America The Beautiful Myth: American Folklore and How It Impacts the Immigration Debate
In 1492…Columbus sailed the ocean blue…
Question: How did America become one of the greatest countries in the world? I’ll answer that question in just a bit.
Every school child in America grows up and learns the history of this nation. Some important events are part of our complex history despite spurious claims being made, wrong information cited, or myths woven in with fact.
“Remember the Alamo!” is one of those important historical moments in American history. It is absolutely imperative to remember when speaking about the Texas Revolution and the State of Texas. School children and tourists go to the Alamo for a look back when Texas was part of Mexico and this country was doing everything it could do to cede this land to the American government.
But did you know that the Battle of the Alamo was a loss for “our side”? I hope you do. The way they speak about its defenders, you’d think it was a campaign that we won. The Battle of Jacinto was actually a win for Texas and a defeat for Mexico, but the Alamo is what we remember.
I grew up hearing other American myths. Paul Bunyan, the lumberjack, cutting down trees and being the strongest man in that part of the country. My mother watched Daniel Boone on television in the late 60’s, but most of that show was a complete fantasy, which contributes to continuous misleading facts, glaring omissions, and outright lies told about this man. Myths are told about Pocahontas, slavery, the Pilgrims, and George Washington chopping down a cherry tree, and it’s not always the fault of Walt Disney. “Give me Liberty or give me Death!” Were those words really said by Patrick Henry? Or did he say something else? Molly Pitcher, John Henry, Bigfoot, Wild Bill Hickok, and even Smokey the Bear are all part of American Folklore.
I asked a question in the beginning of this essay. I asked how did America become one of the greatest nations on this Earth? There are a lot of answers to that question, but one of those answers is rarely talked about. The answer is, Lies. It was the ability for immigrants to come here and lie about who they were and where they came from. It was their ability to come here and completely change their lives, becoming the people they always wanted to be.
With the advent of www.23andme.com and other ancestry websites, many White Americans are learning about their true ancestral heritage. Why were they lied to in the first place? Eastern Europeans, the Irish, and Italians were sorely looked down on when they arrived to this country. Simply being Irish dictated who they would be, where they would live, what jobs they could take, and who they could marry. Many people came here and simply became entirely different people. They lied about their ancestry to better their chances of job, marriage, and living prospects. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but during the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, this meant everything.
“I thought we were German!”
“Isn’t that a French name?” “Don’t we have Native ancestry?”
During the start of World War I, many German immigrants changed the German spelling of their name and simply made their family name sound more “English”. Donald Trump’s family is guilty of this very thing. He’s claimed Swedish ancestry when in fact, his family comes from Germany. His father started that tall tale. Some people will claim German ancestry, believing that they are from a “better stock of people”, but are actually from Eastern European countries, which are still looked down on. Some tell stories about their ancestry to hide the fact that they are Jewish or even hide the fact that many Whites may have African ancestry. I must say that this is not the experience of every White person. Some of them didn’t tell any lies about who they were and where they came from, but some did and still continue this folklore today.
So one could come to America, totally invent a persona, and make a success of themselves. That’s what made America great. It was one of the few countries that desperate people could go and make a life for themselves…even if the way that life started was a total figment of their imaginations. Europe at the turn of the century was a very classist place to live. It was not that simple to just marry “up”. If you were able to marry into a higher class, you were either very lucky or your name was Cinderella.
America was a place where nearly anything was possible. Even so for women. White women were incredibly restrained and restricted in both the U.S. and Europe, but there were more opportunities for women outside of marriage and children in the States than there were in Europe. A three week boat ride could open up so many possibilities for anyone and that’s what made America so incredibly enticing. To pick up your things and leave the only place you’ve ever called home, to make it in a different country halfway across the world took guts. Not everyone made it here but many did and they were able to eek out an existence better than they would have in Europe.
No harm, no foul, right?
While White Americans were able to lie about who they were, they denied that right to people of color that came here. They denied that right to people who were enslaved in this country against their will. Instead of allowing them to be who they were, their lives were defined for them. They were told who they were and given a history. Their destinies were predetermined for them in many ways, only allowing them so much. They were not allowed to live outside of those confines. Filipinos, Chinese, Indians, Native Americans, African Americans, Japanese, Vietnamese, and others were not always allowed to be who they wanted be, with their history written for them.
As I stated earlier, even the history of America is problematic when myths mix and swirl with truth. The Alamo being a loss is framed as a win due to the fact that it encouraged the defenders to defeat Mexico at San Jacinto. School children are subjected to long lamentations of America’s greatness while being lied to just so that the story fits the narrative that America wants to give out. We remember Chosin, not because it was the longest retreat in American military history, but because it showed the bravery of America’s defenders in a largely forgotten war in Korea. It was embarrassing to our leaders that we missed the Chinese preparations to attack us at the Yalu River.
