I’m a white American, but like a majority of us, that’s only small part of the story.
In a country where the federal government is currently in the hands of so-called “nativists” like Trump and his white mostly male Republican Party backers only celebrate white roots, I like many of us have various genetic strands that include a little of what might best be called “diversity.” There is a touch of Native American on my mother’s side – hardly enough to qualify for inclusion in the Algonquin Nation, but enough to remind me and my siblings that our ancestors include both conquerers and the conquered.
Then too, while there is a direct line on both my mother’s side and my father’s side tracing back to the same Warren family that arrived on the Mayflower in 1620, there are also immigrants who came from Scotland (the Stewart Clan) and Ireland on my mother’s side, and from Germany (Kerpol) and England (the Plymptons and Lincolns) on my father’s.
For me, one of the most interesting roots is my great great grandfather, a Lindorff who left Sweden for Germany, marrying a German woman. According to family lore I’d always heard while growing up, this Scandinavian immigrant had been chased out or fled from Sweden because he was a thief or something, though I later learned it was more likely that he was hounded out as a “red” or socialist undesirable.
That seems to be correct because his daughter – my great grandmother – who with her German husband immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1900s with her young children so they wouldn’t get caught up in Europe’s wars, according to my father proudly voted Socialist in U.S. elections all her life – first for Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs for president and then, after he died, for Socialist leader Norman Thomas. (Her sister, though, was a Nazi sympathizer during the 1930s, hosting gatherings at her home in New York City, to the consternation and embarrassment of my great grandmother.)
As an aside, there’s an irony in the family’s having moved to escape Europe’s wars: Both my grandfather and his older brother ended up fighting in WWI — my great uncle as a bi-plane pilot, and my grandfather as an ambulance driver on the front lines in France, where he won a Silver Star for heroism under fire saving countless lives of wounded soldiers.
I mention all this because it’s important to think about all of this rich complexity – racial, social and political – when we talk about the historical and cultural roots of the United States.
In this Trumpian era of glorification of an imaginary purely white past – the one Trump’s speechwriters conjured up when he read from his teleprompted State of the Union address, claiming we Americans are uniquely fearless: “…If there is a mountain, we climb it. If there is a frontier, we cross it. If there is a challenge, we tame it…” – it’s important to recognize that when “we” crossed those frontiers it was go enter lands that were already occupied by the original Americans. We stole those lands from native peoples, killing most of them by weapons, disease, forced relocation and starvation. Meanwhile, for many of our ancestors, including many of mine, the challenge they faced was being accepted by the ones who came before.
My Mayflower ancestors, contrary to the official mythology taught in grade school, came to America not to escape from religious persecution (the Netherlands, from which many of the pilgrims and Puritans came to settle in the New World, was one of the freest countries in Europe when it came to religion). Rather, they came here to America to establish a theocratic society – one that rejected, on pain of whipping, stocks and even death, any heretical beliefs. So extreme was their religious intolerance that Roger Williams by 1636, just 16 years after the Mayflower’s arrival, felt the need to flee religious persecution and lead a group of those heretics to Narragansett Bay and to establish the colony of Rhode Island – on land purchased, not conquered by force, from the resident Narragansett Indians.
A century and more later and on into the 19th century, the descendants of those white European settlers from England or from England via Holland, and their fellow settlers up and down the coast of North America, including Virginia, made life miserable for the waves of those who followed, including another strand of my ancestors, coming from Ireland and Scotland, and later Germany.
My two kids can write someday about an additional strand of our family, since the ancestors of my Jewish wife all arrived in the US in the early 20th century from Russia (Odessa, now part of Ukraine), and from what is now northeastern Poland, both sets of ancestors fleeing brutal programs launched by local slavic majorities. Once in the U.S. they endured a new round of repression, rejection, discrimination and hatred from those who were already here, including I’m sure my people from Scotland, Ireland and Germany.
It’s not the pretty picture painted by Trump’s speechwriters, or in the florid history books foisted on our children in our public schools.
