The Death of an American Dream: Amber’s Immigrant Story

Amber was a caller to “The Connection” on WBUR in Boston in the 1990's, the radio antecedent to “Open Source.” Listeners came to know her and look forward to her calls. She tangled with some of our most erudite and combative guests …and usually got the best of them. Joe Kahn even wrote a profile of her for the Boston Globe in 1999:

Regular “Connection” listeners have come to know Amber from her memorable jousts with Camille Paglia, Gore Vidal, Germaine Greer, and other world-class talkers. Harold Bloom once gasped “Who is this?” after listening to an Amber soliloquy on Shakespeare … In sum, Amber is a phenomenon, a rare creature of the talk-show culture who makes others sit up and listen. In that broadband democracy, wherein some callers are manifestly more equal than others, Amber, with her fierce intelligence and heat-seeking opinions on everything from presidential politics to pop culture, can hold her own with anyone.

We interviewed Amber again this week on the subject of immigration. Here’s Chris’s introduction, and you can listen to the most recent radio dispatch from Amber and a transcript of what she told us below.

Amber landed in Boston as an orphan child from the British Caribbean — an uninvited but ecstatic guest at the American banquet table. Decades of uncertainty, and unrequited love — specially from the immigration authorities — are taking their toll in anxiety, sometimes disabling fear, and loss. She’s now thinking she wants a divorce from her American Dream. This week she spoke to me at length about the rise of Donald Trump as a turning point, not just for her.

Amber: I think this is your America. I think this is the real America finally showing itself after a long time, and so do all the people who walk around with my skin color or in my neighborhood. We feel like we’ve been cheated for the last 8 years. You lied to us. I mean, come on Christopher. This is after Obama. The most classy, the most adult, the most charming, the most sophisticated, the most quietly elegant president in my lifetime — and I’m not saying that because he’s black. Absolutely not. It’s just, he is. He’s the best we could have given you, and by “we” I mean, you know, the brown and black people. And when he leaves you replace him with the crudest, crassest, most loathsome T.V. personality. What do you want us to say? What do you want me to say? To quote a friend at work: “After the n*gger, I guess anybody could be put in there.”

Lydon: Let me just say, it’s 20 years now–more than 20 years–that I’ve known you well. You’re the other in our midst and you know us, of course, much much better than we know you. I take you seriously. What are you noticing these days?

Amber: How angry your country is, and I don’t understand why. Why is America so angry? You’ve got a great 5 country. You’ve got a pretty decent life compared to most people. Nobody’s dropping bombs on you. No drones are blowing up your weddings or bombing your school kids. I’m living in fear, and I’m not angry.

Lydon: It’s a very good question. I keep thinking “What are we afraid of?”

Amber: That Time Magazine cover when I was a little girl in Catholic School: “The Browning of America.” That’s what you’re afraid of.

Lydon: I think we’re afraid of our punishment too. Our comeuppance…

Amber: To quote a black comedian: “What are you worried about? When we get in charge we’re gonna do what you’re gonna do to us?”

Lydon: Speak to this moment: late winter, 2017. Compare it, say, with a wonderful conversation we had in 2004 during the democratic national convention, 6 the Kerry-nominating convention right here in Boston, and you were saying, “What about those SWAT teams that are looking at me on the subway? They’ve got machine guns in hand.” You said it made you feel like a criminal, but this a different moment. What are you noticing?

Amber: It’s not the SWAT teams now that I’m afraid of. It’s my neighbor, my landlord, my good friend, someone at my aunt’s old church that may have a grudge. That’s what I’m afraid of: people I know and I’ve loved and I’ve shared things with who I can’t criticize or say a bad word to now because they might be able to pick up a telephone and make a phone call and everything is gone, destroyed, over. That’s a different kind of life.

Lydon: You know, it’s all about papers now. Papers, papers, papers. I.C.E. The I.N.S used to be immigration, migrants as a big threat we’re told. You know that totally other side of the coin, and you and I have pushed together, from time to time, on that immigration wall. What I learned was that it’s an impenetrable maze. You can’t get in. You can’t get out. We used to talk to Ted Kennedy’s office about it. We talked about your case with one of the most famous immigration lawyers in the country and they all said there’s nothing to be done. We can’t send her back, can’t bring her to court, can’t surface this situation. So…a nightmare. Don’t bother. Talk about that place you live. It is underground. It’s nowhere.

