Thoughts Prompted By Immigrant Heritage Month
June is Immigrant Heritage Month.
As I wrote a few days ago on a related topic (the related topic being Mexicans), though I do a lot of crowing here about my 400 year old American background, I also have strong romantic feelings about the concept of American immigration. How could someone who loves vaudeville, show business, New York (or demonstrably, America or the human race) NOT?
We’ll get to the “notters” in a minute. I have to. I am part of what ought to constitute the most conservative or reactionary demographic, the male WASP. But that group isn’t politically or socially homogeneous, and I have to acknowledge that I owe a certain amount of my belief system to the fact that I grew up in the multi-ethnic, multi-religious Northeast in the late 20th century.
For most of its history, New England had been much more homogeneous, but it began to change drastically around the time of my mother, who was born in 1926. The cultural difference between my mother and her own mother was marked. My grandmother (b.1905) still practiced the religion of our Puritan ancestors, Congregationalism. She was an old school New England Republican, traditional, and culturally English in every way. And for the most part, everyone she knew was from the same town and had the same centuries-old roots there. My mother, on the other hand, grew up on a diet of radio, big band music, Hollywood movies, and (once she reached adulthood) friends of diverse ethnicities. In the intervening time, we had gone from the nation of Francis X. Bushman to the nation of Russ Columbo.
By the time I was born, at least where I grew up, this greater diversity wasn’t even thought about much. My circle of high school buddies had an ethnic distribution like a World War Two platoon from the movies: two Irish, one Irish/German, one Italian and one Eastern European Jew. And the girls I dated (or was sweet on) in my teenage years and young adulthood were Jewish, Italian, Portuguese, Irish, French, South Asian and African American. (And now that I think of it, a couple of fellow WASPs. Yes. A couple of fellow distant, cold-blooded, inscrutable WASPs). And lately I’ve been running around with an Albanian chick. She taught me an 800 year old Gypsy Vampire trick — that’s what closed the sale.
The immigration story is now part of the American experience. I, who lack this flavor of spice (at least in a recent or obvious way), have always found myself longing to own part of it, just as much as some might wish to own my part, the grass always being greener. But, are you kidding? In the age of Fonzie and John Travolta and Kool & the Gang, if you think there was some kind of social advantage at high school dances in being a (nonwealthy) Pilgrim, you’d better think again. Being from where I’m from, and who all my friends have been, and what the theatre and show business has been since the early 20th century, I’ve actually had something like “immigration envy” for most my life…but I take solace in the fact that my sons are part Irish, Slovak, German, and maybe even a little Roma. So I can live that part of the story vicariously through my sons. It will always be part of the history of my descendants now (knock wood that I get some). And, as I’ll show below, I have many more immigrant bona fides than I thought.
THOUGHTS ON THE BACKLASH
But as we all know, the Vanilla people are freaking out big time these days. The existence of Muslims and Mexicans in America especially is causing certain people to lose their shit, although one can’t help noticing that when a Trump protester happens to be African-American, the cheers are especially loud when the security guard beats the crap out of him. There are some groups, some newer, some older (blacks having been here almost as long as whites) that millions of my people are balking at having to assimilate or even be nice to. I know what this is about. I used to watch the veins pop out of my father’s head when he watched Fox News.
That this is happening now can be bewildering. Shouldn’t this be BEHIND us? (But then there is so MUCH that should be behind us). Yet we pat ourselves on the backs and take a lot for granted, despite the fact that it has NOT been a bed of roses. I’ve been bragging about growing up in Rhode Island, and that state can be thought of as part of the leading edge of immigrant assimilation in this country. One of our sources of pride is that Rhode Island has the oldest surviving synagogue in America. Another is that it produced the first Italian American to be elected governor or to the U.S. Senate: John O. Pastore. And that’s extremely cool. But? The rub is that that happened surprisingly recently. He became governor in 1945, Senator in 1950. He was a local hero and public figure in my state whom everyone revered, and do you know when he died? The year 2000. My sons were already born then. So we can take the existence of politicians like Gerry Ferraro and the Cuomo family for granted but the fact is the assimilation of Italians (to use one handy ethnic example) has been startlingly recent. The way I look at it, it was ten minutes before I was born. And ten minutes before my mother was born was Sacco and Vanzetti.
And looked at another way, Pastore broke into the Rhode Island power structure in the mid twentieth century. What was the existing power structure? Old line blue bloods with names like Aldrich, Pell and Chaffee. Are those names STILL part of the nation’s power structure? Yes. One of them just debated Hillary Clinton in the Presidential race a few months ago. He didn’t do very well, but he was at the table.
An interesting question, though: are the characters who show up at the Trump rallies part of the power structure? One tends to think not. The resentment and fear seems to stem from the loss of whatever slight advantage they imagine they once possessed, ones they assumed they’d inherited due to their heritage. But the country is changing, and it is changing to be less like them. “My ancestors cleared these woods, named this town, founded this church, and now I am made to feel a stranger in my own home, an alien, a dodo. This was mine, and I loved it. Now it is being taken away and I will fight that.”
