My Boy

I read a poem that blew my heart wide open like it was a balloon shot down by the Air Force. Would you let me tell you why?

In the 1880s, there were over five million immigrants to the United States. There were four million more the next decade. Across the threshold of Ellis Island rushed the huddled masses, yearning to breathe free. But though they were promised a new world, they discovered one crueler than the old. The lofty promises which drew them to these shores, made by businesses and politicians, were never kept. Their American dream evaporated every morning at the dark sound of the work bell. 

By 1900, the U.S. had deceived and captured a massive foreign workforce, trapping them in major cities like Boston, Cleveland, New York, and Philadelphia. Government quotas were specifically designed for this purpose. 

After shipping these immigrants in boats no better or safer than what had carried over African slaves— indeed sometimes the very same boats— the government and big business worked together to shuffle them into new open prisons, into slums they called “cities.”

People were promised the world and left with pennies. Too poor to escape, the vast majority merely suffered. Crowded together like caged animals, they fought with each other. All the torments of drugs and alcohol and violence that come with such pain began to dominate communities. Speaking of my own family, these scars still persist. 

Americans helped control immigrants because of their nativism, leaving immigrants isolated and more vulnerable to the worst excesses of capitalism. Immigrants were the new slave labor force. (Making this even clearer is the Supreme Court’s treatment of the 14th amendment. Only a handful of cases citing it were about Black people— hundreds were about the rights of corporations, now legally recognized as “persons.” The new law ostensibly designed to protect equality was like its predecessors used against it.)

This backfired often but not enough to break the cycle. 

Immigrants were hired as strikebreakers because they cost less to hire and couldn’t talk to white strikers. White strikers usually resented them and would react accordingly. And since immigrants lacked any pay equality, bosses could easily use them to replace white workers. 

Bosses used this to fuel further resentment between the various racial groups, telling white workers that immigrants were a threat to their jobs. (Do you see it? I hope you do.)

In 1880, there were more than 1.1 million child workers in the USA. That’s one out of six kids under sixteen— most often far under sixteen— working the same backbreaking 10 or 12 or 16 hour shifts as their parents. Hundreds of thousands were kidnapped into forced labor, just like their parents. Families didn’t see each other anymore. They couldn’t— to survive. 

Families became strangers because of the god we call “Work,” slaving their lives out for some bourgeois jerk.

And a pants presser named Morris Rosenfeld wrote a poem, “My Boy,” and as I read it the last scales of “the immigrant America,” the final bits of all that old myth about the American dream and the land of prosperity and immigrants being so welcomed and desperate to come… fell as so much rusted scaffolding. 

I have a little boy at home,

A pretty little son;

I think sometimes the world is mine

In him, my only one.

But seldom, seldom do I see

My child in heaven’s light;

I find him always fast asleep…

I see him but at night.

Ere dawn my labor drives me forth;

‘Tis night when I am free;

A stranger am I to my child;

And strange my child to me.

I come in darkness to my home,

With weariness and-pay;

My pallid wife, she waits to tell

The things he learned to say.

How plain and prettily he asked:

“Dear mamma, when’s ‘Tonight’?

O when will come my dear papa

And bring a penny bright?”

I hear her words-I hasten out-

This moment must it be!-

The father-love flames in my breast:

My child must look at me!

I stand beside the tiny cot,

And look, and list, and-ah!

A dream-thought moves the baby-lips:

“O, where is my papa!”

I kiss and kiss the shut blue eyes;

I kiss them not in vain.

They open,-O they see me then!

And straightway close again.

“Here’s your papa, my precious one;-

A penny for you!”-ah!

A dream still moves the baby-lips:

“O, where is my papa!”

And I-I think in bitterness

And disappointment sore;

“Some day you will awake, my child,

To find me nevermore.”

I hear my grandfather’s voice, my great-grandfather’s voice, crying out in the wilderness. For today their voices continue in other tongues. Today, another grandfather and great-grandfather cry out, “My boy!” And their boy cannot see them. 

But today Americans still cannot hear them. They are too insulated in their HOAs and do not speak those ‘foreign’ languages. They cannot hear fathers and mothers crying in the night. Over the din of the social circus, the acceptable white American does not hear the inconsolable voice of Rachel weeping for her children— “for her children are no more.”

One day, desperate to control newer and even less pale-skinned immigrants, the whites told my fathers that we too can be white. A bribe was offered. And white we became, forgetting just how unwelcome in whiteness we once were. 

So for skin color and crumbs of privilege we have forgotten just who we are and what White America also did to us. Or that we are now doing it, too. That we are a part of it. We do not realize we are now the tools of greed and hate, repeating the very crimes committed against us. 

We are the same! If you can only see it, how we are all the same. If I could reach out of the sky and pull it down for you, to show you, you would see, but I cannot. Have you seen it, too? Does it also make you shake?

The Emperor Constantine looked to the heavens for a sign and saw a flaming chi rho, a trophy burning with glory, but his eyes were blurred by the haze. I see no chi rho. There is no glorious fire above. I look at the sky and see a wicked gnarled cross, and my father is on it, my grandfather, and his father, and my mother and grandmothers, and their mothers and fathers, and each time ‘their boy’ stands at the foot to await his turn. 

A fire burns not in the sky but in my belly. I think it will eat me up.