Amber: You mean like having no fingerprints? That’s how I feel most of my life, yes. No country, no place, nowhere to belong. Just there, existing. Now, it’s just worse. I’ve been an orphan. I’ve been a foster kid, and that wasn’t quite as painful as having to let go of the idea that I’m an American. This is a much bigger divorce. This is who I am. This is all I know. There is no place to go back to, and one of the reasons I was brought here was because my guardian was assured that this was a land of laws, this was a land of reason, this was anti-Britain. Please remember, she came from post-colonial England, and America was always presented to her, my family, all those domestic maids down there working for all those fine rich white americans–who brought them here to do the same thing–as the anti-Britain. This wasn’t about a class system. This was someplace where a domestic could come, work 7 days a week, which she did, bring her niece who had no parents no place to live at the time, and eventually, the laws, the rules would say, “This kid is no threat. This kid is no terrorist. This kid can stay.” We lived in a one bedroom apartment, slept on the floor because we had no bed when we first came here. And yet, I was never happier in my life because I was home. I finally had a mother, and I finally had a country I belonged to. And then, my aunt — who didn’t finish what you all would consider high school — started the legal process, writing to the INS, “This child has no home. This child has been running around without clothes and food since the person that was taking care of her died. This child is mine because nobody else wants her, and I want her. Please let her stay.” Orphans and foster kids are always most terrified when something is arbitrary, when somebody somewhere can just go, “You, I like. You, I don’t like. You, I like.” That’s what you’re immigration system is basically, always has been. We got letters saying, “Too bad, don’t care. Put her on a plane.” My Aunt would go, “Where?” Where? Who’s gonna meet here? What do I do with her? She’s not a number! Because, you know, they assigned me a number, and my poor aunt — who can barely write — scribbled in her note, “She’s a child. She’s not a number. This is my baby. Let me keep my baby, please. I’ll work 7 days. I’ll put her in Catholic school. It won’t be your America dollar. She’s gonna be a good citizen someday.” Number rejected. No answer, just number rejected. I’ve been a number rejected since I was a child, and yet, I’ve held onto this country believing this is home. This is my home.

Lydon: This home in a kind of unidentifiable limbo. Do you recognize each other out there? Do you see other people that are groping around in the fog?

Amber: Yes. You can tell. The guy who sweeps up the train station looks a little nervous every now and then, doesn’t like to get too close to the police officers when he walks by, and you sort of look at him and he looks at you…You do the wink sometimes. You can tell. It’s not that hard to find us actually. We’re out there living and loving a country that doesn’t love us back. We clean your streets. We clean your toilets. We serve your food. We take care of your babies. Wipe the behinds of the elderly when nobody else wants them. That’s us.

Lydon: Why is this happening now, and is it the end of something or the beginning of something or maybe both?

Amber: I don’t have an answer to that because I don’t know why you’re angry. If I can figure out why America’s angry, I can give you an answer to that. I do think it’s the end of something. Little kids like me, they’re all over the place — Syria, India, China, all over the place, the Caribbean — and something used to draw us here. I could go to college there. I could invent the next Apple computer there. Why in God’s name would the next generation believe that? Why? They can go to Sweden, they can go 10 to Switzerland, they can go to Denmark, they can go to Germany… Angela Merkel. (I love that woman.) Why? Why come here to build the next Apple computer? This is the end of something. This is where the fiction of the American Dream finally dies. We bury it. It’s over, and there’s no Hollywood movie that’s ever gonna convince some little kid like me sitting in front of the TV that this is where to come to build your future.

Lydon: Amber, it’s so true in so many ways. You’re breaking my heart because it rings so true, but it’s your voice that keeps me from giving up.

Amber: God help us both. What is that Shakespeare scene, the two swimmers who are drowning and they keep pulling each other on? Careful. I think we’re drowning here. This just may be Trump’s America, not ours. In my America, you don’t have to defend the word “diversity.” Why the hell would you? It’s a great word. You don’t have to defend the word “Muslim.” What’s wrong with that word? It’s a word with a long history. It’s a fascinating, beautiful word. In his America, you do have to defend those things. You have to defend the word “Jewish,” you have to defend the word “black,” you have to defend the word “immigrant.” Those two Americas cannot exists side-by-side. They just can’t. It’s not gonna work. Ones gotta win, one’s gotta lose, and I have a horrible feeling mine’s gonna lose.

Lydon: Don’t give up.

Amber: Okay, I’m trying.

Listen to our full program undocumented immigrants in the ICE age — featuring Amber, Daniel Kanstroom, Mary C. Waters, and Roberto G. Gonzales — here:

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