When strangers were welcome here: A hopeful mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 20, 2021)

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The story of America’s immigrants is all of our stories, all Americans. Outside of indigenous Americans, none of us are really “from” here; if you start tracing your family’s genealogy, I’ll bet you don’t have to go back too many generations to find ancestors born on foreign soil. Unfortunately, some Americans have conveniently forgotten about that

It’s been over five years since Donald Trump rode down his golden escalator and launched a longshot bid for president with a xenophobic, immigrant-bashing speech that electrified white nationalists and set a dark tone for his campaign and presidency.

Throughout his tenure, Trump continued to sow division and hate with a steady stream of racist conspiracy theories and lies – all while installing extremists in positions of power and executing radical policies, such as banning Muslims from entering the country, separating immigrant children from their parents at the border and reversing basic protections for the LGBTQ community.

Trump’s words and actions had consequences.

Hate crimes and far-right terrorist attacks surged. Teachers across America reported a sudden spike in the use of racial slurs and incidents involving swastikas, Nazi salutes and Confederate flags. And in the first two years of Trump’s administration, the number of white nationalist hate groups rose by 55 percent, as white supremacists saw in him an avatar of their grievances and a champion of their cause.  

Now, Trump is gone from Washington. But the extremist movement he energized may be entering a perilous new phase […]

While this week’s mass shooting in Atlanta that left 8 people dead (6 of them women of Asian descent) is still under investigation and not yet been officially declared a hate crime, the incident has sparked a much-needed national dialog addressing recent spikes in racially motivated violence, particularly targeting members of the Asian-American community.

Yesterday, President Biden and Vice-President Harris addressed the issue head on:

President Biden and Vice President Harris called for unity after attacks against Asian Americans have surged since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

“There are simply some core values and beliefs that should bring us together as Americans,” Biden said during a speech at Emory University in Atlanta on Friday. “One of them is standing together against hate, against racism, the ugly poison that has long haunted and plagued our nation.”

Biden’s remarks came three days after a gunman opened fire at three massage businesses in the Atlanta area, killing eight people, including six women of Asian descent.

While the suspect, 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long of Georgia, told investigators that the shootings were not racially motivated, physical violence and verbal harassment against members of the Asian American community have spiked over the past year.

“Whatever the motivation, we know this, too many Asian Americans walking up and down the streets are worried,” Biden said. “They’ve been attacked, blamed, scapegoated, harassed, they’ve been verbally assaulted, physically assaulted, killed.”

The president said that these incidents are evidence that “words have consequences.” […]

Harris, who joined Biden during the trip to Atlanta, called Tuesday’s shooting rampage a “heinous act of violence” that has no place in Georgia or the United States.

She also said that the uptick in anti-Asian hate crimes is a reminder that racism, xenophobia and sexism is real in America and “always has been.”

Looking on the bright side of this week’s news…one of the most oft-quoted lines from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech from the March on Washington on August 28, 1963 is this one: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” I’d like to think that we edged a little bit closer to that better day this past Thursday:

That would be Kamala Harris, a woman of South Asian and West Indian heritage, a daughter of immigrants and the first female Vice-President of the United States… conducting the swearing-in ceremony for Deb Halaand, a woman who now holds the distinction of serving as the first Native-American Interior Secretary of the United States.

That only took us 245 years. But you know…baby steps.

Granted, it doesn’t solve all our problems, but it gives one hope, which is in short supply.

That’s why I think it’s time for some music therapy. I’ve chosen 10 songs that speak to the immigrant experience and serve to remind us of America’s strong multicultural bedrock.

Alphabetically:

“Across the Borderline” – Freddy Fender

This song (co-written by John Hiatt, Ry Cooder, and Jim Dickinson) has been covered many times, but this heartfelt version by the late Freddy Fender is the best. Fender’s version was used as part of the soundtrack for Tony Richardson’s 1982 film The Border.

“America” – Neil Diamond

Diamond’s anthemic paean to America’s multicultural heritage first appeared in the soundtrack for Richard Fleischer and Sidney J. Furie’s 1980 remake of The Jazz Singer (thankfully, Diamond’s stirring song has had a longer shelf life than the film, which left audiences and critics underwhelmed). Weirdly, it was included on a list of songs deemed as “lyrically questionable” and/or “inappropriate” for airplay in an internal memo issued by the brass at Clear Channel Communications in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Go figure.

