Songs aid memorization. When I was in fourth grade in Indiana in the 1970s, our music teacher, Miss Burke, taught us to sing “Fifty Nifty United States.” Like everyone else in my class, I was able ever after to remember all the states’ names (and to drive my parents insane by singing them over and over on cross-country car trips). Decades later, my niece, whose mother came to this country as a refugee from Vietnam in the 1970s, learned the same song in the same grade at her school in Virginia. One difference: In the version I learned, the last line goes, “In our calm, objective opinion, Indiana is the best,” whereas in my niece’s version, it’s “Virginia.” Go figure.
In choir in junior high, my classmates and I learned another patriotic song, which we performed in a school concert. It was called “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor.” Its richly harmonized, swelling, mounting chords brought tears to the eyes. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir sings this song. It’s an American standard, a kind of civic hymn. We learned from our choir director, Mr. Mildon, that the lyrics came from the poem by Emma Lazarus that appears on a plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty, welcoming foreigners to our country, inviting them to take refuge. As he helped us rehearse our parts — soprano, alto, tenor and bass — Mr. Mildon told us we should feel proud as Americans of our country’s generosity, goodwill and unselfish offer of hope to the world. The words we sang, in full, went:
Give me your tired, your poor/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free/The wretched refuse of your teeming shores./ Send these — the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me. /I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
Because of the stirring music that accompanied the lyrics, I still remember every word, just as I remember every one of the states from the “Fifty Nifty” song. I did not know in 1978 — while my niece’s maternal ancestors were preparing to embark on their arduous journey to this country — that the melody put to the Lazarus words we sang was composed by a Russian immigrant who arrived in New York Harbor at the age of 5, with seven brothers and sisters.
He and his family were poor refugees from a shtetl in imperial Russia; their house had been burned down, and they had fled to America. The father had been a cantor at the village synagogue in Russia, but in New York the only job he could find was at a kosher meat shop. That’s what he did to support his family until he died, by which time the boy who would one day set the Lazarus poem to music was 13. That boy did not grow up to become a burden on American society: He went on to write “White Christmas,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and … “God Bless America.” His name was Irving Berlin. Like poor immigrants before and after him, he contributed to America’s idea of itself and to America’s ideal of itself. Immigrants made America. Immigrants make America.
My family moved from Indiana to Oklahoma to Virginia. I went to Connecticut for college and New York for work. Americans are an itinerant people; perhaps geneticists one day will discover this tendency ingrained in the cellular memory of a nation of individualist immigrants. Who knows. But for nearly 30 years, I have lived in Manhattan’s East Village, a 10-minute walk from the Lower East Side neighborhood where Berlin’s family settled.
On Monday, I was down by New York Harbor at a library on the Hudson, finishing my translation of a French novel from the 1970s about the ordeals of an immigrant girl in France in the 1940s and ’50s. It is called “Free Day,” written by Inès Cagnati — herself a naturalized French citizen, born to poor Italian immigrants. The novel describes the incredible hardships suffered by her protagonist, a teenage girl named Galla. As I translated, reflecting on the miseries of Galla’s — and Cagnati’s — immigrant experience, a news alert popped up on my screen: “Trump to Deny Green Cards to Immigrants Receiving Public Benefits.” At a time when Central American refugees are being held in cages by the United States at its southern border, and within days of a grisly, racist, murderous assault on Hispanic men, women and children in El Paso, the Trump administration was seeking to means-test legal immigrants, restricting visas and green cards to the financially solvent.
Reading this, the song I had sung as a child popped into my head: “Give me your tired, your poor.” On Tuesday, Trump’s acting immigration chief, Ken Cuccinelli, expanded Lazarus’s verse to serve anti-immigrant priorities: “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet,” he callously extemporized. It’s not a lyric that would have moved Berlin to compose and sing; and if Berlin’s father had been subjected to the kind of means-testing that the Trump administration now proposes, it’s not a song he would have had the chance or inclination to write for the 1949 Broadway musical “Miss Liberty.” Most likely, the large, impecunious Berlin family would have been barred from citizenship as a potential “public charge.” You can’t gain traction to stand if the land where you live will not give you a foothold.
Leaving the library Monday, I walked onto the Hudson promenade and looked south at Lady Liberty, cast into shadow by a bright afternoon sun that flashed like foil on the water. Wakes lashed around her as ferries, yachts and tourist boats passed, cutting across the river. What does the Statue of Liberty stand for, if the words at the base have no meaning? Why does she lift her lamp if the golden door is closed? Who would want to sing this dark new song? And who would want to remember it?