Yes Americans crossed frontiers – The Native Americans who crossed frontiers in our own land in order to escape being slaughtered by waves of grasping, greedy and bloodthirsty Europeans, and waves of Europeans who crossed our own nation’s borders, some legally, and many illegally, in order to escape wars, oppression and poverty in Europe )including Norway!), and later people from Asia, Africa and South America, coming here for the same reasons. It’s a story that continues today, as Trump struggles to win the money in Congress to erect a “giant beautiful wall” along the U.S. border with Mexico, in hopes of keeping out immigrants from Latin Americans and elsewhere who are trying to flee the same scourges that led white Americans’ ancestors to flee here from Europe.
Not enduring the same thing – the discrimination, fear and hatred of the latest immigrants – will be the challenge that a new generation of U.S. immigrants will of course have to struggle with.
I haven’t mentioned one other critically important group of Americans: those whose ancestors arrived her from Africa. That is simply because so far I have not found in family histories any evidence that I am descended from an African ancestor, though there is one possibility – a reference to an ancestor who was lynched in Mississippi. Of course back in the late 18th and early 19th century in America it wasn’t unusual for white people to be lynched for crimes like horse theft, so the mere fact that an ancestor was lynched in the deep South doesn’t mean the victim was black, but it bears further investigation.
We do know, however, that enslaved Africans, whose forced labor basically built the United States, were brought in chains to parts of what are now the United States even before the pilgrims landed in Cape Cod Bay. Spanish settlers brought slaves with them when they settled St. Augustine in Florida in 1581, and the Jamestown Colony founded in Virginia in 1619 included from its start 20 African slaves. They and those who were dragged here involuntarily in chains later, and their descendants, surely had the biggest “challenges to overcome,” though they were not the ones President Trump’s speechwriters were hailing for their courage in the speech he read to Congress.
This is to be sure a complicated country, populated by a rich tapestry of many peoples from many cultures. My own little family added to this richness when, as residents of Hong Kong back in the 1990s, we adopted a 17-month-old boy from a government orphanage there. Now 24, he’s as American as any 20-something American, an aspiring filmmaker with a family of his own encompassing Chinese, Estonian, Puerto Rican and Italian roots.
I remember once when he had just graduated from high school – a beautifully integrated arts high school in Philadelphia called the High School for the Creative and Performing Arts – my son told me that he and his best friend, a black kid he’d known since they were in kindergarten, had decided they wanted to do a road trip to California over the summer. Now I had hitchhiked across the country at that age several times back in the 1960s, and once, at 17, hitched all the way from Connecticut to Alaska and back with a high school friend. Later, my wife and I, just in our early 20s, also hitched out west and from New York to Florida. Mostly these adventures were without incident, but not always, and the problems we ran into, occasionally scary, generally had to do with our looking “hippyish” in places that such appearance in the 1960s was not appreciated by locals. I explained to my son and his friend that as an Asian and a Black kid driving alone through parts of the south, central and western U.S., they could actually find themselves running into serious, even dangerous, trouble, including with police. I deterred them from making that trip, much as it pained me to do so.
In my years of living in places like China, Hong Kong and Germany, and of traveling and spending time in countries like Finland, Austria, Italy, France, Laos, Taiwan, Japan and other places, it has often struck me how unusual the U.S. is, with its polyglot population. All in all, despite the examples of prejudice, the institutional racism and the challenges faced by “minorities” here, we do relatively well at accepting each other, at least when compared to many much more racially uniform countries, or to countries where different ethnicity, religions or linguistic groups live in their own discrete regions, with little mixing, as in Russia, Spain, China, Iran or Ukraine. Looked at from abroad, we are a relatively accepting and tolerant society. Especially these days we form friendships and intermarry across racial and religious lines pretty easily and among younger people increasingly often, which is encouraging. But even as this is going on, or because it is happening, there is an ugly reaction, particularly among those who are white, who see their dominant position in the US under threat. It is a big part of the appeal and success of President Trump, ironically the child of immigrants himself.
We all need to resist that reaction, and openly celebrate our different roots, including the different roots that many of us carry within our own selves and families. That richness and the acceptance of that diversity is what is best about the United State, and it is much more powerful than the ugliness, racism and intolerance of those who continue to resist its inevitable progress.