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  • Disabled Upon ArrivalThe Rhetorical Construction of Disability and Race at Ellis Island
  • Jay Dolmage (bio)

I’m going to ask you to come with me on a short trip. We’ll travel to New York City, approaching from the West, over the southern tip of Manhattan and out across New York Bay to Ellis Island, the way-station for millions of new Americans at the turn of the twentieth century. During our visit to Ellis Island for this essay, I will examine what the Ellis Island experience entailed, paying attention specifically to the ways that Ellis Island policed and limited immigration in the early twentieth century, leading up to the highly restrictive immigration laws of the 1920s. This tour will concentrate on the ways that Ellis Island rhetorically constructed disability, and contingently race. Today, you can go on a tour of the grounds, and you can learn about the success stories of plucky migrants, on the cusp of freedom and opportunity. You can buy a mug and a T-shirt. But, in the past, if you were traveling to Ellis Island from the other direction, your experience of the island might have been quite different. It is estimated that 40 percent of the current American population can trace their ancestry through Ellis Island.1 More than 22 million people entered the country through this immigration station. In the years of peak immigration, from the late 1800s until the clampdown on immigration in the 1920s, you might have arrived as one of thousands of steerage passengers on an ocean liner from Europe. Were you of eastern European, southern European, African, or Jewish heritage, you would have been subject to a restrictive squeeze not unlike the cramping you felt in your boat’s close quarters as you came across the Atlantic.2 As you were processed through Ellis Island, you became part of an indelible marking, your body was interrogated, written across, and read into. [End Page 24]

Rhetorical Spaces

In this essay I will examine Ellis Island from a rhetorical perspective—rhetoric defined here as a framework for exploring “the relationship of discourse and power, a rhetoric . . . being a set of rules that privilege particular power relations” (Berlin, 12). I define rhetoric as the function and circulation of power in language, and I will use this definition to guide my inquiry here. Further, I will look at Ellis Island as what Roxanne Mountford calls a “rhetorical space.” Mountford urges us to consider “the effect of physical spaces on communicative event[s]”; the ways that “rhetorical spaces carry the residue of history upon them, but also, perhaps, something else: a physical representation of relationships and ideas” (42). She argues that space “carries with it the sediment of cultural tradition, of the social imaginary” (63). Richard Marback elaborates, claiming that a given space can be seen as a “nexus of cultural, historical, and material conditions” of oppression, and can become a “physical representation of . . . injustice” (1). Thus, in revisiting Ellis Island, rhetorical analysis will allow me to pay attention not just to how power structures and travels through proliferating discourses of ability, ethnicity, racialization, and citizenship, but also how this charging and circulation imbricates, and is proscribed by, the space of Ellis Island.

Richard Marback has written that any island is a “special rhetorical space” (1). Ato Quayson, in his study of Robben Island in South Africa, also argues that, in looking at this island as a space for the detention of society’s unwanted, we should “take both the totality of its history and the rhetoricity of its space seriously as points for productive cross-fertilization” (175). Robben Island housed a hospital for leprosy, a hospital for the chronically sick, a lunatic asylum, and became a sequestered colony. I will show that Ellis Island, like Robben, was a space where, in Quayson’s words, “stipulations of undesirability placed in close and volatile proximity ideas of illness, deformity, insanity, and criminality, sometimes interweaving the various terms and leaving none of them stable.” The legacy of both of these islands echoes today as “denominations of bodily difference . . . have been [repeatedly] incorporated into racial and other hierarchies” (176). Foucault has suggested that our epoch...


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