Saturday, December 18, 2010

Ellis Island: Early Notions of a Multi-Cultural Society

This past spring my niece and I took a weekend to ourselves and went to New York City. Despite having lived in New York City, I never managed to take the boat out to Ellis Island to visit that important part of American history. I'm glad we visited. The boat ride out offered fantastic views of Manhattan, the Statute of Liberty, and Ellis Island. The museum was a fantastic experience filled with an unvarnished look at what it was like to be an immigrant entering the country.

 What I found most interesting were some of the propaganda posters they had at the museum. In this first image, which had the date of 1919 on it, victory bonds were being sold. The advertisement was making a pitch toward making people feel like they were "real" American's if they bought bonds to support the government--and extended the idea of a "real" American to a variety of different ethnic backgrounds by making a mention of a variety of names. Reading through the names now, one might not be particularly moved. Thinking about what people thought about culture, ethnicity, and diversity in 1919 I was very moved. Here is a hodge-podge of names from countries all over Western and Eastern Europe. All seen as Americans. The last name on the list is what finally got me--a name usually associated with Spanish speaking countries. Might it be that I stumbled across early evidence of our society creaking toward a multi-cultural understanding?

Of course, even then we were trying to figure out the language issue. Here is a poster from my hometown advertising "Americanization" classes. From the picture, it appears that Little Red Riding Hood and a man with extremely large hands are learning the alphabet from a small child who dressed like a newspaper reporter. Modern day English only laws--and the merits or problems of a bilingual (or trilingual) society is a topic for another blog post. This poster made me wonder what images are we leaving behind today that someone will look at and wonder about in 90 years?

Part of what I really liked about the Ellis Island museum was that it wasn't all polished. Sure there were the well maintained and immaculate galleries. There were the shining display cases, detailed audio tours, and all the trappings of a modern museum. Other parts were a little more raw and uncensored. A few different places caught my eye. No better time to share them then now.

This first image is graffiti that a nameless immigrant left behind while waiting in line to be processed. As the building aged the plaster cracked away and revealed this drawing. We don't know anything about the artist (though we could have known more if my other image that I took wasn't blurred--the artist had words to go along with this face). A travel tip for all of you: don't leave home with a brand new digital camera that you've never used. You are bound to experience some disappointment. Anyway--I wonder who the face is? A self portrait? A relative left behind in their home country? Someone who died on the journey to America?

The main building on the island has been historically restored. It's in beautiful condition. I'm told that there are plans for some of the other buildings to be restored and turned into a conference center. I hope they leave some of the structures untouched. I like the reminder (both inside in the context of the museum and outside in the casual context of the grounds) that the immigrant experience was difficult, hard, and sometimes a failure. Many came with the hopes that sidewalks were paved with gold. Some found that gold. Others were turned away, treated harshly, or even died on Ellis Island.

This ominous looking sign is clearly going to require a blog post all on it's own. This little innocent looking (yet strangely ominous) sign spurred me to come back from this trip and create a folder on my computer that I've been slowly filling with images of what psychology  has been through the years--specifically images of how we have treated people considered "mad" or "ill". It's clearly going to require a whole blog post of it's own. Consider this sign a little teaser.

I've been told by people that I tend to dwell on small things. I'd be the one taking the picture of an interesting looking floor board on a boat while everyone else was rushing to take a picture of awhile breaching out of the water. This is a useful skill in therapy--often times when we notice the little things we can unravel the big things. This isn't always so useful when showing someone what a place looks like. I made an honest effort with the Statute of Liberty (see, I can improve). I assure you though I have plenty of pictures of her torch, or a fold in her dress, and taken from all sorts of strange angles. It's how I see things--and works for me.

With that in  mind, I leave you with two images that convey in a very personal way how I saw Ellis Island. Perhaps it will inspire you to think about how you see the world around you?

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