Monday, March 30, 2015

What Poetry Means on Angel Island





The insects chirp outside the four walls.
The inmates often sigh.
Thinking of affairs back home,
Unconscious tears wet my lapel.
—a poem carved into the barracks walls at the U.S. Immigration Station at Angel Island

For centuries, poetry has played a powerful role in our lives. Poetry is a way of remembering history, of bearing witness. It can also be an essential avenue leading to the self-empowerment of an individual. For immigrants detained at the U.S. Immigration Station at Angel Island in San Francisco Bay, poetry was a critical outlet.  It became the vehicle of expression detainees used to combat isolation, alienation and silence.

The Immigration Station was built to enforce the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first major piece of legislation targeting a nationality. Forced to spend weeks, sometimes years at the processing station, the imprisoned men carved hundreds of poems into the barracks walls contemplating their fate:

Four days before the Qiqiao Festival
I boarded the steamship for America.
Time flew like a shooting arrow.
Already, a cool autumn has passed.
Counting on my fingers, several months have elapsed.
Still I am at the beginning of the road.
I have yet to be interrogated.
My heart is nervous with anticipation. 

It was poetry that saved the Immigration Station from destruction.  In 1970, plans were in place to demolish the abandoned detention barracks when park ranger Alexander Weiss slipped into the building to explore.  Weiss, too, was an immigrant brought to America as a four-year-old Jewish refugee from Austria escaping the Holocaust. He was astonished to find entire walls covered in calligraphy. Defying orders from his supervisor to ignore the “graffiti,” Weiss told his professor at San Francisco State College about his findings and soon the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation (AIISF) was launched to save the Immigration Station from ruin.

Working with our California State Park partners, AIISF launched an online educational immigration module targeted at 11th graders.  In the module, students study the major turning points in American history through the lens of immigration with an emphasis on the people who came through the United States Immigration Station on Angel Island.

Lesson three of this module focuses on the poetry. Available for free online, it includes selected poems from the incredible book, Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island 1910-1940, by Him Mark Lai, Genny Lim and Judy Yung.  In the lesson, students learn to think rhetorically in order to analyze the primary text of a poem. They compare the perspective shared in the poems and engage in a "Text Talk," by coming to a discussion prepared with annotations.

We’ve found that these poems resonate with students of every ethnic background and family immigration story. These are poems of anger and frustration, hope and despair feelings any 11th grader may have experienced.  Many adolescents may feel a similar sense of entrapment as the poetry on the barracks walls convey:

                              I, a seven foot man, am ashamed I cannot extend myself.
                              Curled up in an enclosure, my movements are dictated by others.
                              Enduring a hundred humiliations, I can only cry in vain.
                              This person’s tears fall, but what can the blue heavens do?

Importantly, these poems document a grave moment in U.S. history, detailing with excruciating clarity in a way that textbooks cannot, of how we barred access to certain immigrant groups based on fears and prejudice.

Teaching about the U.S. Immigration Station at Angel Island through the poetry carved into the station walls is a bold reminder of America’s history of racial exclusion. And it is a lesson to be invoked as we grapple with current immigration policies and work toward a more inclusive society.