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The Ellis Island Snow Globe available in Paperback
A study of the Ellis Island museum, its gift shop, and the Statue of Liberty form the basis of reflections on sex, nation, and immigration.
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THE ELLIS ISLAND SNOW GLOBEA JOHN HOPE FRANKLIN CENTER BOOK
By ERICA RAND
DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2005 Duke University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBREEDERS ON A GOLF BALL: NORMALIZING SEX AT ELLIS ISLAND
At Ellis Island, corporate, government, and private sponsors contribute to a celebration of immigration at a time when "celebrate" is rarely the operative verb concerning immigrants. Who, then, are these immigrants worthy of honor? A partial answer is simply, to be blunt, that Ellis Island immigrants are either dead or old, and thus are unlikely to be suspect in contributing to current situations for which people hostile to immigrants often, and inaccurately, hold them responsible: scarce jobs, overcrowded classrooms, "terrorist" actions. But some immigrants who did not pass through Ellis Island to the United States are also dead or old. Why are Ellis Island immigrants celebrated, which of them, and what, as perceived or presented, about them in particular? The specifics matter here because actions, ideas, and policies concerning immigration, ranging from anti-immigrant violence to government restrictions on immigrants and immigration, are never as universally conceived or applied as they are sometimes purported to be. They emerge from and enforce dominant values-values that come partly, ifthrough complex and transformative routes, from cultural representations concerning immigrants.
In this chapter I undertake some of the "who" questions from the starting point of sexuality. Even a cursory look at the issue indicates that values about sexuality have long affected U.S. immigration. Laws barring prostitutes were among the first federal immigration restrictions, and while homosexuality stopped constituting grounds for exclusion in 1990, the current bars on "same-sex" marriage prevent many couples from making use of marital and family unification options. The policing of sexuality and sexed bodies does not cease after the acts and procedures of entry. To the contrary, perceptions about sex have often contributed to determining the duration of one's status as "alien." A law of 1910 ordered the deportation of any alien convicted of involvement with prostitution at any time after entry. That one could have arrived at the age of two and then be deported decades later, as if having been admitted under false pretenses, suggests an underlying assumption, manifest as well in other contexts, that some sexual practices were basically congenital to certain, foreign, peoples. A more recent example involves the perception of Haitian immigrants as carriers of HIV. This perception was bolstered in 1983 by the Center for Disease Control's labeling of recent Haitian immigrants as a "high-risk group," and the Food and Drug Administration's subsequent decisions (despite the CDC'S removal of Haitians from the list several years later), first that Haitians who had arrived in the United States after 1977 could not donate blood, and then, in 1990, that all Haitians were barred from doing so. While the initial consideration of Haitians as a distinct group depended partly on the idea that they did not fit into the sexual category-"homosexual"-that signaled risk (all this reasoning bound up in the problem of using identities rather than acts as indices of risk), race-coded characterizations of Haitians as sexually, and otherwise, deviant certainly fueled their stigmatization.
This situation also highlights two other points relevant here: the role of sexual characterization in the broader process of defining admissible bodies; and the way that power informs, besides the ability to look or expose, the ability not to do so, or what Eve Sedgwick calls the "privilege of unknowing." As Sedgwick argues, the truism that "knowledge is power" obscures how power often enables people to choose ignorance (it is the U.S. president who needs to speak only one language), especially when knowing might unsettle dominant ideas and structures. With regard to aids and Haiti, Paul Farmer explains, this privileged inattention contributed to the erasure of the likelihood that far from originating in Haiti, aids appeared earlier in North America, and that much of its early appearance in Haiti was a result of sex tourism. Privileged sexual unknowing has continued to impact both the definitions and treatment of migrants. Examples abounded after the events of September 11, 2001; for example, the idea that all Arabs in the United States are terrorist suspects because good Muslims will gladly blow up airplanes to get to the sexual extravaganza of waiting virgins in the afterlife.
Regarding sites like Ellis Island, then, with explanations of past and present migration on offer, both the treatment of and silences around sex demand study. Yet while several writers have insightfully situated representations of and at Ellis Island in relation to the politics of contemporary ideas and policies, what is present or absent about sex has attracted little attention. Some of the likely reasons, which I discuss later in this chapter, include the lack of information, readily available or through digging, about migrants with nonnormative sexual identities and practices that might make the absence of their representation conspicuous; a certain aura of reverence about the site-for heritage, hard times, ancestors-and, perhaps, habits of avoidance about imagining elders as sexual, which, combined with the often somber tone of scholarly writing, may make polite discretion or silence seem appropriate or unremarkable. As I discuss in the preface, I aim in this book to dislodge the naturalness of sexual discretion and silence regarding Ellis Island, partly because sexual discretion and silence make possible presumptions of normativity. At issue here, too, more generally, are the challenges of getting at sex "in the flesh" from and through inanimate documents, artifacts, and texts. In this chapter I undertake strategies of embodiment, with attention to the particular bodies inhabited and to the complexity, messiness, and contradictions of sexed bodies in their historical specificity.