We also pretend that certain people like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was always accepted and loved by the American people because he protested the “right” way. We totally ignore that it wasn’t until the late 80’s that people started seeing King in a positive light instead of the communist sympathizing, anti-war, unpatriotic, moralizing jerk that made white people feel bad about racism. However, now when you turn on a television, you see King’s image selling trucks and with the Right shaming other protest movements in America for “not being more like Dr. King.” All of this is painfully indecent when you bring up the fact that this nonviolent protester was killed violently in this country and that many White Americans believed that he was doing the “wrong thing” when protesting because they believed Black Americans had more than enough as it was. We do a disservice to his legacy and his family when we now frame ourselves as always being champions of Dr. King when that was far from the truth.
However, we can tell the story of this country however we want to tell it, as long as America comes out on top. We stick to these childlike interpretations of our own history because we simply can’t deal with being on the “wrong” side or America doing something wrong. The children of immigrants whose idea of patriotism involves images of the American flag and pictures of our troops, all to the background music of “The Star Spangled Banner” followed by pictures with scores of Americans with their hands over their hearts and a flying eagle in the background. These children of immigrants, some without a clue of who they really are, sit at rallies wearing red hats as they determine who is worthy to stay and who isn’t. The vast majority of African Americans have been here for nine, ten, and eleven generations as some of these third and fourth generation of immigrants scream at us to go back to Africa. Ironic, isn’t it?
We also raise monuments to great men and frown when it’s reminded that some of them were slaveholders. It’s the rewriting of history that this country continues to engage in when it isn’t mentioned that George Washington, the father of the country, owned slaves.
“Well, why do we have to talk about that!?” the children of immigrants whine. “Washington was a great man! Why do we have to talk about the fact that he owned slaves?”
“Because it’s the truth,” said the great grandchildren of slaves. “Because he was the father of this country, we owe it to our collective history not to leave anything out. He was the first president of this nation and he owned slaves. Besides, lets not get into what you get wrong about your own personal history.”
Silence from the children of immigrants.
So, we are told that Mexicans are rapists, Native Americans aren’t really native to this country, Slovenia grows supermodels like beanstalks, and Haitians come from shit-hole countries. That’s the narrative that Americans believe about other immigrants while ignoring that many of their grandparents came from countries that weren’t so great. These children of immigrants tell the same story; they came here with ten cents in their pocket and a dream to get to America. They came here and found the American dream. This also ignores the fact that some of these people are only in slightly better circumstances than their grandparents and great grandparents found when they came here.
If Europe is so great, why did so many of them leave there? We’ll get into that in another post. The mediocre telling lies and calling it patriotism. It’s only patriotic when you come from Italy or Sweden. If you are a refugee from Syria then you’re a coward for leaving your country. You’re a loser for leaving Mexico instead of staying and making it great again. Why didn’t we level that criticism at the Irish during the famines? Or the people fleeing Europe after World War II? We only level that criticism for people of color that we don’t want in our country.
Perhaps there is a benefit to tell people that you’re part French and Italian. I don’t really know because I was denied that opportunity. However, I can tell you that there is no benefit to tell people that Mexicans are rapists, Nigerians are lazy, and Iranians are American hating terrorists.
These people just want an opportunity to reinvent themselves just as previous immigrant groups were able to do, however the amount of scrutiny that they go through will no longer allow for anything like that. If you’re a person of color in this country, your narrative will continue to be written for you but most immigrants don’t really care about that. They just want the same opportunity that other immigrants had before them. They want something much better for their children.
As America’s influence wanes in the world, there are still millions of people in the world that still believe in America’s goodness. They believe in the American dream, despite the fact that the current administration wants to restrict just who can have that dream and who can keep on dreaming.
America is a nation built upon the foundation of freedom, prosperity, and democracy, but there were some serious cracks in that foundation. Those cracks being the enslavement of one race and the genocide of another. Discrimination based on the color of ones skin and gender. Discrimination based on who one loves and those living their true selves. America, part myth, part truth, has always lived somewhere in between. America was able to do the same thing that her immigrants did; live in truth and myth at the same time. Those benefitting from her myths always outnumbering those living in the shadow of the ugly truth. The duality of America has always been a conundrum for those of us who are the children of slaves, natives, and immigrants. Loving, staying loyal, but calling out her lies all at the same time.
The myths and truths that surround America have always made her a great place to live. However, America can continue to be a great place if the truth is told about the good that we’ve done in the world along with the horrible things that have been done in our name. Bravery and truth often go hand and hand with each other. We must be willing to tell the truth about America by telling the truth about ourselves.
By breaking down one myth at a time.