“My fellow Americans, we are and always will be a nation of immigrants. We were strangers once, too.”

President Barack Obama

Do you feel the earth shaking today? It’s happening again, right before our eyes. The exodus redux, the diaspora replayed. I was a history major only because Cave Art of the Pleistocene Epoch class was full. Of course there was also Sylvia with the long hair and Buddy Holly glasses.

I’ve always remained a history buff, albeit with scant credentials. I scanned, without focus, many eras. But in light of current events, this one comes to mind: The main diaspora, the dispersion of the Jews outside of Israel, took place in the 8th and 6th centuries B.C., after which Jews were dispersed even more widely throughout the Roman world and beyond.

In 1492, the earth shook again. The Catholic rulers of Spain and their Inquisition gave the Jews a choice: Take up the cross or hit the road. The Jews packed up and went to North Africa, the Netherlands and the Americas, a movement that resulted in rescuing all of us from the caves and eventually blessed us with the greatest minds in art, medicine and literature of all time, among whom were my personal favorites Steven Sondheim, Jerry Seinfeld, George Gershwin and Bernie Sandler.

Then there was one of history’s movements, which until the great Isabel Wilkerson came along and wrote a highly acclaimed historical study about it, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” remained on the back pages. Between 1917 and 1970 there was the Great Migration, a slow but steady movement of African-Americans out of the South to St. Louis, Chicago, New York, the Northwest and California.

Nobody was really paying attention until one day America woke up and found its landscape forever changed. The South had lost its cheap post-slave era workforce, and the great cities of the North acquired an unappreciated and eager workforce, who became new doctors, lawyers, musicians and writers.

Among those faces was the brilliant Richard Wright who wrote, “I was taking a part of the South to transplant in alien soil, to see if it could grow differently, if it could drink of new and cool rains, bend in strange winds, respond to the warmth of other suns and, perhaps, to bloom.”

Today we’re watching another diaspora that has begun tossing thousands of immigrants up on the beaches of Europe. This great cloud of human smoke is rolling to the West.

They’re running from certain death, from what is one of the oldest inhabited regions in the world.

We’re watching mothers with infants at their breasts, struggling to hold their families together, daughters and sons left behind, fathers clutching dead sons.

We of a certain age have seen all of this before. We saw them in the News of the World trailers in our 1930s movie theaters, sandwiched in between Bette Davis movies, Tom and Jerry cartoons and Batman serials.

There were gray skeletons in old woolen coats and scarves shuffling down roads in Hungary, Poland, Germany, all wrapped in what became that first cloud of human smoke.

Today we watch Germany, of all places, the country that once folded its leather sheathed arms against outsiders, extend those arms to embrace millions of Middle Easterners. They’re taking dark strangers into their very homes, while Britain and France seem to be competing to see how many of these immigrants they can save. Imagine.

While here in the land of the free, blue-suited, red-tied demagogues are churning the waves of the political sea, and children and grandchildren of immigrants are foaming at the mouth over the idea of Hispanics “sneaking” in.

I am the grandchild of Irish immigrants. They came to an America where nobody wanted them — or the Jews or Poles, Italians or Romanians. The very best people who landed on a rock somewhere rejected them. But they came, stayed and flourished. The Irish immigrants were pictured as gangsters, garbage collectors, ape-like drunkards and wastrels.

But they became cops, lawyers, doctors, Supreme Court justices and presidents.

I was raised in a Catholic neighborhood full of the children and grandchildren of immigrants. I went to school with the Irish O’Reillys, Conlons and Bradys; the German Ebners, Karenbrocks and Baers; the French Desnoyers and Aubuchons; the Spanish Villas and Garcias; and the Italian Carbones and Dugos. Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola, sons of Italian immigrants, grew up not far from my street.

Tonight, across the world a thunder can be heard, the thunder of millions of feet rushing headlong towards “alien soil” and “the warmth of other suns.” They will plant, and if they’re lucky, bloom.

Many will fail, many will perish, but others will inherit the winds of freedom, and I can’t breathe thinking of the miracle of it.

Goodnight Grandpa and Grandma, wherever you are, Thanks for coming to America.

J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer.

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