How this innocent-sounding expression makes a white guy like me the ‘real’
American in the room …
“We are, after all, a nation of immigrants.” It’s a line I’ve used as almost a stock answer to individuals putting down Mexican immigrants living in the United States. My good intention in using this rejoinder was to remind the person that everyone living in the United States, with the exception of Native Americans, resides here only because an earlier family member at some point migrated to this land.
As innocuous as it sounds, the “nation of immigrants” line is an abbreviated version of the prevailing narrative of national origins that makes white people like me the norm while making others, well, “others.” Without appearing to do so, it subtly shapes my thinking about who is and isn’t a true or real American.
I teach at a predominantly white university, so when I introduce my students to the concept of white privilege, we undertake a historical thought experiment. We intentionally view the nation-of-immigrants line through the eyes of the members of the two largest groups of non-European Americans in the United States, African Americans and Latino Americans. Together the 2010 census shows these two groups comprise about 30 percent of the U.S. population.
School children everywhere are taught to celebrate the nation’s origins via the Pilgrims, those Puritan separatists from England who founded Plymouth Colony in 1620. But 1620 and the Pilgrims is an arbitrary choice. The year 1619 would make as much sense.
That year a ship christened the White Lion set anchor off the coast of Virginia and unloaded 20 shackled males and females—the first slaves ever brought to the English colonies from Africa. Before the Mayflower, there was the White Lion, and before the white Pilgrims there were the black Africans.
A firsthand account of the arrival of that “cargo” on the White Lion survives in a letter written in the fall of 1619 by John Rolfe, the colony’s first tobacco planter, who famously married the Indian princess Pocahontas. Using the conventional spelling of the time, he recorded that the White Lion offloaded “20. and odd Negroes, wch the Governor and Cape Marchant bought for victualle (whereof he was in greate need as he pretended) at the best and easyest rate they could.” Just four days after the White Lion, a second ship, the Treasurer, also docked at Jamestown and unloaded an additional but unspecified number of newly captured Africans.
Recent historical research gives us new and tantalizing details about the personal lives of these particular enslaved individuals. One was named Angela. The 1624 census lists her as “a Negro woman” who was brought to Jamestown on the Treasurer five years earlier. Angela had been kidnapped from an urban home in Ndongo, a southern kingdom in what is today Angola. Historian Engel Sluiter found that her people spoke a Bantu language, were largely literate, mined rock salt and tar, used shells as a form of money currency, and performed initiation rites to recognize the passage of their youth from childhood to adulthood.
Her people had known Europeans for over 100 years through commerce. They had been Christians for generations, having converted as a nation to that faith already a century prior, in 1490—two years before Christopher Columbus’ fateful voyage to America.
Given her age, Angela would have already been baptized at the time of her capture. The only other detail we have about Angela is that in Jamestown she was forced to work as a slave for a Capt. William Pierce and his wife in their home—now her new “home,” too.
In the years and decades following 1619, as historians John Thorton and Linda Heywood document, a parade of ships arrived to this Virginia port and other ports along the sprouting East Coast colonies, carrying at first hundreds and then thousands of men, women, boys and girls captured in the Ndongo region to be sold for profit in the emerging transatlantic slave trade.
By the end of the Civil War, in 1865, more than 500,000 Africans like Angela had been captured and forcibly transported from their cities and villages in Africa to the mainland of North America. If we include all those Africans forcibly transported to not only North America but also the Caribbean and Central and South America, the numbers swell to at least 12 million—and that figure doesn’t include another 2 million African individuals who died on the slave ships during the middle passage en route to the shores of the Americas. These abducted people experienced what sociologists call a “social death.” This was the death of the spirit that followed being ripped from their families and cultures and languages. As a father, I cannot imagine being stripped of the ability to manage the welfare of my own children.
Thus, viewed through Angela’s experience, the “nation of immigrants” explanation loses its luster. Captain Pierce and the English Pilgrims undertook their migration from England to the “New World” in the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. By contrast, Angela and tens of thousands of other unnamed Africans—individuals who may well have also been captains or governors or artists back in Africa—found their voyage across the Ocean meant the loss of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Superficially, William Pierce the master and Angela the slave had much in common: Both had traversed the same ocean, and both had come to dwell in the same house in the same New World settlement. But only Angela’s master can be properly said to have immigrated to Virginia from England. Angela was unwillingly abducted and imported to Virginia from her city in Angola.
