Archive for the ‘general’ Category

American identity, past & present

Monday, July 5th, 2010

Map showing the majority immigrant ancestry per state; green is German. Source: German Emigration Center, Bremerhaven, Germany.

Map showing significant immigrant ancestry per state; green is German. Source: German Emigration Center, Bremerhaven, Germany.

As we celebrate our nation’s 234th birthday, I’m thinking about American identity—not that I could even begin to define that. All the same, I spent the spring researching the influence of German immigrants on its formation.

From 1820 to 1985, more immigrants came from German territory than from any other country (7,031,370). Even in the eighteenth century, there were enough of them to make Benjamin Franklin worry that German would overtake English as America’s tongue. Yet these people did not carry some monolithic characteristic to impart on the New World. They brought diversity. The modern nation of Germany is younger than the United States (1871), and the immigrants came from many regions: they saw themselves as Badeners, Hessians, Palatines, rather than Germans. What’s more, their influences here are determined by place of origin, religion, political views, time of migration, reasons for migration, region of settlement, and whether they were urban or rural, scattered among a larger population or dominant in the area. Consequently, there can be no simple “German” influence.

And yet, there may be one in this very diversity. Steven Nolt, in his book Foreigners in Their Own Land: Pennsylvania Germans in the Early Republic (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002), shows that this population (Pennsylvania Germans, 1790–1848) maintained its Old World ways and spoke a German dialect, yet considered themselves definitive Americans for that very reason. America was the land of liberty, and they were practicing it. What kind of liberty would force them to abandon everything they knew, force them to conform to a particular religion or way of life, force them to be someone different?

German particularism—the idea that each regional and religious group should maintain its community and its traditions, even while adapting them to the New World—was widespread. German Americans participated in the country’s economic and political life, and some Germans quickly assimilated, but according to the Max Kade Institute for German-American Studies, “until about the middle of the twentieth century, German was the most widely taught modern foreign language in U.S. schools and colleges.” These are our forefathers.

They were not, of course, the only Americans who believed in particularism, or localism, or states’ rights. But by preserving their language and culture, they lived this choice, and they did not consider themselves any less American for doing so.

Today, Americans have the same belief in local control: we don’t want Washington telling us how to live in Mississippi, Arizona, Vermont, or New York. Why, then, is there a simultaneous view that immigrants should conform or get out?

“American,” after all, is not really an ethnicity, except for Native Americans. It is a nationality, and more than any other, perhaps, it is an identity that people may choose. Let’s hope they keep doing so. In the vast openness of our self-definition may lie our greatest freedom.

World Cup celebration

Saturday, June 19th, 2010

I’m too busy watching the Cup (among other things) to do a proper post, but the Times has plenty of coverage on where to watch the matches among fans rooting for any team (except perhaps North Korea)–including an interactive map.

Immigrant Heritage Week is upon us again!

Tuesday, April 13th, 2010

A few quick notes that have been piling up:

Immigrant Heritage Week will be celebrated from April 15 to 21 this year. Wish I had time to say more about it.

Photojournalist Dave Sanders has been documenting Kensington’s community of immigrants from Darfur, Sudan, for over a year. See the Times for more info.

Like the local Haitian community, New York Chileans also had reason to seek each other out after the February 27 earthquake in Chile, but they are relatively few (15,000) and scattered around the region. Read more about it in the March 5 Times.

New York Haitians

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

This is a late post, but Kirk Semple’s Feb. 4 Times story about the local Haitian community is worth reading. Haitians are the ninth-largest immigrant group in New York City, but they’re less clustered than some other groups, with more of a suburban presence (there’s a graphic on the site comparing the 1980 and 2008 populations). Some hope the devastating earthquake “will bring them more coherence and clout, and deepen an involvement with their homeland that has weakened with each new generation.”

Vuelve Museo del Barrio

Friday, October 16th, 2009

El Museo del Barrio celebrates Opening Day of its renovated space on Saturday, Oct. 17, as it kicks off its 40th-anniversary celebrations with an all-day open house. This first part of the renovation includes a new gallery, courtyard, and café.

Exhibits include Voces y Visiones, more than 100 works by Latino, Caribbean, and Latin American artists, and Nexus New York: Latin/American Artists in the Modern Metropolis, which Holland Cotter reviews in today’s Times.

The museum is at 1230 Fifth Ave, at 104th St (right by the Museum of the City of New York).

Germans marching, throwing candy

Friday, September 18th, 2009
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Steuben Parade, September 2007

This year’s Steuben Day Parade is at noon Saturday on Fifth Avenue, from 67th to 86th St.

Brooklyn and the Chinese immigrant

Monday, August 31st, 2009
Chinese laborer Goon Bow; photo from Brooklyn Historical Society

Papers for Chinese laborer Goon Bow; photo from Brooklyn Historical Society

Finally, I made it to the Brooklyn Historical Society‘s exhibit Living and Learning: Chinese Immigration, Restriction & Community in Brooklyn, 1850 to Present, which, happily, has been extended to October 18.

Through a series of panels with photos and a couple of census books, the exhibit discusses the reception that Chinese immigrants found in New York in the late 19th century and how they began to make Brooklyn a home. The caricatures are appalling, but they’re not only directed at the Chinese; apparently, there was something of an Irish resistance to Chinese immigration, and defenders of the Chinese did not hesitate to stereotype the Irish in comparison. And Chinese laundries not only offered economic competition but carried a more insidious threat: if men did laundry—women’s work—the sacred concept of manliness was in danger.

Overall I found it a very interesting introduction to the history of Chinese immigration to New York, with a rare focus on street-level Brooklyn and the churches and businesses that were part of Chinese life at the time.

The exhibit also takes a brief look at Sunset Park today, and on the historical society’s website you can download the oral histories of some Chinese-American residents of Sunset Park.

If you’re counting the days until the grand opening of the Museum of Chinese in America on Sept. 22, definitely pay a visit to the BHS.

Paper sons

Sunday, July 19th, 2009

More on Chinese Americans: Alison Leigh Cowan in the Times writes about the strategies of hopeful Chinese immigrants after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred most unskilled laborers from China. Immigrants would use study aids to pretend that they were the children of Chinese who were legal residents—or just to make sure they could prove who they actually were. Desperation to get into the United States is nothing new.

You can look at the notebook pages through the Times link above; it even includes a map of the family’s ancestral village. For more on this topic, one commenter recommends the book Paper Families by Estelle T. Lau.