How to Speak UP and Speak Out
By Kate O'Brien-Nicholson
5th November 2019
I am a writer and a historian. As such, I am compelled to deliver to my readers accurate information. Fireworks are not my brand. Rather I prefer to develop factual and, importantly, entertaining narratives, which nudge readers to continue reading, thinking, and ultimately acting on the conclusions they draw from my work.
I am particularly concerned when writing a history not to inject my opinion, but rather to engage the reader by delivering real news. However, it’s truly impossible to write a history without injecting opinion—and if it’s done responsibly, I think it’s fine.
In this context, I’d like to explain how I approached my latest book, Lady Liberty: An Illustrated History of America’s Most Storied Woman. I should mention, too, that acclaimed artist Antonio Masi’s paintings appear exclusively in the book.
We discover how the Lady evolved…from the artistic vision of Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, the engineering genius of Gustave Eiffel to the unforgettable sonnet, The New Colossus by poet Emma Lazarus, who conjured a “Golden Door” welcoming immigrants and refugees while also giving the Lady a heartfelt purpose and meaning. In writing this book—a story that started as an illustrated history of a statue—the narrative soon linked to America’s past and present immigration history.
Tracing America’s immigration history and distilling it into readable prose and then drawing certain conclusions was the most difficult part of writing this book and required as much self-control as I could muster because I had strong opinions on the subject before beginning my research and writing. My goal was not to write a polemic. But provide an accurate portrait of American immigration policies, concluding with the current administration’s policies regarding immigration
Immigration high points (depending on your view, perhaps the low points) are as follows:
Starting with Native Americans, it was clear early on that America would be a bountiful nation—and that Native Americans would never share in the bounty. The Early Settlers were mostly English, Dutch, French, Germans, Irish and Scandinavians. They came from northern Europe and were sprung from Anglo-Saxon stock. Farmers, laborers, capable and hard-working, they integrated into the country well.
The first anti-Immigration laws were passed in 1875 and limited entry of Chinese laborers, who played such a big role in building the railroads. Post the Civil War, which ended in 1865, it was clear that immigrants would be essential to the building and rebuilding of America.
From 1900-1924, 24 million Great Wave immigrants coming mainly from Eastern Europe, entered the country. They were not welcomed with open arms.
World War I brought mass immigration to a halt. War inflamed growing suspicions of immigrants and nativist and racist organizations, such as the Klu Klux Klan, which terrorized African Americans, Catholics and Jews.
1924 was a big year in immigration history. The Johnson-Reed Act, post-World War I, deliberately limited immigration by enacting permanent restrictions designed to keep out eastern Europeans, particularly Jews, Italians, Africans and Middle Easterners. By the way, if former Attorney General Jeff Sessions had his way, he would have brought back the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act when he joined the Trump Administration.
The history obviously goes on, but as we pause and review American immigration history up to 1924, one cannot help but note what has become a familiar American immigration policy emerging—a policy that champions mostly new immigrants who are white and who look, act and speak like Americans.
Clearly, as time moves on, World War II was a disaster for Jews, Italians, gypsies and most of Europe. Six million Jews perished and only a few were allowed entry despite President Roosevelt’s and Eleanor Roosevelt’s efforts. JFK talked about reforming the Johnson Reed Act. But was murdered before he could. Reagan saw a land with walls, but the walls had doors. Martin Luther King said: “We may have all come on different ships. But we’re all in same boat now.” Obama could not rescue the Dreamers, though he wanted to.
So, we see, throughout the end of the 20th century and now in the 21st Century, America’s record on immigration is marred.
A critical question in the Lady Liberty narrative for me was that I wanted to understand if Trump’s anti-immigration policies are truly long-standing American policies?
Put another way: Are we a nation subsumed by nativism, racism, sexism, tribalism and rising isolationism? Or are Trump’s policies a tragic anomaly?
Seen in this light, Trump’s 21st century immigration policies are historically consistent with many of America’s immigration policies throughout its history.
So, what does this epic gift of Lady Liberty from the French people 133 years ago truly represent today in the gnawing miseries of the 21st Century?
My wish is that the public read Lady Liberty and arrive at their own conclusions, and then, hopefully, have the content and courage to speak up and speak out.
As for me, my job is done.
#ReadUP #SpeakUP #WeAreUP #TurnItUP
READ. THINK. ACT.
Check out today’s UP Week blog posts from other university presses:
University of South Carolina Press
University of British Columbia Press