Personal, family and ethnic identities—like my own European Mennonite one—and the narratives that form them are not inherently bad. In themselves, they are good since they humanize us and give us a sense of identity. The problem is when our narratives are told in such a manner that they erase or ignore or de-center narratives that differ from our own, subtly leaving entire groups of people somehow outside the “true” American experience or the “real” American story.
I find white normative thinking common among my students who have grown up in overwhelmingly white communities and counties in the Midwest. Disavowing racism of any sort, they nevertheless often answer an apparently straightforward question that I ask them of whether a given person is black or not with the reply, “No, she’s just American.” Similarly, they will state, “I’m just American,” when I ask what racial group they belong to. Like my own white mind, theirs have been conditioned to see the standard immigrant narrative as merely factual and not the “myth of origins” that it is—that is, that it is a group-identity story that reflects social and political power arrangements, replete with winners and losers.
Recently my son, a first grader in our local public school district, presented me with his “history” coloring project. It featured the figure of George Washington, who stands officiously behind a lectern bearing the presidential seal. Below the figure of George Washington are these rhyming words: “The Father of our country / You led us on our way. / We honor you, George Washington, / Across the U.S.A. / America’s first president, /You served with loyalty. / You helped our people take a stand / And made our nation free.”
The ditty references the War of Independence. But imperceptibly missing from the poem—and from my son’s education about the founding of the United States—is that the first president who “helped our people” take a stand and “made our nation free” was the white wealthy recipient of the “help” of over 300 imported African human slaves and their descendants who toiled over the years on Washington’s plantation in Virginia.
We are a nation of immigrants but also a nation of the forcibly imported. The Latino American experience teaches one more category: We are a nation of the conquered. This is true not only for Native Americans but also for many Latino Americans, particularly Mexican Americans.
I learned this firsthand during a year of Mennonite Voluntary Service work in San Antonio, Texas. I remember the moment. I had asked Mondo, a Hispanic teenager, what I took to be a perfectly logical and innocent question: When did your ancestors come from Mexico to the United States? He felt affronted by the question. His family, he told me, had always lived in Texas, even before it was part of the United States.
I had missed this first potential on-ramp to our eventual friendship because missing from my mental cartography was the fact that through the annexation of Texas in 1845 and the Mexican-American War that same decade, the United States had stolen over half (55 percent) of Mexico’s territory. This included Texas, parts of Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado and all of New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and California. By the single stroke of a pen, some 100,000 Mexicans in these territories had become the subjects of the newly expanded U.S. empire. As with Mondo’s forbears, these Mexicans were granted immediate legal citizenship in their new country, though they were not treated as citizens by their white conquerors. Aviva Chomsky notes that “lynchings, vigilante justice and land dispossession confirmed the racialized way in which Anglos viewed Mexicans.”
The question I had posed to Mondo was logical and innocent—but only if one assumes that “we” are, in fact, “a nation of immigrants.” Given the reality that the United States is a nation of European immigrants, African importees and conquered Mexican and Native Americans—my question quickly loses its innocence and logic.
Reporters Trymaine Lee and Janelle Ross describe how this past Christmas a handful of white Occupy Wall Street protesters and a black city council member stood on a sidewalk on Wall Street beneath the looming shadow of a 24-story Citibank office and across from a Verizon Wireless store. One held a placard reading, “New York’s first slave market built on this site 1711.” The reporters noted that a few blocks from the demonstration stands Federal Hall, an extant structure built by slaves and where George Washington took the oath of office for the presidency.
No plaque or marker, they observed, documents the spot where “free market” economics took its early and sordid form. Adding to the poignancy of the scene is the fact that beneath Wall Street and other nearby blocks in lower Manhattan lie the remains of more than 15,000 enslaved and freed black people buried there but sealed over by high rises and concrete roadways.
Jumaane Williams, the council member, is part of a group petitioning the city to erect a monument on the site of this early stock market, a market that traded not only tobacco and cattle but human “stock” as well.
“This is the area of the city,” Lee and Ross write, “where thousands of African slaves were once brought in by ship, offloaded and marched from New York harbor to Wall and Pearl streets, then sold.”
They then quote Williams as he stands on the sidewalk overlooking the old slave market: “America and the wealth that it has—all would not exist without slaves. New York City wouldn’t be what it is, Wall Street wouldn’t be what it is, nothing would be what it is without the role of slaves. Yet we seem to downplay it and not try to address it or give it the respect that it deserves.”
Kevin D. Miller is associate professor of communication at Huntington University near Fort Wayne, Ind.
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