Imagine this scene: A terrified young man scrapes at the earth, trying to coax food from a tiny plot of soil. Despite his efforts, he watches as first his parents and then his child starve to death. Around him, angry vigilantes prowl the countryside as hated government officials cast people from their homes. Desperate to survive, the man sets off for the coast with his wife and remaining child, hoping to find passage across the sea.
The small family makes its way across a devastated land. Whole villages have been abandoned; the doors and windows of homes gape open in silent horror. Sickness, disease, and starvation are everywhere. Stumbling along, the family watches as others simply give up, lay down beside the road, and die. But with persistence and a bit of luck, the trio make it to the city of Cork on the coast of Ireland and find passage on a westbound ship.
So begins the story of the Irish in America, but so too begins the story of America as an idea and an ideal — of this nation as something much more than just a place on the map. We imagine ourselves as a people because we hold such stories in common and pass them down through generations. They almost always begin with someone in desperate circumstances who courageously strikes out for a new life. It’s the story of the pilgrims who fled religious oppression in Europe, of the five tribes brutally forced onto the Trail of Tears, and of the waves of black Americans who moved north and west to escape the domestic terrorism of the Jim Crow South.
These origin stories might begin in shame but we work hard to make sure that they end in pride. That’s why our nation’s most iconic site is not a building or a battlefield, but a 300-foot bronze statue in New York harbor that bears the name “Mother of Exiles.” The poem inscribed on her base invites not the wealthy and powerful of the world, but the tired, the poor, and the homeless. For them, it proclaims, “I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
That poem was written in 1883 by a woman named Emma Lazarus, who traced her own ancestry back to America’s very first Jewish immigrants. The Lazarus family had prospered, and Emma could have simply enjoyed a life of luxurious isolation. Instead, she looked with horror at a swelling tide of anti-Semitism that was sweeping through Russia and into Europe, pushing desperate people to the sea and the safety of American shores. In the scant 14 lines now inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, she rekindled the American beacon that might lead them to safety.
The Lazarus family had been American since before the United States existed, but Emma was also acutely aware of her German-Jewish heritage and was an early Zionist who believed in the importance of creating a Jewish homeland. This might seem like a paradox. How, after all, could a women so deeply woven into the American fabric still think herself German or believe in the necessity of a Jewish state?
Americans know, however, that this is no paradox at all. So many of us come from elsewhere and tracing the family tree is among our most popular national pastimes. Our roots, we quickly learn, reach across the globe, and they grow more knotted with each generation — giving our families and our nation ever-greater strength. To embrace America, however, does not mean that we must forget our past. Instead, we can celebrate our diverse heritages — Irish, Nigerian, Mexican, Syrian — knowing that at the same time, we are all American to the core.
The language of blood and soil and the ugly white nationalism that now suddenly blights our politics has no place in the American ideal. Like Emma Lazarus, I refuse to see an America defined by militarized border walls and deportation agents. Instead, I see a safe harbor, lit brightly and bravely by Lady Liberty. And I keep faith with my family, my history, and my country by welcoming the refugees and migrants who, once and always, seek the shelter of our shores.
Sean Latham is Walter Endowed Chair of English at the University of Tulsa and Director of the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities, which will explore the theme of Homelands in 2017-18.