crazy quilt of humanity!



From Ragtime, (1975) the novel by E. L. Doctorow, is a work of historical fiction mainly set in the New York City area from 1902 until 1912.

Riis made color maps of Manhattan’s ethnic populations. Dull gray was for Jews—their favorite color, he said. Red was for the swarthy Italian. Blue for the thrifty German. Black for the African. Green for the Irishman. And yellow for the cat-clean Chinaman, a cat also in his traits of cruel cunning and savage fury when aroused. Add dashes of color for Finns, Arabs, Greeks, and so on, and you have a crazy quilt, Riis cried, a crazy quilt of humanity!

It was not until some time later, when the Roosevelt had reached the open sea, that Father was persuaded of the actuality of the trip. As he stood at the railing there was transmitted to his bones the awesome unalterable rhythm of the ocean. A while later the Roosevelt passed an incoming transatlantic vessel packed to the railings with immigrants. Father watched the prow of the scaly broad-beamed vessel splash in the sea. Her decks were packed with people. Thousands of male heads in derbies. Thousands of female heads covered with shawls. It was a rag ship with a million million dark eyes staring at him.

Father, a normally resolute person, suddenly foundered in his soul. A weird despair seized him. The wind came up, the sky had turned overcast, and the great ocean began to tumble and break upon itself as if made of slabs of granite and sliding terraces of slate. He watched the ship till he could see it no longer. Yet aboard her were only more customers, for the immigrant population set great store by the American flag.

Most of the immigrants came from Italy and Eastern Europe. They were taken in launches to Ellis Island. There, in a curiously ornate human warehouse of red brick and gray stone, they were tagged, given showers and arranged on benches in waiting pens. They were immediately sensitive to the enormous power of the immigration officials. These officials changed names they couldn’t pronounce and tore people from their families, consigning to a return voyage old folks, people with bad eyes, riffraff and also those who looked insolent. Such power was dazzling.

The immigrants were reminded of home. They went into the streets and were somehow absorbed in the tenements. They were despised by New Yorkers. They were filthy and illiterate. They stank of fish and garlic. They had running sores. They had no honor and worked for next to nothing. They stole. They drank. They raped their own daughters. They killed each other casually. Among those who despised them the most were the second-generation Irish, whose fathers had been guilty of the same crimes. Irish kids pulled the beards of old Jews and knocked them down. They upended the pushcarts of Italian peddlers.

Every season of the year wagons came through the streets and picked up bodies of derelicts. Late at night old ladies in babushkas came to the morgue looking for their husbands and sons. The corpses lay on tables of galvanized iron. From the bottom of each table a drainpipe extended to the floor. Around the rim of the table was a culvert. And into the culvert ran the water sprayed constantly over each body from an overhead faucet. The faces of the dead were upturned into the streams of water that poured over them like the irrepressible mechanism in death of their own tears.

But somehow piano lessons began to be heard. People stitched themselves to the flag. They carved paving stones for the streets. They sang. They told jokes. The family lived in one room and everyone worked: Mameh, Tateh and The Little Girl in the pinafore. Mameh and the little girl sewed knee pants and got seventy cents a dozen. They sewed from the time they got up to the time they went to bed. Tateh made his living in the street.

As time went on they got to know the city. One Sunday, in a wild impractical mood, they spent twelve cents for three fares on the streetcar and rode uptown. They walked on Madison Avenue and Fifth Avenue and looked at the mansions. Their owners called them palaces. Tateh was a socialist. He looked at the palaces and his heart was outraged.

A crisis came to the family when somebody delivered a letter telling them the little girl would have to go to school. This meant they could not make ends meet. Helplessly, Mameh and Tateh took their child to the school. She was enrolled and went off each day. Tateh roamed the streets. He didn’t know what to do. He had a peddler’s business. Never could he find a place at the curb that was profitable.

While he was gone Mameh sat by the window with her stack of cut cloth and pedaled the sewing machine. She was a petite dark-eyed woman with wavy brown hair which she parted in the middle and tied behind her neck in a bun. When she was alone like this she sang softly to herself in a high sweet thin voice. Her songs had no words. One afternoon she took her finished work to the loft on Stanton Street. The owner invited her into his office. He looked at the piece goods carefully and said she had done well. He counted out the money, adding a dollar more than she deserved. This he explained was because she was such a good-looking woman. He smiled. He touched Mameh’s breast. Mameh fled, taking the dollar.

The next time the same thing happened. She told Tateh she was doing more work. She became accustomed to the hands of her employer. One day with two weeks’ rent due she let the man have his way on a cutting table. He kissed her face and tasted the salt of her tears.

At this time in history Jacob Riis, a tireless newspaper reporter and reformer, wrote about the need of housing for the poor. They lived too many to a room. There was no sanitation. The streets reeked of shit. Children died of mild colds or slight rashes. Children died on beds made from two kitchen chairs pushed together. They died on floors. Many people believed that filth and starvation and disease were what the immigrant got for his moral degeneracy.

But Riis believed in air shafts. Air shafts, light and air, would bring health. He went around climbing dark stairs and knocking on doors and taking flash photos of indigent families in their dwellings. He held up the flash pan and put his head under the hood and a picture exploded. After he left, the family, not daring to move, remained in the position in which they had been photographed. They waited for life to change. They waited for their transformation.

Riis made color maps of Manhattan’s ethnic populations. Dull gray was for Jews—their favorite color, he said. Red was for the swarthy Italian. Blue for the thrifty German. Black for the African. Green for the Irishman. And yellow for the cat-clean Chinaman, a cat also in his traits of cruel cunning and savage fury when aroused. Add dashes of color for Finns, Arabs, Greeks, and so on, and you have a crazy quilt, Riis cried, a crazy quilt of humanity!

IMMIGRATION early 1900’s
(from Wikipedia)

The Progressive Movement
encompassed a variety of different ideas and activities of reformist pressure groups. The Progressives believed that the government should take a more active role in solving the problems of society, restoring order and protecting the welfare of Americans not only by conservation and environmental reforms but also by restricting the increasing number of immigrants. In the 1910 foreign-born residents made up 15% of the U.S. population and 24% of the U.S. labor force.

Laws and Immigration Policy
In 1904 the Chinese were permanently excluded from naturalization and in 1906 English was made a requirement for naturalization. The Immigration Act of 1907 then limited the number of Japanese immigrants and created  the Dillingham Commission to review U.S. immigration policy.

Old Immigrants vs New Immigrants
The 1911 Dillingham Commission report favored the “old immigrants” who had come from North Western areas of Europe against the “new immigrants” who came from South Eastern areas of Europe and Asia. One section in the report classified immigrants in racial terms in an attempt to discover whether to discover  “whether there may not be certain races that are inferior to other races… to show whether some may be better fitted for American citizenship than others.” The report concluded that the “New Immigrants” were inferior and uneducated workers who failed to integrate with Americans and posed a serious threat to American culture and society. US Immigration Trends were strongly influenced for many years by the report and the Angel Island Immigration Center was opened in 1912 and “Mounted Inspectors” were authorized along the US-Mexico Border.

The Great Migration
In 1910 a massive wave of emigration by African Americans within the United States began. It was known as the Great Migration. The first Great Migration (1910–1930), numbered about 1.6 million migrants who left their rural areas in the south to migrate to northern industrial cities. In 1917, all Puerto Ricans had been granted American citizenship and were allowed to travel to the mainland without legal barriers. Following the new restrictions on immigration there was also a movement of Americans from Puerto Rico to America.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s