Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Determined: Immigrants Who Want Better Circumstances

“A Region of Overcrowded Homes,” illustration from Lillian D. Wald, The House on Henry Street, 1915, Harvard University Library Open Collections Program
“A Region of Overcrowded Homes,” illustration from Lillian D. Wald, The House on Henry Street, 1915, Harvard University Library Open Collections Program

Good humanitarian organizations make sure the people they help retain their dignity.  They have listened to people who have experienced poverty, and know that feelings of shame and helplessness are some of the worst parts of being poor. [1]

Humanitarians do not always show this consideration though.  Many of them take an aloof attitude towards the people whom they intended to help.  Anzia Yezierska’s novel Arrogant Beggar demonstrates how an elitist mentality sometimes sullied charitable work in the early twentieth century.  Class was certainly a factor in this attitude, but ethnic identity could also play a part.  Yezierska was a Jewish immigrant who lived in New York City at the end of the nineteenth century.  She hoped to improve her circumstances by living in a boarding house, but learned the hard way that this had its drawbacks.  She saw that the women who benefitted from these houses were not always treated with dignity.  Years later, after Yezierska’s position in society had improved considerably, boarding houses still had middle- and upper-class matrons who gave distant, condescending treatment to the women who lived in them.  Yezierska decided to reveal the unpleasant side of boarding houses by writing Arrogant Beggar. [2]

The protagonist of Arrogant Beggar is Adele Lindner, a young woman who shares a common background with Yezierska.  Lindner is initially enthusiastic about life in a settlement house, as it provides considerably more security and comfort than her old tenement home.  Lindner becomes more cynical after she sees how her benefactors view her and the other girls.  They are projects, spoken about in financial terms and kept at a distance.  Wealthy matrons and their families spurn any attempts at friendship made by their young benefactors.  Needy immigrant woman receive funding cuts from ladies who hold a meeting over a luxurious lunch. [3] Yet Lindner’s change in attitude does not come quickly.  She is torn between gratitude at the help she’s received, and anger at the superiority complexes of her benefactors. [4]

Eventually, Lindner decides that she no longer wants to be dependent on rich, established families.  She leaves the boarding house, but struggles to find her way.  She ends up back in a tenement, where an elderly woman named Muhmenkeh takes her in.  Muhmenkeh teaches Lindner how to show love to her neighbors, and Lindner decides to carry on Muhmenkeh’s legacy after she dies.  She opens a restaurant, and runs it in an unconventional manner: customers pay what they can afford.  This restaurant not only provides food to the needy, but becomes a focal point for the community.  Lindner is thus able to find her own way to both prosper and help others.  She no longer has to face the indignity of being a charity case. [5]

Americans are proud of how their country can give new opportunities to poor immigrants.  Arrogant Beggar confronts some uncomfortable realities about these opportunities, though .  One easily overlooked aspect of alturism is that cultural differences can come into play with negative repercussions.  Yezierska leaves the ethnicity of the boarding house matrons ambiguous, but they are probably either Anglo-Americans or German Jews.  Either way, they run the boarding house according to rules that make sense in their culture.  This has consequences for the women in the house.  They are mostly Slavic Jews, Italians, Poles, or Irish.  When they turn to the boarding house for help, they are suddenly in a different cultural environment than the tenements.  They have to lose their culture to improve their circumstances.

On a more personal level, charity can often be less altruistic than we realize.  It is easy to dispense food, clothing, and even jobs to those who need it.  Such help allows for an assuaged conscience, and lets the native-born haves lecture the newly arrived have-nots on exactly how to act if they want to move up the ladder.  It is entirely less convenient, and comfortable, to give disadvantaged people, immigrants or not, what they need on their own terms.  This requires us to trust their judgment calls over our own.  It may require more sacrifice than we’d like to make.  Or it may require more humility than expected.  Some impoverished people, like Lindner, only need the right inspiration to rise out of their circumstances.  They hardly give well-off individuals a chance to feel good about themselves for helping someone in need.  True humanitarians will recognize this, and accept it.  After all, if shame and helplessness are the worst parts of poverty, then isn’t empowerment the best way to combat it?

 

[1] Richard Stearns, The Hole in Our Gospel (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2010), 118-119.

[2] Katherine Stubbs, “Introduction,” in Arrogant Beggar by Anzia Yezierska (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996), vii-ix.

[3] Anzia Yezierska, Arrogant Beggar (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996), 1-68.

[4] Yezierska, 52-54.

[5] Yezierska, 88-149.