“America” (movie soundtrack version) – West Side Story

This classic number from the stage musical and film West Side Story (with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and music by Leonard Bernstein) is both a celebration of Latin immigrant culture and a slyly subversive take down of nativist-fed ethnic stereotyping.

Ave Que Emigra” – Gaby Morena

Speaking of exploding stereotypes-here’s a straightforward song explaining why cultural assimilation and cultural identity are not mutually exclusive. From a 2012 NPR review:

As a song that speaks of being an immigrant, [Gaby Moreno’s “Ave Que Emigra”] strikes the perfect emotional chords. So many songs on that topic are gaudy, one-dimensional woe-is-me tales. Moreno’s story of coming to America is filled with simple one-liners like “tired of running, during hunting season” (evocative of the grotesque reality Central Americans face today at home and in their journeys north). Her cheerful ranchera melody, with its sad undertone, paints a perfect portrait of the complex emotional state most of us immigrants inhabit: a deep sadness for having to leave mixed with the excitement of the adventure that lies ahead, plus the joy and relief of having “made it.”

No habla espanol? No problema! You can see the English translation of the lyrics here.

“Buffalo Soldier” – Bob Marley & the Wailers

Sadly, not all migrants arrived on America’s shores of their own volition; and such is the unfortunate legacy of the transatlantic slave trade that flourished from the 16th to the 18th centuries. As Malcolm X once bluntly put it, “[African Americans] didn’t land on Plymouth Rock; the Rock was landed on us.” Bob Marley entitled this song as reference to the nickname for the black U.S. Calvary regiments that fought in the post-Civil War Indian conflicts. Marley’s lyrics seem to mirror Malcom X’s pointed observation above:

If you know your history,
Then you would know where you’re coming from
Then you wouldn’t have to ask me
Who the heck do I think I am

I’m just a Buffalo Soldier
In the heart of America
Stolen from Africa, brought to America
Said he was fighting on arrival
Fighting for survival

“Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)” – Arlo Guthrie

Woody Guthrie originally penned this “ripped from the headlines” protest piece as a poem in the wake of a 1948 California plane crash (the music was composed some years later by Martin Hoffman, and first popularized as a song by Pete Seegar). Among the 32 passengers who died were 28 migrant farm workers who were in the process of being deported back to Mexico. Guthrie noticed that most press and radio reports at the time identified the 4 crew members by name, while dehumanizing the workers by referring to them en masse as “deportees” (plus ca change…). His son Arlo’s version is very moving.

“The Immigrant”– Neil Sedaka

Reflecting  back on his 1975 song, Neil Sedaka shared this tidbit in a 2013 Facebook post:

I wrote [“The Immigrant”] for my friend John Lennon during his immigration battles in the 1970s. I’ll never forget when I called to tell him about it. Overwhelmed by the gesture, he said, “Normally people only call me when they want something. It’s very seldom people call you to give you something. It’s beautiful.”

I concur with John. It’s Sedaka’s most beautifully crafted tune, musically and lyrically.

“Immigration Blues” – Chris Rea

In 2005, prolific U.K. singer-songwriter Chris Rea released a massive 11-CD box set album with 137 tracks called Blue Guitars (I believe that sets some sort of record). The collection is literally a journey through blues history, with original songs “done in the style of…[insert your preferred blues sub-genre here]” from African origins to contemporary iterations. This track is from “Album 10: Latin Blues”. The title says it all.

“Immigration Man” – David Crosby & Graham Nash

After an unpleasant experience in the early 70s getting hassled by a U.S. Customs agent, U.K.-born Graham Nash (who became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1978) didn’t get mad, he got even by immortalizing his tormentor in a song. The tune is one of the highlights of the 1972 studio album he recorded with David Crosby, simply titled Crosby and Nash. I love that line where he describes his immigration form as “big enough to keep me warm.”

“We Are the Children” – A Grain of Sand

A Grain of Sand were a pioneering Asian-American activist folk trio, who hit the ground running with their 1973 album A Grain of Sand: Music for the Struggle of Asians in America. Chris Kando Iijima, Joanne Nobuko Miyamoto, and William “Charlie” Chin use minimalist arrangements, lovely harmony singing and politically strident lyrics to get their message across. I find this cut to be particularly pertinent to reflecting on the events of this week and quite moving.

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