Thursday, May 25, 2006

Hyphenated America

My good wife saved a piece from a recent Washington Post for me to read at dinner last night. It was from the “Ask Amy” advice column. Apparently there had been a recent letter from someone that didn’t like the term “African-American” and yesterday’s column was filled with responses about the issue.

There were many people that supported the use of the term, citing the de-emphasis of skin color as a descriptor. Some didn’t like the use of the term as being too generic or not having any real relevance to them. One, God hhelp me, actually said she didn't consider herself an African American since her family came from the carribean some generations ago.

Reading the section, I was brought to mind of a subject that is near and dear to my heart, and that subject is "hyphenated" Americans.

My take on hyphenating is this: While it is fine to be interested in one’s heritage, spending your time identifying with a country or continent (and taking it seriously) that your ancestors left generations ago is a waste of time.

Every St. Patrick’s day, Columbus day, and Cinco De Mayo, The American descendants of Irish, Italian, and Mexican immigrants throw huge celebrations, and wear buttons that say Kiss Me, I’m (insert group here). Throughout the spring and summer, all over America there are Scottish or Celtic festivals, at which you will see no small number of men (and even women) wearing kilts and dancing to the beautiful skirl of that most wondrous of instruments, the great highland bagpipe. During the month of February, Black History month is celebrated. For those four weeks we are bombarded with television and magazine ads highlighting the contributions that American descendants of Africans have made to the building of this country. The list goes on and on… In some places it is the German festival, or Polish festival and what-have-you.

All of this celebrating is good fun, to be sure. Like most Americans, I love a good party, but I worry sometimes that we get just a little too attached to our self-affixed labels. How often have I heard someone describe himself as “Pure” Irish or Italian. When I ask such people where they were born, they often look at me like I have three heads and say: “here in Virginia” or somewhere else in the U.S. I’ll then ask: “where are your parents from?” and when I get another answer that is also somewhere in the U.S., I ask: “what do you mean that you are pure Irish/Italian/Polish? You aren’t a Pole, you’re an American!" In response, I usually get: “yeah, but you know what I mean” Yes, I do know what you mean, and so do you, for shame.

You see, I’m an American, with all of the rights and privileges thereunto pertaining. I can want no more in terms of nationality. My ancestors are a wide and varied lot, from English indentured servants (white slaves), African slaves, French religious refugees (Hugenots, anyone?), Irish transportees, and fleeing Scottish rebels. My ancestors, black and white fought in the American Revolution, Civil War, The World Wars, and all the way up through the first Gulf War. I could, if I were inclined, wear a button that says “Kiss Me, I’m FrenchEnglishScottishIrishAfrican"… but that would be stupid. National heritage is only important for a generation or two… by that time, most people quit being whatever they were in the old country and have begun being Americans.

As I have said before, and some of you that know me, know that I am proud of my ancestry. If you know me, you also know that none of it means a Tinker’s damn when stacked up against being an American. Be honest,folks... if the places where most of our forebears were from were so great, they'd have stayed there.

I think that hyphenating yourself is a means of self-segregating. I also think that hyphenating promotes divided loyalties. I think it is high time that we quit doing it.

Every time I talk about this subject with someone, I am inevitably asked if I don’t think that it is great to have an entire month devoted to the history of a(major) portion of my ethnicity? I usually respond by telling them that if they were paying any attention to history at all, EVERY month is a part of my history(and theirs, too!)

For my part, I think that it is past time to do away with Black History Month. Is February the only time that black Americans can learn about themselves? How would many black Americans feel if there was a move to start White History Month? I can see it now; there would be an incredible din from various parts of the black community and many of the race-hustlers that purport to be their leaders.

A little earlier in this piece, I used the term “becoming Americans” and I think that it might be a good time to talk about that here. Most immigrants that come to the United States to live permanently, do so with the intention of becoming American citizens. Most people come to this country because they believe that being here is much better than being where they are from. Because of this, most immigrants strive to become Americans culturally as well as by dint of citizenship. Take a look around… at my daughter’s school, you will find no small number of kids who named Meghan or Abby, or Justin, whose parents, whom you know from talking to them at the PTO, aren’t from this country. Those people want their children to be Americans. Not Korean-Americans, Indian-Americans, or Bolivian-Americans. Just Americans.

It seems to me that people that want to hyphenate are just trying to find ways to opt out of our society or separate themselves from the rest of their countrymen. I don’t see how this can be a good thing.

I find myself constantly reminded, when speaking on this subject, of the words of Theodore Roosevelt, who said: “There is no room I this country for hyphenated Americanism”

He was right.

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