I was just able to articulate that because I understand it, though I’ve come to different conclusions. To walk around my hometown with a historian’s eyes is to see an English village. A future archaeologist could easily sort out who built the area’s first farms, stone walls, mills and houses, and who laid out the roads and towns. People who came from England. There are places that I know of in America named after my relatives stretching all the way from Vermont to Texas. It gives me a bond with the places, and it gives me a bond with the people who have a bond with those places. And now comes a flood of people who don’t know and don’t care – about the name, about the place, or about you. That’s going to feel like an invasion, and it’s going to hurt.
And the same is true of intangible things like culture. A weird and tiny but telling example from when I was about 19. Fresh from reading The Grapes of Wrath, one day I ironically used the old folk exclamation “Land of Goshen!” – and suddenly learned how great the gap could be between me and those around me. Though it’s an antique expression and I was using it humorously, I was not prepared for the fact that none of my buddies (mentioned above) had not only never heard what I took to be a self-explanatory, well known, age-old phrase drawn from American culture, but THEN they did not understand my explanation, which meant that they not only had not read Exodus, didn’t know the story of Moses very well, or even seen the movie The Ten Commandments. Okay? And I’M NOT PARTICULARLY RELIGIOUS! I’m not some Bible thumping evangelist out there handing out tracts (I’m anticipating a bunch of people out there at this moment sneering in response, as though I were). Uh, but no. I’m not a zealot. I’m just from America, have lived in it and listened to it. You’re the stranger here, not me. To suddenly feel an alien in that way merely by using an expression drawn from the 400 year old culture in which you are currently residing, if you dwelt on that enough, it could make you insane. Many people are dwelling on it right now, in just that fashion, and it is making them insane.
And insane is the right word. Many people will wonder what’s wrong with this kind of righteous indignation? Well, it’s solipsistic. In fact, to use language they ought to appreciate but won’t, it’s the very definition of un-Christian. It’s looking at the question as though you yourself were the only person in the equation, and the newcomer’s feelings or point of view didn’t matter and weren’t on the table. There is something sort of pathological about this paradigm of “invasion”, because really what’s involved is not takeover, but exchange. It’s only “takeover” if to you it’s a zero sum game, in which case your own agenda is the opposite, to annihilate the other party on some level. There’s a certain psychology of impotence and rape at work here. You’re either “doing” or you’re “getting done” (thank you for that expression, Larry the Cable Guy). But is that really what happens in the world? I mean, isn’t it true that there’s a friggin’ McDonalds in Katmandu?
We’re living in an age of irrational panics, and just as in all such times, the process is being driven by opportunistic politicians who distort the truth and, at the Trumpian extreme, just make it up as they need to. But the historical truth is quite different. Counterintuitively, this reality was driven home to me by researching my own heritage, which on the face of it, sounds as homogeneous as it gets. But it’s not. No one’s background is.
AMERICA WAS NEVER HOMOGENEOUS
Let’s start with the obvious. America was originally the domain of the indigenous tribes who lived here for thousands of America before the Europeans. Their culture profoundly influenced the Europeans who moved here. Place names, folk practices, diet, attitudes. The guerrilla tactics the American used to foil the British at Lexington and Concord were learned from the Indians. Coonskin caps and fringe jackets – thought of as “pioneer gear”, arose because Native Americans and Europeans were INTERACTING. And, in the Southern (and later, Western) states, they were even interbreeding. Thus I have a tiny amount of Powhatan blood, and millions of Americans are part Native American. By the late 19th century, something close to genocidal was happening. But in the beginning the indigenous population had a huge influence on the newcomers. And the English were what amounted to “a flood of illegal aliens”.
“English?” Hell! It turns out I have Italian ancestors – who came to America in the early 1600s! And Dutch ancestors who arrived at around the same time! This is more significant, as the Dutch had their own colony, founded six years after Plymouth. (In fact, Manhattan was the original intended destination of the Plymouth colonists). This inter-ethnic relationship is worth talking about. The Plymouth colonists were interacting with the Dutch even before the Mayflower. Their first colony was in in Leidon, Holland, where THEY were the immigrants. Afterwards, there was all this interaction in America. Plymouth and New Netherland had good relations (some of the Pilgrims even spoke Dutch). When the Dutch started started spreading out, from what was to become New Jersey to halfway across what was to become Connecticut, there was all this overlap in territorial claims, English and Dutch settlements alongside each other in Long Island, and the areas around Hartford and Newark. Thus, even if we don’t count the Native Americans, or the French and Spanish (who were hostile) we already have assimilation and cultural accommodation happening by this early date. When the English took over New Netherland in 1674 and it became New York, the Dutch became one of America’s first ethnic subcultures. It is no surprise that the first non-Anglo named presidents (Van Buren and Roosevelt) are Dutch.
