Monday, February 10, 2014

A Nation Of Immigrants

I’m getting tired of this “we are a nation of immigrants” thing.  It’s not true.  A lot of my ancestors were colonists, or if you prefer, invaders.* You could technically call my Wyman grandfather an immigrant, as he came down from Nova Scotia in the 1920’s.  His people – all branches – had come up from Massachusetts in the late 18th C to the Yarmouth area, leaving their cousins behind.  That port was far more connected to Boston than Halifax, and his family shipped fresh blueberries in season to the markets there. So it's really stretching a point to call him an immigrant.  His wife’s family seems to have come to Massachusetts in the main colonization from1625-45, the same as the cousins mentioned above.  New England was a rather stable population from then until the Scots-Irish started coming in in the 18th C.  Some of those were mine, and I suppose you could call their arrival 250 years ago “immigration” as well.

Amnesty advocates ask how long a person has to live here before you can call them Americans, with the implication that a decade or two should be enough.  I would ask in response how long your descendants have to be here before politicians and activists stop calling them immigrants.  Was Geoffrey Chaucer an immigrant to England? Were the Iroquois immigrants into the St Lawrence River area but invaders of the Hudson River area?

Not everyone liked being thought of as an immigrant, remember? People consciously dropped the old ways in order to become melting-pot Americans.  The melting pot image is now unfashionable.  So what? A lot of people did melt in and become generic American. Just because the current fashion is to dig up what they buried doesn't make it eternal truth.  The fashion could change in a generation.

The other grandfather traces back to the original Massachusetts colonisation as well. So we are up to 75% of my ancestors who can be called immigrants only if you allow a convenient interpretation of why they came, and regard 250-400 years of occupancy as unimportant to the definition.  The latter would lead to difficulties on most of the inhabited areas of the earth.

My Swedish grandmother wasn’t an immigrant, but her parents were. They came here more than 130 years ago. I don’t think there actually is an American tradition of how far back we count ancestry in our designation of “immigrants.”  Many of our parents and grandparents saw themselves as products of an immigrant culture and would have agreed readily to the statement “we are a nation of immigrants.” But they were born 100 years ago.  In many cases there is no scrap of language, no object from the old country, no identifiable custom of the ancestors.  My wife’s family could much more readily be called “immigrants,” from Holland, Ireland, and Yorkshire, with the original ancestors born in Europe before 1900 but often not much before. But they did not tend toward Dutch, Irish, or recently English friends. They didn’t think of themselves as immigrants.  I don’t know why my wife, children, and grandchildren should now revert to that designation.

I don’t have anything against immigrants.  Sons number three an four are immigrants, the latter a double immigrant, as he now lives and works in Norway.  Perhaps that gives me more clarity exactly what is and is not an immigrant.  I like clarity.

*The original landings were seldom opposed by the native peoples, and sometimes were in places where they were few, anyway.  The subsequent expansions were more along the lines of how invaders act.  Nor were the native peoples of one mind as to what should be done with the Europeans.  There was an enormous range, from the setting up of temporary trading areas in the Canadian Maritimes to the fully-armed landings and military campaigns in Mexico.  All of them brought disease and alcohol, however, against which the natives had little genetic defense.


a psychiatrist who learned from veterans said...

'Move over once; move over twice; come on --- don't be so precise,' as the Beatles said. I always thought it, 'we are a nation of immigrants,' was something like being gracious to the, horrors no longer, Southern Europeans and Russian Jews who were relative latecomers as well as the current batch. C. Woodard from Maine wrote a good book, 'American Nations - the seven regional cultures that make up the United States.' The French were early cultural integrationists if you will; an implication of that that I had missed was our history of the 'French and Indian War.'

Retriever said...

We grew up hearing my mother (whose English,Red Indian,Scottish and French origin American ancestors had been in this country since the 1600s) fondly calling my father her "dirty little immigrant boy". This was a family joke because he had been disinherited from vast colonial British estates in the Far East.

He had CHOSEN America as the country he thought was the best hope for the world, and applied to Harvard for a scholarship. His British dad thought him crazy for not wanting to live in the lap of luxury and supervise hundreds of native workers, but my dad arrived with no money and two small suitcases, worked his way thru school, got his citizenship and served as a US Naval officer immediately upon graduation from the BSchool. He never lost his British accent, but he loved this country with a passion that sometimes amused my mother.

People were always saying "You're British?" and he would say "No, I'm a citizen of God's country, the USA".

He was useful to his American employers in dealing with European clients because he could disarm them, having been to British schools, having manners and turns of phrase they were used to. But he despised the British Empire, he was a rabid democrat, believed in this country passionately.

He used to tell us endless stories about his time in the Navy and how he had been a rather mediocre officer in his own opinion, but how it had made him an American because everyone on his ship, no matter where they were from, had to work together, rely upon each other, and be responsible. THere was no place on it for loathsome distinctions of class or race or religion. Indeed, his ship was the one to have the first black navy pilot tho, sadly, he was killed fairly soon on a mission.

My father used to tell the story of how, when on the way to his own wedding at the Harvard Memorial Chapel to my mother, he and his best man tried to drive in the gate in the ramshackle car that was all he could afford (he was leaving for basic training soon). The security guard said "Hey, you can't go in there, there's a big society wedding going on!" "But I'm the groom" "Sure you are! (with Southie sarcasm)" "I AM, and I start basic training in just a few days so let me through." That worked, so he got married.

My longwinded point is that we were raised that my dad gave up everything to come to this country, and thought it the best thing he ever did. He would have smacked us if we had ever tried on any trashy hyphenated identities. We were Americans.

Col. B. Bunny said...

A great post. I too have roots back to Salem in 1631. When I hear people say WANOI I want to ask them what country they emigrated from. As you know, one needs a magnifying glass and PhD in linguistics to ferret out clues to anyone's origins.

Yes, as to "colonists" and "invaders." The focus on "immigrants" is a neat way to deflect attention from what's going on today. My ancestors were colonists and invaders back in the 17th century, just like the colonists and invaders of our own time streaming across the southern border, engaging in visa jumping, and claiming refugee status. But there'd be a serious media meltdown if too many of us came to understand the invasion part.

Long-term forecast is for dim and cloudy perception of the situation.