Monday, January 5, 2009


Whenever I travel to Europe, I think about how far away the United States is. I think to myself: “How the hell did my ancestors cross this vast distance without airplanes?” They must have known how long and dangerous the journey would be. Obviously they must have known that there was no turning back. By the same token, life must have been pretty awful if they were willing to endure those hardships to start a new life in some distant land. From my own experience, just moving from one apartment to another is difficult. I can scarcely imagine how arduous it must have been to move between cultures and continents.

I spend a good amount of time in Berlin every year. When I am there, I really cannot see why anyone would want to leave Germany. The social welfare state cares for everyone. Everyone seems to be relatively well off and there is no real poverty. There may be poor people, but it is nothing like the abject destitution you see in the United States. In Germany, it is as if the people refuse to allow their fellow man to sink so low. Here in the United States, people not only allow their fellow man to sink into oblivion; they barely acknowledge him as a human being once he does. Chris Rock made a cogent observation about the “American approach” to homelessness and poverty. I paraphrase: “When you see a homeless man with a dog, you say: ‘Look at that poor dog! Somebody help that dog!’” That is just the way Americans think.

True, modern Germany is nothing like the Germany that my ancestors left in the 19th Century. But I wonder what kind of people left Europe during the great immigrations to North America. Were they outcasts? Undesirables? Or were they more enterprising and ambitious than those who chose to stay?

Immigration to America came in waves. It started with the British and Dutch, who initially colonized the eastern seaboard. At the same time, the French colonized northeastern Canada, the Great Lakes and Newfoundland. German farmers filtered over to the English colonies even before the Revolution. After independence, large numbers of Germans immigrated, most of whom settled in the Midwest. After them came the Irish—the first Catholics in America—and they found an uneasy fit in the ferociously Protestant Nation. Later, eastern European Slavs, more Germans, and finally Italians showed up. Like the Catholic Irish before them, Catholic Italians suffered rampant discrimination and ostracism during their early years in American society. In 1920, Congress certified that discrimination by officially limiting the number of Italians who could immigrate to the United States in any given year.

America built itself on immigrants. Now we revile them wholeheartedly. We have already built our national power and influence. According to the nativists, we do not need any “new people,” especially those who do not come from the Protestant tradition. We make exceptions for Asians, because they are generally educated and immediately contribute to the tax base. But most Americans are not timid when they express their contempt for Hispanic and African immigrants. They are not “our kind.”

This is absolutely ridiculous. After all, who—or what—is an “American?” This is the question I ask when I am in Europe, and it stays with me when I return home. When I am in Germany, I see people who look like I do. In America, by contrast, I see very few people who look like I do. Who are these “Americans,” then? I am “American” as a matter of international law. But by blood I am 75% German, 20% English and 5% Dutch. From a historical perspective, my ancestors have not inhabited this continent for very long. My eyes, hair, skin and even my language look much more “at home” in Europe than they do in the United States. Who are these “Americans?”

There is no single “American kind.” I suppose that is what the Framers meant when they said: “e pluribus unum;” “out of many, there is one.” Yet this is somehow formalistic. The mere fact that British, Germans, Dutch, Africans, Asians, Cherokee, Cree, Navajo and Russians all live under one national sovereignty does not erase their genealogies. All these “peoples” are “Americans” by virtue of citizenship. But they still retain their unique ancestral roots, wherever those roots may lie. Most Americans overlook their own ancestries. Modern American nationalism has convinced most Americans that they are members of a Nation that has always been here. They think there are transcendent American ways and American traditions, as if those ways and traditions simply materialized on this side of the Atlantic. All the while, they are actually the descendants of people from “somewhere else.” Their roots do not fully disappear, no matter the culture they inhabit. This is why I say to every white-skinned American: “You are not from around here.”

You are European. And chances are you have not been here that long. America’s earliest colonists landed at Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. Until the 19th Century, very few Europeans immigrated to America. African slaves constituted the single largest foreign ethnicity on American soil during this early period. Most new European immigrants began landing only after the United States developed into an independent Nation. Ironically, African-Americans have inhabited America significantly longer than most white Americans. Yet white Americans cling far more proudly to the name “American” than black Americans. If “family time spent on American soil” were the benchmark to determine whether someone is “American,” blacks would almost invariably be “more American” than whites.

