We Were Once Refugees, Too

Galway Bay by Mary Pat Kelly available for purchase here.

For most of my life, I didn’t feel the need for any identity more specific than “American”. I grew up in a Catholic neighborhood where the other kids had traditions, families, and faces that looked like mine. What need had I for anything beyond that?

Reading Galway Bay, a novelized version of the author’s great-grandmother’s sojourn from Ireland to America, was the beginning of an awakening on my part, that the heritage that extended beyond my grandparents was more significant than names and dates on a ledger in the archives of various city halls.

I read this book several years ago, and my realization was compounded by my first trip to Ireland last year. History was taken out of textbooks and became as vibrant and alive as myself. Pre-independence, the Irish were second-class citizens in their own country. Our language was outlawed, our religion demonized, and the governing forces painted us in the caricature of apes. When the only food we had that they didn’t see fit to steal rotted in the blight, they left us to starve. When American Choctaws sent money to ease our suffering, they stole that too.

Faced with slow, agonizing death, the Irish turned to the uncertainty of the ocean. Families were torn apart, never knowing if there would be a reunion of parent and child, brother and sister, ever again. No one knew if we would survive America, but we knew for damn sure we would die in Ireland. To this day, Irish Americans outnumber Irish nationals.

In America, we were still the poor and the pissed-on, but through resiliency and the support of others unloved by society (Native Americans, Black Americans, Jewish immigrants) we survived. We thrived. We even returned home to see where it all had started. By the time we were three generations deep, the children of Irish immigrants were indistinguishable from any other white Americans. We were assimilated.

We have, I think, assimilated too well. Too often, from the lips of family members, I’ve heard the same words and stereotypes that were once used to dehumanize our ancestors, being turned against other ethnic groups. We have lost sight of solidarity and adopted the aspect of our oppressors, much like the pigs in Animal Farm.

To be clear, Irish assimilation is not because we were more tenacious or intelligent than anyone else. It is the whiteness of our skin that led to our privileged place in modern society, and nothing more. Had Ireland been closer to the equator, we would never have put one of our own in the White House, and the stereotype of the drunken Irish would be a reason not to hire us instead of a mildly offensive joke.

White skin is armor, and Trump’s America is a battleground for the safekeeping of the rights and values this country was founded upon. On the same weekend we honor the victims of the Holocaust and tweet out #NeverAgain, Trump issued a ban prohibiting Muslims from given countries from entering the US, even as they flee certain death in their homelands–and too many of my fellow Irish-Americans support a policy that would’ve spelled our own doom if it had been enacted a century and a half ago.

The naysayers all have their reasons as to why “this time it’s different”. They had them in 1939 when we turned away the Jews. They had them when we were turning away the Chinese and Japanese in the early 1900’s and cut out whole swaths of the entire Asian continent in 1917. They have them now as we turn away green card holders and refugees, and hopefully this will be the last stand and we won’t ever have a cultural wave of apathy or antipathy towards those seeking safety ever again, but I doubt it. Hatred is hard to kill.

American values should not lie in the empty promises of politicians or solemn reflections on July 4th. No matter how much I value my Irish ancestry, I value my American nationality more, and being American means hitting the pavement to protect Black Lives, means protesting an oppressive government, and means making room for those who seek sanctuary on our shores.

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among those are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

So get out there and act like it.

Philadelphia: Birthplace of the American Revolutions

My poorly shot panorama of the day’s speakers and organizers

On Sunday, January 15, 2017, the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and one day before the national day of recognition that honors him, writers and readers across the United States gathered in the spirit of Writers Resist, a movement born out of the need to protect democracy and the spirit of justice following the 2016 election.

I’m from Philadelphia, born and raised (cue obligatory recitation of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air). It stands to reason that I’m biased in favor of my hometown’s importance, but truly no city encapsulates America like Philly. We are the nation’s first capital, the birthplace of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the finish line of the Underground Railroad, a key battleground in the war for LGBTQ+ rights, a haven for writers and artists of all stripes. The America I love and seek to protect would not exist without Philadelphia.