LOOKING FOR SEX
While I will argue that there is much about sex at Ellis Island to be surfaced, pulled from obfuscation, and reimagined, I begin with a point that may at first seem contradictory: sex at Ellis Island is present everywhere. By that I partly mean something simple that nonetheless merits articulation precisely because of the overriding discretion I mentioned above: people travel with their sexual histories, fantasies, beliefs, and, sometimes, partners. Immigrants did then, tourists do now. So, too, do Ellis Island employees-and, of course, Ellis Island researchers. My own first trip to the site had a lot to do with the hot date I was on. In later trips, I overheard a fair amount about other people's sexual relationships, and the topic also popped up in interviews, although not at my deliberate instigation. I refrained from asking direct questions about sex for reasons ethical, professional, and strategic: I wanted, and for my own protection needed, to avoid what might be perceived as sexual harassment; I needed to conform to "human subject" guidelines about what questions are reasonable to ask, which certainly did not include everything I wanted to know; I was on the lookout for conversation stoppers that would also foreclose discussion about other topics of interest to me. Nonetheless, even when I interviewed people about their purchases, their work at the site, and other matters, sex was, surprisingly often, just around the conversational corner. My asking one visitor where he lived, and revealing where I taught college in response to his similar questions, led him to volunteer his pleasure that his daughter had chosen a school that still had parietals-including those rules against "opposite-sex" overnights that provide peace of mind to some people who presume their children's heterosexuality. When I interviewed the employee who, relevant here, wanted to "fill me with his enlightenment," our conversation turned, faster than Bill, to Monica, via an interesting trip through the New York Police Department, the Diallo verdict (in which four white cops were acquitted of murder after shooting forty-one bullets into an unarmed black man), and Sinead O'Connor (the singer famous for ripping up a photograph of the pope). Both conversations, though highly idiosyncratic, well represent the frequent closeness to the surface of sexual topics during events and conversations that ostensibly concern something else.
A bit less explicitly, but sometimes as obviously, sex informs other matters, too. Sex contributes to metaphorical language, more or less felicitous, like the following description on the Web site of Ellis Island's primary fund-raising organization, the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, Inc. (SOLEIF): "Ellis Island, our most potent symbol of the American immigrant experience, had become sadly disheveled. Again the American people responded with passion-and with funds." This example, of course, with its gender extravaganza of disheveled potency, also concerns how sex in the sense we connect to gender informs description, and how sex in each of those senses informs description in relation to the other. Sex lingers often, too, with concepts of great importance at Ellis Island, like ethnicity, race, and citizenship, which have been so frequently linked to sexual matters, if in various forms of connection and to varying degrees of visibility, that they hardly show up sex free anymore. One set of examples among many come from queer politics. Both pro- and anti-queer positions have often been articulated in terms of civil rights models: in arguments about whether queers constitute a so-called minority group, like people categorized by race and/or ethnicity; in the addition of "sexual orientation" to antidiscrimination codes and assorted lists of identity-based categories that affect the distribution of power and resources; in right-wing assertions that queers (supposedly all white) want "special rights" that will hurt African Americans (supposedly all heterosexual) by somehow depleting a finite supply of available rights; in the analogies made often by proponents of gay marriage between their project and the overthrow of laws forbidding interracial marriage. While my examples might suggest primarily that people often think about sexuality through ethnicity and race, my point is also that sexuality, now prominent on the identity-and-rights scene, doesn't merely depart when it's not the focus. As Lauren Berlant astutely points out, sexual matters also increasingly define citizenship: "Now everywhere in the United States intimate things flash in people's faces: pornography, abortion, sexuality, and reproduction; marriage, personal morality, and family values. These issues do not arise as private concerns: they are key to debates about what 'America' stands for, and are deemed vital to defining how citizens should act."
