Being the United States’ largest city and among the biggest in the world, the city of New York had been eyed by millions of immigrants all over the world as one of, if not the most ideal place to settle and begin a new life. Over the years, people from different races from various places such as Puerto Rico, Europe, and the South had preferred to settle in New York City rather than live elsewhere in the United States.
New York City serves as a melting pot since almost all nationalities can be found there. Various races come to New York City or “The Big Apple” – as what it is also known to many – for a number of reasons; some are merely after the thrill and excitement of being in a big and famous place, others come to study or be a part of cultural movements, while still others are hoping to be fortunate enough to find a greener pasture.
The City is often used as a representation of a literary work, a setting of a play or novel, or a subject of a poem and many other works of art.
Being a settlement, New York City has numerous stories to tell. Some good, some bad, some tragic; others have happy endings. Not many settlers find enjoyment living in New York City. These stories of people who try to fit in to the City’s fast-paced and busy life come alive through the works of many writers.
A Jamaican author named Claude McKay composed a poem entitled “The Tropics of New York”, a poem which depicts sadness; his feeling of homesickness, his desire to return to his homeland, and his frustration because he is unable to so. The writer describes how he remembers his homeland every time he sees familiar things which remind him of where he came from.
In the first stanza, wherein he describes the fruits that are also present in his country, seems to reflect the writer’s temporary feeling of excitement and short-lived happiness as he recalls what it has been like in his homeland:
“Bananas ripe and green, and ginger root
Cocoa in pods and alligator pears,
And tangerines and mangoes and grapefruit,
Fit for the highest prize at parish fairs,” [McKay, 1].
The author’s happy mood is replaced by gloominess the moment he realizes that he is not in his hometown. His mind suddenly reaches the realization that he is currently living in a foreign land and that the distance separating him from achieving contentment and happiness is part of reality. In the last stanza of his poem, the feeling of despair is clearly evident as the author writes:
“My eyes grow dim, and I could no more gaze;
A wave of longing through my body swept,
And hungry for the old, familiar ways,
I turned aside and bowed my head and wept.” [McKay, 4]
Another writer describes, through his work, how the black community in Harlem extends a helping hand to people who are materially slack and in need of comfort and solace. Harlem is said to be the best known black community in the entire United States. A writer of the Harlem Renaissance era, Langston Hughes, wrote a poem entitled Night Funeral in Harlem which tells of a young man; although he died poor, he is loved by his family, his girlfriend and his friends.
New York City is not only for the rich and the famous. This part of the United States also caters to people who are not fortunate enough to experience the luxury that the wealthy have the privilege of enjoying.
This poem of Hughes not only literally describes a young man’s funeral and how his remains are treated with respect and love by the people around him, but rather it describes how a poor neighborhood in New York City help one another in times of grief and tragedy.
In the first part of the poem, the author writes:
Insurance man, he did not pay–
His insurance lapsed the other day–
Yet they got a satin box
For his head to lay.” [Hughes, 1]
Despite the poverty that the dead young man’s family is experiencing, they still manage to give the young man a decent coffin where his body is placed. The blacks are among the ethnic groups in the City which, in most cases, are not treated with equality, simply because of the color of their skin, and for most of them, due to lack of education. This poem of Hughes shows that despite the lack of material gains, the blacks seem to find a means of comforting one another; it also shows that it is not the person’s physical appearance – specifically the color of his skin – that matters but the sincerity of a person’s intentions and the pureness of his heart.
However, the poem also shows the readers the evidence of racial discrimination. Hard as it may seem to admit, the colored race or the blacks only get sympathy from their own kind; the bereaved are only condoled by people whose color is the same as theirs.
The city of New York is a melting pot, wherein the people from different countries try hard to fit in and be “true” Americans. They try to bury their former lives and identities and adopt the things that real Americans do. They desperately do their best to get rid of their accents which still link them to their past, and to their places of origin. This is how writer Abraham Cahan describes many European settlers who seem to be obsessed with changing their former identities in to become more acceptable to the new society that they are trying to belong to; to become “more American”.
In the second chapter of the novel Yekl, the author writes:
“Suffolk Street is in the very thick of the battle for breath. For it lies in the heart of that part of the East Side which has within the last two or three decades become the Ghetto of the American metropolis, and, indeed, the metropolis of the Ghettos of the world. It is one of the most densely populated spots on the face of the earth–a seething human sea fed by streams, streamlets, and rills of immigration flowing from all the Yiddish-speaking centers of Europe. Hardly a block but shelters Jews from every nook and corner of Russia, Poland, Galicia, Hungary, Roumania; Lithuanian Jews, Volhynian Jews, south Russian Jews, Bessarabian Jews; Jews crowded out of the “pale of Jewish settlement” [Cahan, II].
In Cahan’s above description of the New York Ghetto, one will notice that the place is not only crowded with African Americans and other races from the eastern part of the world such as China, but it is also filled with Jews, Russians and other Europeans.
It is evident that the desire of many immigrants to be accepted by the American society is always threatened by the fact that they will be subject to racial discrimination which is the major cause of racial disputes in New York City. The increasing chances for these disputes continue to increase as the races other than Caucasian try to fit into the society wherein they are hardly accepted and instead are given the kind of treatment that is akin to aversion and even loathing.
Having been used as subject to literary works by well-known writers has helped a lot in revealing the true conditions of the immigrants who get settled in New York City. The writers’ artistic ways of describing how majority of these foreign settlers have been trying to adapt to their new environment despite their awareness that they are likely to become subjects of criticisms and unwelcome attitudes by white Americans as well as those of settlers with European ancestry are, in a way some sort of eye opener to others – to those who are fortunate enough to feel a sense of belongingness in their chosen society, and to those who have the same dreams as those who are being treated as outcasts, simply because their skins have darker color and their accents are not American.
Cahan, Abraham. Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto. D. Appleton and Company. 1896. Chapter 2.
Hughes, Langston. Night Funeral in Harlem. 1997-2009. April 30, 2009. <http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15613>.
McKay, Claude. The Tropics of New York. Academy of American Poets. 1997-2009. April 30, 2009. <http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15249>.
Rosenbaum, Emily and Samantha Friedman. The Housing Divide: How Generations of Immigrants Fare in New York’s Housing Market. New York and London: New York University Press. 2007. 14-18.
Waldinger, Roger. Still the Promised City?: African-Americans and New Immigrants in Postindustrial New York. President and Fellows of the Harvard College. 1996. 1-6.