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Wednesday, 1 December 2010

I am not a hyphenated American

Since news links rarely last very long, I'm quoting the relevant sections below:'
BERLIN (Reuters Life!) – Percy MacLean can call on 250 years of experience to weigh up how immigrants integrate in Germany. Since his Scottish ancestor arrived in 1753, the family has produced mayors, members of parliament and even a Nazi.
Today, the 63-year-old MacLean, a chief judge in Berlin's administrative court, says Germany risks losing the openness that allowed his family to flourish for generations because of a divisive national debate over the integration of Muslims.
At the age of 16, MacLean's ancestor Archibald left the Hebridean island of Coll for Danzig (now Gdansk in Poland) during the crackdown on Highland clans that followed the failure of Bonnie Prince Charlie's Jacobite Rebellion in 1745-6.
Archibald's grandson Richard later became mayor of the Prussian port of Memel -- now Klaipeda in Lithuania -- and three MacLeans went on to sit in Prussia's state parliament.
The family continued to thrive after Germany united in 1871, all the while maintaining its ties with Scotland. Percy's uncle Curt Hugo MacLean served as a major in the Wehrmacht in World War II, while another, Donald, joined the Nazi party.
"All my forebears went back to Scotland to keep up with things," said MacLean, who first went at 16. "Obviously I don't have citizenship but I'm still very attached to the country."

Mr. MacLean is obviously a Scottish-German. It's rather incredible that his family has kept up their ties to the fatherland for 250 years, without ever diminishing their loyalty to their current homeland. But such is the case with a hyphenated nationality.
I am not a hyphenated American. Every last one of my ancestors, as best as I can trace, originated in northern Europe before their departure for the New World. But I have no ties whatsoever to their countries of origin. I know I have distant cousins in the Old World, and people of my and all preceding generations have in fact kept up with them, even to the point of physically getting together with them in some cases. But I really have no interest in defining myself as a European; I was born an American, and an American I remain--although at the time I married an American I had spent most of my life outside the country of my origin, there was really never any doubt that I would retain my national identity for life. Is it due in part to the fact that I'm from such a variety of European countries that I don't claim any one of them as my ancestral homeland? Or is it just in the nature of an American to identify himself ethnically as part of the American melting pot?

I have a friend who lives in Africa, and has for practically all his life. He's over 50 years old, but has never been counted in an American census, because he's always been in Africa when they were taken. Like him, his wife grew up in Africa. So have their children. But they are not Africans; they're Americans through and through. He keeps up on American football better than I do, and their children are more up on American styles than are mine, who have never left North America. Is it because between them they have grown up in 6 different African countries, but have retained their American identity all along? Is it because they know that as white people, they will never be able to fully identify as Africans? Whatever the case, they are still Americans, however seldom they actually get back to the country of their nationality.

On the other hand, I think of an African I know who could proudly trace back his ancestry to a Black American family that emigrated to Africa not long after the War To Preserve The Union. Like in the case of the MacLeans, his family held tightly to their American identity for generation after generation. He attended college in the US, but, lacking standing to remain in this country, had to return to Africa as an adult. But where is he now? In Northern Europe, married to a white European. Despite his African roots, he was too American in his mind to settle for an African existence. He may remain in Europe; he may return to America. But it's unlikely that he or any of his descendants will ever be able to consider themselves fully African.

One more thing. In Euro-American culture, one's last name is extremely significant. Geraldine Ferraro was never able to become a viable presidential candidate, perhaps in part because she had a different last name than did her husband and their children. Hilary Rodham, on the other hand, helped propel him into office by borrowing her husband's last name, one which she has continued to use ever since. She even ran for President under his surname, and nearly succeeded. One's identity is that tightly bound up in the name passed down through the generations to the legitimate male heir by his father. And thus Mr. MacLean maintains his Scottish identity, when he may have hundreds of third, fourth, and fifth German-surnamed cousins who aren't even aware that one of their many ancestors originated in Scotland.


  1. If I was to list all the nationaliies of my ancestors and put a hyphen between them and then stick the word "American" on the end like some afterthought, it would take more space and more effort than I care to waste. Those who feel otherwise should go back to their "homelands" and try living in the huts and hovels that still remain in many of those countries.

  2. Many times your appearance marks you out for your nationality, before you open your mouth to let your accent tell the story, and then your orientation and psyche. It matters less where you say are from than where others determine that you are from

    That has come through clearly in forms that we are required to fill out and in the passports we carry.

    In any case the trailer parks in America very much match the shanties, huts and hovels in African and there are as many trash that live in them as live in the gleaming houses in your most cosmopolitan centres. In the end handsome is as handsome does eh?


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