So what happened between 1607 and 1820? Simple: Native Americans lived here. I grew up in Connecticut, a New England State once inhabited by numerous Native tribes. Their words still dot the landscape: Wequetequock, Pawcatuck, Noank, Narragansett, Pequot, Mohegan, Niantic, Uncasville. But the people are all gone. I knew that “Indians” once lived where my family owned a home. Only recently did I discover, however, that in 1637 a British Puritan militia slaughtered virtually an entire Native population less than a mile from my parents’ home. Where stately New England homes and garages stand now, there once lived indigenous peoples who had nothing to do with Europe. And viewed historically, these things did not happen a long time ago. In essence, this entire Nation has sprouted up on freshly conquered land. No one remembers who once lived there. They wrote no histories. They all died. We can simply cobble together details from accounts written by the conquerors.

Immigrants came to a subdued land. The Natives had been crushed and forgotten, leaving enterprising European families to bring European order to the “wilderness.” The new immigrants lived in stable settlements. They never had any contact with the Natives. They did not know why their towns were named “Seneca Falls,” “Algonquin” or “East Huron.” Yet they soon thought themselves “Americans,” even though they came from Slovakia, Italy or Ireland. The natives left behind a “residue;” but no one ever thought about what came before them.

But the damage is done. The natives are gone. Generations have passed. European immigrants intermarried with one another and spawned a new Nation on American soil. It is undoubtedly a strong Nation, but it has a dark history that no modern-day American really cares to know. A particular rhetoric surrounds American life. It tells Americans that they are daring, pioneering, adventurous souls who bravely went into the wilderness to create a new, free Nation. The rhetoric says that Americans can “make their own way” and advance as far as merit will take them as long as they work hard. These phrases all obscure the past. They do not take account of the fact that the “stage” on which American “success” takes place is bloodstained earth. Early settlers transformed America into a colossal economic plantation by eliminating all non-Europeans who stood in their way. Immigrants simply wanted to work on the plantation. They did not care what happened before the plantation opened for business. And it did not happen that long ago.

I may be “American” by nationality, but ethnically, I am “not from around here.” It is obvious from my ancestry. I recently found my family’s extensive genealogy. It disclosed that my maternal ancestors lived in Saxony (Sachsen) for hundreds of years. In the early 17th Century, they moved to Prague, where they lived within a German Protestant enclave. After the Thirty Years’ War, they moved to a province in Eastern Poland called Galicia, where they continued to worship as they pleased. In 1893, my great-great grandfather took his family to New York. They spoke only German until my grandfather’s generation. My mother was the first descendant who did not speak German. For some reason, I became fascinated with Germany early in life, and I learned German with relative ease. I am convinced it had something to do with my ancestry. After all, my family lived in Germany (and German-speaking “colonies” outside Germany) for centuries. Only one generation broke the chain. That is not a significant break from history. Even though I was born thousands of miles from Germany on the American “economic plantation,” I quickly resumed my ancestors’ German traditions. If it was so easy for me to “relearn” German, and I look like a German, am I really from “around here?” When I go to Berlin, no one ever takes me for an “American.” Why should they? For centuries, my family lived in Germany. One generation cannot erase your origins.

Many Americans have similar origins. They, too, are not really “from around here.” It is very easy to forget history, or never to learn it. Understanding history provides perspective. By comparing the number of generations most white Americans have spent in the United States to the number of generations their ancestors spent in Europe, one cannot help but remark that they are not so firmly rooted as they believe. When it comes to dates, most European immigrant groups have not been here very long. Change takes time. No matter how strongly these groups may identify themselves as Americans, they cannot escape the historical fact that they still are not far removed from their ancestral homes.

Having said all this, it is precisely the “intermixture” of American society that creates American identity. In America, life moves quickly. Cultures come into contact with one another. There is always conflict and sometimes reconciliation. There is constant tension between nationalities and classes. In the end, some new form arises from the maelstrom. Americans have an international reputation for being creative. How could they not? They live in a vibrantly splintered society where no one really knows who they are. There is a certain excitement to this scattershot quality in American life. But leaving modern American society aside, no one really gives thought to what came before the “melting pot” began cooking. To maintain proper historical perspective, we must acknowledge that we are not really from around here.

America is a strange place because it is hard pin down a national identity. As a historical matter, the country is still growing. Immigrant groups have not lived here long enough to fully develop into a unique “people.” I am a perfect example. When I was young, I simplistically thought that I was an “American” because I did not know my family history. All I knew was that I lived in a country called “The United States of America,” so I had to be an “American.” But later, I discovered that my attitudes, appearance and even my language bore far more similarities to a Berliner than they did to an average New Yorker. Simply put, my “people” have not lived in this country very long. Perhaps in four generations, after intermarriage and time take their toll, my relatives’ descendants will more confidently assert their “American” identity. For my part, I cannot ignore history. My family has spent far more years in Germany than it has spent in America, and it shows. When I combine that knowledge with the fact that only 370 years ago my hometown was a Native village, I am reassured in my admission: “I am not from around here.”

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