What would we be without a hyphen

27 07 2010

I’ve long appreciated the writings of Frank McCourt, a brilliant author in my opinion, most notably for his honesty and frankness, no pun intended.  It was my aunt who first turned me on to his work, suggesting I watch Angela’s Ashes with my daughter who had romanticized notions of Ireland and the Irish.  And it was a dear friend that I know only through the internet who was kind enough to send me three of his books when she went cleaning out her library – thank you Mariann.  There is a theme running through the novel I am currently reading of his, ‘Tis, that has been mulling over in my mind as I have been teaching the girls about civil rights and my school work is delving into human resources and civil rights and this theme has been biting at my fingers, chanting to me write, write, write.  So I sit today, writing.

“It’s not enough to be American…you always have to be something else, Irish-American, German-American, and you’d wonder how they’d get along if someone hadn’t invented the hyphen.”

It’s a great thought, the idea of just being an American.  And he’s right, you know, that people who migrate to America feel a need to hold on to their past.  And for those who arrived to America as an immigrant, perhaps it makes sense.  But those who are first, second, third or subsequent generation Americans, why is there a need to grasp hold of that identity that they know little or nothing about from their ethnic origins?

I asked this once of a black friend of mine that I worked with, did she know from where in Africa her family had came?  No.  Then why say you are an African-American?  Because it sounds better than black.

The reason sounds sensible, but it draws the boundary lines.  It says we are equal, we aren’t alike, we aren’t just Americans.

There are Irish-Americans who differ from the German-Americans and Czech-Americans and Polish-Americans and Italian-Americans and African-Americans.  President T. Roosevelt said of it:

“There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism. When I refer to hyphenated Americans, I do not refer to naturalized Americans. Some of the very best Americans I have ever known were naturalized Americans, Americans born abroad. But a hyphenated American is not an American at all… The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin, of preventing all possibility of its continuing to be a nation at all, would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities, an intricate knot of German-Americans, Irish-Americans, English-Americans, French-Americans, Scandinavian-Americans or Italian-Americans, each preserving its separate nationality, each at heart feeling more sympathy with Europeans of that nationality, than with the other citizens of the American Republic… There is no such thing as a hyphenated American who is a good American. The only man who is a good American is the man who is an American and nothing else.”

I’m an American.  I was borne here.  As was my parents.  And their parents.  My children are Americans.  Through studying our family tree I know our family is Czech, Austrian, French, Welsh, and English.  There’s no way I could even try to hyphenate my identity and I imagine that many of the people who still do hyphenate their identity probably have it all wrong.

This is by no means complete, I just have gotten myself involved in reading again and cannot finish writing my thoughts yet.

The Hyphen, by John Wayne

The Hyphen, Webster’s Dictionary defines,

Is a symbol used to divide a  compound word or a single word.

So it seems to me that when a man calls himself  An “Afro-American,” a “Mexican-American,”  “Italian-American,”

An “Irish-American,”  “Jewish-American,”

What he’s sayin’ is, “I’m a divided American.”

Well, we all came from other places,

Different creeds and different races,

To form a nation…to become as one,

Yet look at the harm a line has done-

A simple little line, and yet

As divisive as a line can get.

A crooked cross the Nazis flew,

And the Russian hammer and sickle too-

Time bombs in the lives of Man;

But none of these could ever fan

The fames of hatred faster than

The Hyphen.

The Russian hammer built a wall

That locks men’s hearts from freedom’s call.

A crooked cross flew overhead

Above twenty million tragic dead-

Among them men from this great nation,

Who died for freedom’s preservation.

A hyphen is a line that’s small;

It can be a bridge or be a wall.

A bridge can save you lots of time;

A wall you always have to climb.

The road to liberty lies true.

The Hyphen’s use is up to you.

Used as a bridge, it can span

All the differences of Man.

Being free in mind and soul

Should be our most important goal.

If you use The Hyphen as a wall,

You’ll make your life mean…and small.

An American is a special breed,

Whose people came to her in need.

They came to her that they might find

A world where they’d have peace of mind.

Where men are equal…and something more-

Stand taller than they stood before.

So you be wise in your decision,

And that little line won’t cause division.

Let’s join hands with one another…

For in this land, each man’s your brother.

United we stand…divided we fall.

WE’RE AMERICANS…and that says it all.

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