16 thoughts on “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Determined: Immigrants Who Want Better Circumstances

  1. A lot of the immigrants I have worked with would agree with your standpoint, that they need to be helped on their own terms. The next question for native-born Americans is, “what are those terms?” Often the answer given is TIME. Between working multiple jobs and caring for a family, the immigrant’s schedule hardly ever aligns with that of the benefactor. That’s why you should be able to find ESL classes at almost any time of the day. Terms are also culture-specific, gender-specific, and age-specific. I think the boarding home ladies Yezerierska describes missed the point in that they didn’t ask the individual. Instead, they acted based on immigrant classifications–which they invented.

    1. Immigrants keep facing misconceptions other people invent, which doesn’t help the situation. As you said, in Arrogant Beggar the boarding home ladies classify immigrants based on what they think they are. Today there’s still a strong misconception about immigrants. Take a look at how the south judges Latinos. (I can only speak for the southern perspective) They’re perceived as thieves stealing jobs who aren’t grateful to be in America, just eager to take advantage of the system without paying into it. It isn’t true for most cases, but this notion to judge immigrants based on personal thoughts and not based on actual fact still lives on today.

  2. The statement, “Americans are proud of how our country can give new opportunities to poor immigrants” really made me think about the realities of American Charity. I respectfully disagree with this claim as American thoughts on immigration are across the board. As of 2013, the PEW research center found that only 49% of Americans agree with the statement “immigrants today strengthen the country because of their hard work and talents” and somewhat fewer (41%) agree with an opposing statement: “immigrants today are a burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing and health care.” (http://www.people-press.org/2013/03/28/most-say-illegal-immigrants-should-be-allowed-to-stay-but-citizenship-is-more-divisive/#view-more)

    Americans today, as a whole, are not proud to help immigrants by providing them with charitable services. And while I do agree with your views on charity and empowerment, the United States still has a long way to go before we can claim to be a tolerant and welcoming country of different cultures.

    1. Good point. I won’t deny your observations on how many of us view current immigrants, but I suspect that many of the people who dislike current immigrants have a mythologized view of past immigration. I’ve heard anti-immigrant rants in which people talk about how their immigrant ancestors worked hard to get here, cooperatively assimilated, and earned every good thing that came to them in this land of opportunity. The ranters juxtapose their hard-working immigrant family from the past with a lazy, job-stealing illegal border hopper who refuses to learn English in the present. Both of these are caricatures, but they show how someone can simultaneously be xenophobic and proud of America as a nation of immigrants. Their problem isn’t with immigration as an ideal/theory, but with how they perceive it in reality. They expect that coming here and getting a job will be enough to make everything better for someone, and that that’s all an immigrant should ask for. There’s a lot of problems with that mindset, but a disregard for our nation’s immigrant heritage isn’t one of them.

  3. It’s interesting in that not until I read these posts that I really started to think about Arrogant Beggar in terms of just immigrants. I think when I read the novel, I saw it initially as a chastisement of charity in terms of helping the poor in general, not just immigrants. And now I am reconsidering the novel. However, I was really struck by the hypocrisy in the novel of how people who claim that it is their duty to help the poor then turn around and exploit them in the same breath (such as Mrs. Hellman did to Adele when she worked as a maid in her house). I appreciated your point about finding out what people need before offering humanitarian support. I think in many cases that is hard because it extends beyond just being an American and into control issues of the individuals themselves. It’s hard to give up control. And charitable giving is often an area where people don’t want to give up that sense of control, and yet still have the “chance to feel good about themselves for helping someone in need,” as you said.

    1. The notion of feeling good about yourself after helping someone reminds me of an article someone posted (on facebook? twitter?) about ways to push back against privilege (http://www.blackgirldangerous.org/2014/02/4-ways-push-back-privilege/). “Shut Up” is listed as a way to push back. So, it seems that “finding out what people need before offering humanitarian support” is important when we consider class privilege. Do those with the ability to help simply help for the sake of helping? And, does this perpetuate class privilege in some way?

      1. “Do those with the ability to help simply help for the sake of helping? And, does this perpetuate class privilege in some way?”

        I think this is a very important question, Eric. While I truly do think that privileged people help because they genuinely feel that are making a difference, I think the answer to the second part of that question is often, unfortunately, yes. People of privileged backgrounds, though well meaning, can often not “relinquish power” as the article you posted suggests, and end up maintaining relationships of power that keep the poor, whether they be immigrants or any other, oppressed.