While the vast majority of my ancestors came over in the early 1600s as English Puritan or Virginia plantation stock, a tiny handful came in the 18th century and they are more diverse (and almost all on my Southern side): Pierre LeGrand, who came from France to Virginia before 1707; Francois Benin and Jean Jounay, also from France, before 1710; Hugh Ross, a Jacobite rebel from Scotland, was transported to North Carolina 1716; Joseph Gray from Bristol moved to Philly, 1717; Scotsman Hugh Crawford moved to Connecticut in 1720; French Quakers John Noblett and Ann Brereton moved to Pennsylvania by way of Ireland in the 1720s; Thomas Devane moved to North Carolina from France after 1720 (his wife is often given out to be the semi-royal but probably fictitious Margaret deBourbon DeConde; the reality is that she was probably an Irish girl named Sullivant); Larrance Cypert arrived in Pennsylvania from Germany in 1733 (my only recent German line); John Laughlin, a Scots-Irish came to Virginia before 1742; David Stuart and Margaret Lynn, also Scots-Irish arrived in Virginia in 1747 (these are different Stewarts than the ones who bore my patronymic, who arrived in New York City prior to 1680): and the Quaker John Nichols arrived in Maryland in 1774 – just in time to see some shit go down.
Interestingly, my very last immigrating ancestors (that I have identified) show up in Chicopee, Massachusetts around 1850. They are my great-great-great grandparents William Ellis and Margaret Dann. I call them “The Stragglers” because they arrived around a century after that small group I listed above, and two centuries or more after all my other immigrating ancestors.
They are exciting to me because they technically allow me to overlap with all my friends whose ancestors came with the more famous immigration waves, starting with the Forty-Eighters (so called because the wave began in 1848). Most of the Forty-Eighters were Irish or German, but a certain amount came from England. Ellis, a laborer, was from Yorkshire.
Part of the attraction was the industrial jobs; a major factor in that was the textile industry. As a little personal digression: textiles are a thematic connection between the two otherwise very different sides of my family. I grew up in Rhode Island, where the industrial revolution was born. Samuel Slater built his mill (which still stands) in Pawtucket Rhode Island in 1793. There are water mills on rivers throughout the state. There were a couple of textile mills less than a mile from my house when I growing up, and my dad’s family, which moved there from Alabama in the 1940s, worked in a textile mill in nearby Shannock. The irony here is that Huntsville, Alabama, where the family had raised cotton before migrating North, ALSO became a major textile manufacturing center. But my father, though a poor white, was part of the same Great Migration that brought millions of blacks to Northern cities and for the same economic reasons.
Why I think of all this is, of course, the work drives immigration just as it drove migration. The first Jews arrived in Hunstville in the 1840s, and built their first synagogue there in 1898. This country is not anywhere as monolithic as anyone thinks it is. In fact that’s where the tension comes from. (See the 1998 musical Parade, about the 1913 lynching of a Jewish factory owner in Georgia). Meanwhile the same forces changed the character of New England, as we note above, changed the kind of person my mother could and would be. Chaffees (whom I happen to be related to) had to move over for Pastores. There is no NOT being part of the immigration story, unless…unless you want to live off the grid in a compound. It’s been done before.
AIN’T NO WHITE, AIN’T NO ANGLO
The last point I want to make and which hit me like a wonderful bombshell as I studied my family over the centuries…is that when you look at the picture from 10,000 feet with some real perspective, all of the differences vanish like the illusions they are.
For example, what does it mean to even be “English”? Essentially, nothing. Most of the ethnic constructs we cling to arose as part of the nationalism movement in the 19th century. But it falls apart. The island was first full of Britons, a Celtic-speaking people, and then invaded by successive waves of people you might call “very aggressive immigrants”: Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Danes, Vikings, Normans (themselves a Viking people who had migrated to France). So what’s the difference between being, say, ethnically English, German, French, Dutch, or Scandinavian? Nothing worth talking about. In addition, the English people were ruled by Rome, which influenced their culture then and later, and adopted Christianity, a cult of Judaism, a Middle Eastern religion. It’s the same in whatever Old World country you want to look at. They are ALL essentially countries of immigrants with new populations constantly flowing in, flowing out, changing things, trading ideas, merging. Change, change, change. Constantly. ALWAYS. All the way back. All the way back 100 centuries to AFRICA, from which we all originally came by the way. So if you’re not ready to embrace your African brothers and sisters, maybe your African GRANDPARENTS will change your mind. Archaeologists trace the journey even if you can’t.
“Why is it me who has to change? Why can’t they be the ones to change?” Oh, it’s bigger than you, my friend. It’s so much bigger than you and your tiny, provincial, temporary complaints.