Editors’ conversation on interpreting immigration, Part 1

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Immigrant family viewing the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, ca. 1940. Photo credit: Library of Congress

Editors’ Note: Four years ago, outgoing NCPH president Bob Weyeneth called on public historians to “pull back the curtain” on their process. Turning topics of contemporary relevance into public history involves numerous collegial conversations which usually remain behind the scenes. The [email protected] editors thought our readers might be interested in the following conversation prompted by Adina Langer’s development of a new exhibition at the Museum of History and Holocaust Education at Kennesaw State University. Set to open on August 30, Refuge or Refusal: Turning Points in U.S. Immigration History was inspired by a consideration of the effects of U.S. immigration and naturalization policy on people caught up in World War II and the Holocaust both at home and abroad. Immigration and refugee policy remain relevant today, and the goal of the exhibit is to elucidate the historical context for contemporary debates. Will Walker, who teaches a course on “Migration and Community” at the Cooperstown Graduate Program, kindly served as an early reader for the exhibit and helped to hone its focus on the broad American experience. Adina Langer, who worked on the exhibit while also teaching a course on histories of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, found herself confronting questions at the heart of American national identity. These questions—about the relationships between immigration, citizenship, and policy development; power and moral responsibility; science, language, and human categorization—led to the conversation you see below. Modupe Labode provided additional insights based on her work with students participating in the Humanities Action Lab‘s projects States of Incarceration and the Guantanamo Public Memory Project, and on her experiences using the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s new History Unfolded project with undergraduate students. We invite you to contribute your own answers to these questions in the comments section of this post or to reach out to the editors directly.

AJL: What makes immigration such an important topic for public historians to take on right now?

WW: Immigration policy, especially regarding undocumented immigrants, is the epicenter of the struggle over the soul of America today. Trump catalyzed his candidacy by calling Mexican immigrants “criminals” and “rapists” and demanding a border wall, and he began his presidency by issuing a sweeping Muslim ban and dramatically cutting refugee admissions to the United States. Along with Republican members of Congress, he has used the plight of DACA recipients (or “Dreamers”) as a bargaining chip to achieve sweeping anti-immigrant, nativist goals, and he has unleashed the repressive and often inhumane forces of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to punish those migrants who would dare seek an escape from violence and poverty by crossing the border. Trump’s xenophobic ideas and policies are part and parcel of a broader white nationalist effort to reduce both documented and undocumented immigration to the United States, especially from Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Public historians have a critical role to play not only in contextualizing xenophobia and U.S. immigration policy but in supporting the efforts of activists, policymakers, and aid workers as they struggle to defend human rights and support some of the most vulnerable populations in the world. Observing from the sidelines is simply not an option at this moment.

ML: We are also witnessing a strong reaction against immigration to Western Europe. Brexit weaponized the issue of refugees from Syria and other countries, and Angela Merkel’s governing coalition is increasingly vulnerable to attacks from nativist groups within Germany. Regarding the U.S., it is also important to understand the contemporary moment as a repudiation of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. Many of the toxic, dehumanizing assertions about immigrants echo statements made prior to the 1924 National Origins Quota law and the retention of those quotas under the McCarran Walter Act of 1952.

AJL: What are some examples of effective immigration interpretation in public history?

Cultural Festival at the Reher Center for Immigrant Culture and History, Kingston, New York. Photo credit: rehercenter.org

WW: I’m based in New York State so most of my current observations come from here. For example, I continually look to the Tenement Museum for inspiration. Their “Your Story, Our Story” project along with their newest tour at 103 Orchard Street, bring post-World War II stories of migration to the United States vividly to life and encourage people to share their own contemporary narratives. They complement very well the older histories of migration that the museum has long conveyed through their original building at 98 Orchard Street. I was also a fan of the New-York Historical Society’s 2015 exhibition “Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion”, which effectively told the sweeping story of Chinese immigration to the United States while analyzing the consistent theme of exclusionary ideas and policies from multiple angles. Of course the Museum of Chinese in America also does this well while also highlighting Chinese contributions to U.S. society. The Jewish Museum’s new “Scenes from the Collection” exhibition is similarly effective at sparking reflections on issues of migration and identity related to ethnicity and culture. Another great place to explore transformations in American Jewish identity is the Museum at Eldridge Street. This is a particularly good spot to reflect on U.S. immigration history because this beautiful historic synagogue now sits in the heart of New York’s Chinatown. And, finally, Ellis Island continues to be an excellent place to explore U.S. immigration history, although admittedly I have not been there since the repairs following Hurricane Sandy. One thing I’d like to see more of is better interpretation of New York’s Latinx history in the city’s public institutions. The Bronx Museum of the Arts, El Museo del Barrio, the New-York Historical Society, and the Museum of the City of New York have all done exhibitions that have addressed aspects of this history. However, the city (and state’s) Latinx history is too important to be left to the occasional exhibition.

AJL: North of New York City, I also know of a passionate effort to establish the Reher Center for Immigrant Culture and History in Kingston, showing that immigration stories are not only central to large cities. Here in Georgia, the Atlanta History Center’s “Gatheround: Stories of Atlanta” exhibit foregrounds a rotation of neighborhood and community histories, including those of predominantly immigrant communities. Private community organizations, such as We Love Buhi, are also taking the lead in launching oral history projects and other efforts to preserve cultural heritage.

~ Adina Langer is the curator of the Museum of History and Holocaust Education at Kennesaw State University. You can follow her on Twitter @artiflection

Modupe Labode is an associate professor of history and museum studies and public scholar of African American history and museums at IUPUI. She is a member of the NCPH board of directors.

Will Walker is associate professor of history at the Cooperstown Graduate Program, SUNY Oneonta. You can find him on Twitter @willcooperstown.

Tune in next Thursday for Part 2 of this conversation!

3 comments
  1. Michelle Zupan says:

    Those are all fine examples, but what about the younger learners? Generally around 5th grade they must learn about the Irish Potato Famine and the immigrants who came to America. At our museum, we created a program where the kids look at primary sources from the US history of immigration. The students have to put the primary sources on a balance with one end representing the US being welcoming to immigrants and the other end representing the US being unwelcoming. The sources range from political cartoons, articles, political platforms, photos, government policies, etc. It’s very powerful and sparks a great deal of conversation about why the US has always been unwelcoming to certain groups at certain times.

    1. Modupe Labode says:

      Michelle, Thanks for commenting! This sounds like a powerful program that reinforces the importance of historical sources and corresponds to the curriculum standards. I’m sure that many students also come up with great ideas about how to change the US’ approach to immigrants. I hope more public historians follow your example and share ideas and experiences with young learners, especially since the current discussion over immigration is not an abstract issue for kids and teachers. The debate affects kids in the classroom and their families.

  2. Adina Langer says:

    I also want to note that the Atlanta History Center is currently showing Nuevolution: Latinos and the New South. http://www.atlantahistorycenter.com/explore/exhibitions/nuevolution-latinos-and-the-new-south The exhibit was originally developed by Charlotte’s Levine Museum of the New South in collaboration with the Atlanta History Center and Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

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