    2. That raises an interesting question about aid efforts in even wider terms. If philanthropic aid is made less successful by the the inability to fully understand the challenges faced by the large number of impoverished individuals and families in the United States, how does that compare to humanitarian aid sent to other countries? Even if such efforts are well intentioned, there is the potential for aid providers to become so self-satisfied by their efforts that they perpetuate cultural hubris (giving credit to American values as a component of their charity). Impoverished families (or even communities) in other countries can sometimes be faced with unique challenges that are taken for granted in the United States. For instance, some communities must constantly worry about getting enough clean water each day; a problem which exists in the United States, but on a much smaller scale than in drier places. Just as poor residents of the United States can be neglected by charities, I think it is important to consider how misguided international aid efforts may perpetuate cultural differences.

      1. This is a great point. I follow a couple of international aid groups, and I’ve heard horror stories about how our aid has accidentally destroyed economic sectors in other countries, notably their agricultural and textile industries. We’ve inundated countries with so much food and clothing that local farmers and garment makers risk losing their livelihoods. Fortunately, many groups are now trying to address these issues. The best ones that I’m aware of are Compassion International and World Vision, both of which treat the families and communities they’re helping as partners. The book I cited at the beginning of the blog post was actually written by the CEO of World Vision, Richard Stearns. He often uses religious rhetoric that may not appeal to some people, but Stearns does go into great detail about how to effectively help people abroad.

  4. I think you make a good point that those providing the help or aid do not always know what’s best for the people receiving it. How can someone who does not know the immigrant experience or who has never been hungry or had to struggle to find a safe place to live, whatever the need may be, truly know how to aid someone in that situation? In some cases, the help that is provided can sometimes be what re-oppresses. This is evident in Arrogant Beggar with the wealthy benefactors of the settlement house who think they know best what type of education the working girls should receive. Mrs. Hellman particularly wanted the domestic training program to succeed which essentially prepared the girls enrolled to be servants. This also goes back to our discussion last week about W.E.B. Dubois and Booker T. Washington. Focusing on an education with “practical skills” does not often convey a sense of greater aspirations and opportunity although it may meet an immediate need. I think this is where museums can play a role as facilitators between people with diverse experiences, especially in figuring how we can truly help one another and not for the sake of feeling we’ve done our good deed for the day.

  5. I think a distinction needs to be made between a settlement house and a charity boarding house. Both were established by rich ladies, so it’s easy to get confused. A charity boarding house was a residence for young working women, like the one in Arrogant Beggar. A settlement house was a residence for reformers who were the first social workers. Settlement residents believed that to understand the plight of the poor, they had to actually live–settle–in the neighborhood with their charges. It was not a charity house, the poor did not live in a settlement house. Though settlement houses and charity boarding houses share similar values in terms of civilization and respectability, their purposes were very different.

  6. The friction between charity and independence is very complicated in this novel. What makes Muhmenkeh’s charity acceptable to Adele where Mrs. Hellman’s was not, is the combination of Muhmenkeh’s poverty and her true kindness. The fact that Muhmenkeh gave Adele everything when she had next to nothing makes her charity meaningful. Additionally, Muhmenkeh gave Adele a maternal relationship, the relationship Adele sought in vain with Mrs. Hellman. Within the context of this novel, in order for charity to be meaningful and acceptable, it must be accompanied by a relationship and equality of class. For instance, Arthur Hellman built a relationship with Adele, but could not cross the barrier of their class disparity.

  7. I think this reading has some parallels to museums today. The elitist mentality often sullies the common mission and purpose of museums, which is to serve to a diverse audience of all backgrounds and provide a welcoming environment. People choose not to visit certain museums because this elitist approach gives the impression that museums cannot serve them, represent mainstream groups such as “white America,” and are unaffordable to them.

  8. Providing aid to those in need is a complex issue that requires a lot of thought and consideration. You and your organization may have a goal in mind: help these people. What is difficult is finding a way to do that that will have a long-term, sustainable impact, helps solve the problem as opposed to putting a Band-Aid on it, and doesn’t take away the agency of those involved. I think that was part of the problem Mrs. Hellman and her board had in “Arrogant Beggar.” She made Adele feel almost less than human, stripping away what dignity she had left, despite her poor condition. The board decided what was appropriate for the girls to wear, eat, where to live, how late to stay out, and what they could aspire to be. It was this kind of treatment that ultimately made the help Adele was receiving unbearable. Mrs. Hellman discussed at length what they thought was best for the girls, without ever asking for their input. I am most familiar with these kinds of concepts in terms of NGOs operating in Africa. There has been a lot of debate over how best to help Africa and whether Africa needs any help at all. Colonialism created a lot of problems and maybe Africans themselves are the best people to decide what to do moving forward, instead of past colonizers trying to pick up the pieces of the mess they caused. There are many factors to consider when providing aid that make it more than providing basic human needs, but also allowing whoever is in need to hold on to whatever makes them feel human and dignified.

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