The Writers Resist event in Philadelphia was hosted by the National Museum of American Jewish Heritage and organized by Alicia Askenase, Nathaniel Popkin, and Stephanie Feldman, and featured readings from some of Philadelphia’s most prolific writers, reading poetry, petitions, and speeches from some of history’s bravest and most iconic speakers, some who were famous, some who simply deserve to be.

Six of the 36 readings were first given in Philadelphia, including the Resolution for Declaration of Women’s Rights, given during the centennial by the National Woman Suffrage Association, read by Lise Funderburg, and FDR’s 1936 acceptance speech for renomination, read by Lori Tharpe.

Most stirring, for me, was Lauren Grodstein’s rendition of Jameson Fitzpatrick’s 2016 poem “I Woke Up”. There are two kinds of people in the world, those who recognize that our identities, our passions, our very existences are political, and those who have yet to realize it.

In being political, one of the most important things to realize is that not all of our political perceptions are the same, and the beautiful diversity showcased on Sunday illustrated such. Men spoke women’s words, white, Black, Latinx, and Asian voices co-mingled with each other’s wisdom, disabled people offered each other solidarity, queer people and their allies spoke their truths to a crowd 300 strong.

Words, of course, will not be enough going forward. There must be action and resistance if justice is to be both won and preserved. But words are the genesis of movement. Stories are our empathy, articles are our information, media is our ability to connect. Revolutions do not happen without writers, and writers do not have a voice without readers.

Learn more about the movement at WritersResist.com and see a full list of the readings at #WritersResistPHL*

*Before Joey Sweeney opened with the Bob Dylan song “Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, he noted that the song selection was chosen BEFORE #UrineGate broke.

2016 Wrap Up

Here I am, ten days deep into 2017, with the loose threads of last year’s reading challenge still dangling and the start date of this year’s looming (February 1, a celebration of Black authors that will run until January 31, 2018 for those itching to know).

The end of the year was brutal, for a lot of reasons. There was a little bit of personal heartbreak, but in truth the results of the election hit me like a gut punch, and cast a shadow over the remaining tendrils of 2016. I stayed awake on November 8 watching the election results pour in, tears streaming down my face while I prayed to all the deities I don’t believe in for an 11th hour turn of the tide, a Superman swooping in to save Lois Lane. But Supes never arrived, and Lex Luthor took the highest seat in the country.

For all the buffoonery surrounding Trump, it’s the elevated position of the worst of society that his presidency promises. Pence, Bannon, Sessions, all uniquely unqualified to protect the rights of American citizens, all tasked with doing exactly that. The injustice of this whole election became a crushing weight that rolled over me, my joys, my creativity, my desire to write. To whit, I haven’t written a single word since I profiled Laura Jane Grace’s memoir. What is the point of creativity, when my country has decided to yank out the rug from every civil rights gain we’ve had since our inception?

I turned to the solace of books, as I always have. I broke my fast with Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things, enjoyed the self-deprecation of Anna Kendrick’s Scrappy Little Nobody, meditated on the idiosyncrisies of Modern Romance with Aziz Ansari, and plowed into Carrie Fisher’s full bibliography upon the breaking news of her untimely death, and emerged, as always, feeling a little less lonely and considerably rejuvenated.

Great writing does one of two things: provides connection or provides escape. Truly great writing does both. As we trudge through the next four years, it is more important than ever that the words of anyone and everyone who will be targeted, marginalized, or silenced find an audience.

Words have power. As humans, we are fundamentally wired for story. Story is how we give form and meaning to chaos, how we empathize across all the realities that separate us. Inhabiting the stories of those we differ from is as close as we come to walking in each others’ skin. JK Rowling performed more magic with simple words than her characters ever could.

And so, without facetiously attributing my time and talent to that of all the amazing women who opened my eyes to the world around me this past year, my promise to myself is that I will continue with my words. I will protest, I will talk back, I will yell until my voice disintegrates in the air, and I will write until my fingers bleed.