.  He had dark rings under his eyes, and though he was at least pretending to be happy, his exhaustion came through.  And I thought, well, here is the face of immigration to the United States (or Canada. Or Britain.  Or France.  Or Germany).  A guy working himself to the bone at two jobs, partly to get himself ahead a little bit, but also to take care of his son, and to take care of his family back home.  He estimated if he just had to worry about himself and his son, he could quit Dunkin’ Donuts and only work 3-4 days a week driving a cab.  But, he has responsibilities and obligations.

I enjoyed talking to him, though I feel horrible for him.  But I respected his attitude, that he had to do this, it was his responsibility to his son, his parents, his brother, his nieces and nephews.  This is the immigrant life.  It is not, as my Texan friend claims, collecting welfare (immigrants can’t, just so you know, though refugees are entitled to some support), procreating, and being drug dealers, prostitutes, and terrorists.

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