Sex is everywhere at Ellis Island, but, one might say, it's not really out of the closet. Wall plaques and tour guides rarely discuss sex, except to mention the exclusion of prostitutes and polygamists and, occasionally, to call up those unfortunate female immigrants who discovered on arriving that while their husbands or betrotheds were earning money to send for them, the men had also learned to lust after women more modern than greenhorn. Sex is not much present in the flesh either. In 2000, while paging through a visitor sign-in book called the Millennium Registry, I saw a September entry that stated, "Thank you-for the sex!" I thought about whether the entry might refer to on-site sex with a lover, although it could just as easily be junior-high-type goofing, like the nearby "love, peace, and hair-grease." Other entries in the registry ranged from "Free Tibet!" and "Vote or Liberty is Lost" to homages to the site itself, including the tantalizing "My grandmother was conceived here!" Despite the likelihood that the "thank you" message did not actually betoken sexual activity on-site, I tried to imagine, with some pleasure, where the writer might have had a sexual encounter without getting busted. (According to a ranger who worked there at the time, no one had been recently caught in a sexual encounter, and he had heard tell of nothing previous to his tenure.) Restroom stalls, a standard location for semipublic sex, offered one possibility, especially for two people who look like they belong in the same bathroom, and a few have relatively little traffic. My casual research-asking around, checking out Web sites-suggests that none of the restrooms at Ellis Island are celebrated cruising sites, but that can't possibly mean they've seen no sexual action. Otherwise, spaces at Ellis Island are largely open, frequently visited, and/or conspicuously monitored by rangers and park police. Maybe that's one reason I saw little that one might term "making out," not even much open affection. Another reason might be that people are affected by the shrinelike, sanitized aura of the place: "Too clean" and "not appropriately smelly" were two comments I heard often.
So, perhaps the test of a historical site's engagement with sexual issues isn't whether it facilitates visitors' on-site sexual activities. Besides, while many people associate sex with the sacred, and while I would hardly separate sex from the experience or contemplation of hard times, family history, or politics, I certainly understand why many people would not consider their Ellis Island visit an appropriate or exciting occasion for a quickie, even if they are among the many who come with no reverent mission. But I bring up here the possibilities for physical sexual activity to underscore why even sex talk stands out. I do so by conjuring sex for pleasure, with allusions to various partnerings, to suggest why it must be noted, rather than taken for granted, that when hints occur that sex ever happens, they generally take the form, to put it a bit crudely, of breeder signs.
BREEDERS ON A GOLF BALL
A typical example of a breeder sign can be found on the souvenir golf ball, made by Spalding, that I purchased at the Ellis Island gift shop (figure 5). The picture on the ball comes from an undated photograph (figure 6) that is frequently used to illustrate or symbolize Ellis Island. The photograph shows three figures, seen from the back, whose identities, like that of the photographer, are unknown today. The figures stand together, if not intimately, staring across the harbor at the Statue of Liberty. Their clothing and relative sizes suggest them to be a man and woman with a child between them. The man's cap and solid stance, like the woman's kerchief and solid body, with broad hips and thick waist, are common elements in the visual vocabulary of turn-of-the-twentieth-century European immigrants. The image appears repeatedly in books about Ellis Island and has appeared on various products available at the gift shop. In 2000, it showed up on the golf ball, on a postcard titled the "New Americans," on a sports-team-like pennant, and as one of many photographs montaged onto a souvenir placemat. By summer 2001, one could also buy the image on a plaque, a commuter cup, and a miniature baseball bat, where it was superimposed on a stars-and-stripes motif (the abbreviation on the bar code economically states "flag imm bat"), or enjoy a huge version of it while standing in line at the snack shop across the hall from the gift shop.
What accounts for the image's popularity at Ellis Island? The fact that it is in the public domain must be one reason; users easily can acquire permission to reproduce the image for the mere purchase cost of the photograph. But plenty of equally unencumbered photographs never make it to being depicted on souvenirs or the museum walls. The choice to use it matters, and derives largely, I think, from the ability of the image to emblematize the "nuclear" family: mother, father, and offspring.
Excerpted from THE ELLIS ISLAND SNOW GLOBE by ERICA RAND Copyright © 2005 by Duke University Press . Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPreface: Respect and Reverence....................ix
Introduction: Coming to Ellis Island....................1
1 Breeders on a Golf Ball: Normalizing Sex at Ellis Island....................41
2 Getting Dressed Up: The Displays of Frank Woodhull and the Policing of Gender....................67
3 The Traffic in my Fantasy Butch....................107
4 Green Woman, Race Matters....................130
5 A Nation of Immigrants, or Whatever....................153
6 Immigrant Peddlers....................181
7 Product Packaging....................207
8 "Decide an Immigrant's Fate"....................239