Random thoughts

One of my favorite museums in New York is the NYC tenement museum. The dark hallways, cracking linoleum, narrow staircases, and the musty smell of aging wood and sweat. They all bring up memories in me of visiting my uncle in his apartment on Canal and how it looked, felt, smelled so much like the turn of the century tenement preserved there. I love community museums like this one, and MOCA, born from the desire of second-generation immigrants to tell the story of their parents to themselves. We long for an origin story, a narrative that can explain not only how we came to be here but also where we are supposed to go, what our values are, what we are supposed to hold dear. It is a people’s history. The black and white photographs of our ancestors evoke a melancholy in us, and our muted images of the past seem similarly tinged in yellow – the “immigrant experience” is something that many of us have never directly lived through. It is only in the anecdotes and random fragments of stories from our parents and grandparents, many of whom are unwilling or unable to remember and transmit everything to us. It leaves us only the ability to imagine, to re-create, but not to know in the way that you know what it is to get into a playground fight, or run 5 miles, or shout at a sibling, all that is in your direct experience. It becomes easy for us to become nostalgic for something we’ve never lived through.

I don’t know if this is tragic or uplifting, or comical. I don’t even know if it’s necessary for us to preserve and create these stories for ourselves, because that is what they are – fictions, albeit based on research and artifacts. For all we know, they are not actually what transpired. At the same time, there is nothing so moving as a narrative, especially one that explains the origin and creation of YOU. And in being moved by immigrant narratives we transpose these origin myths onto others, the current immigrants from all over the world. It doesn’t seem quite right to me to do that, in some ways. Just because American workers throughout the twentieth century fought for the right to form unions doesn’t mean that current workers, particularly from other countries without that history, share that desire. In whose voice are we purporting to speak when we talk about the current immigration debate?

Blogs and responses

I posted a comment today on a blog focused on Queens history and development. I came across it while trying to find out more about the history of my neighborhood. At first, I was happy to see that there were people out there who were so engaged in research and local culture. But then it became increasingly disturbing as I looked through the site and saw that many people, including the blog’s author, had posted entries that attributed overdevelopment and other urban social ills to “illegals”, overcrowding to the “Brahmans” living next door, etc.

I finally posted something in response today, something that I’ve never done before but suddenly felt compelled to do. The blogger responded to my comment by saying that s/he was simply reporting whatever was going on in the neighborhood and was an equal-opportunity civilian police of sorts, posting pictures of local law offenders whether they were white, asian, hispanic or black. And that it was a free country.

Granted, it is a free country. But what disturbed me most about the site was that it seems like a forum for a lot of people to voice racist and hate-filled views. Interestingly enough, one of the blog’s readers said in response to my post “what makes you think the people who write on this blog are white?” I don’t know that, and to be honest, didn’t consider the possibility at all really when I commented. I suppose the irony of minority-on-minority racism was just too ridiculous for me to believe.

In all, I’m not sure whether I want to engage in this debate any further, altough just by posting I’ve already picked a side and have participated in the “debate”. The whole experience brought up memories of bullies in school and how in some ways helpless one can feel in the face of total close-mindedness, defensiveness, and anger. What to do? I need some help here.