What are the historical moments that illustrate the canon of American values still worth celebrating?
Whether it was the Presidency of Donald Trump, the world-altering effects of COVID, or the continuing interest in America’s ethnic and tribal identities, the nation is now looking back on its history with an especially critical eye. What narratives have been blindly passed on that were wholly or partially false? What are the historical moments that illustrate the canon of American values that are still worth celebrating? Is every monument to national greatness now burdened with back stories and alternate narratives that give pause?
Of the many layers of this onion of shared national experience, we could just consider diasporas and forced relocations within our borders. Most raise troubling questions of just how much freedom the American “melting pot” has allowed some of its members.
There is, of course, the depressing and decades-long relocation of indigenous groups, with many unhappily resettled on the arid lands of Oklahoma and the southwest. There is also an entire literature devoted to African Americans fleeing their own southern roots for a better life in the industrial Midwest and northern cities like Chicago: perhaps the biggest internal diaspora of any. And there is the ongoing effort to cleanse the population of foreign nationals—many who are hard workers—who are non-citizens. Even Mormons went through their own diaspora, moving because of persecution first in New York State and, later, in Missouri, before finally settling in the empty spaces of Utah.
Claiming membership in a cultural community now often produces more pride than claiming American citizenship.
More recent attention has been paid to the thousands of Chinese who were brought in during the 19th Century to build the railroads and mines. They and their heirs have faced discrimination from the beginning. The national disease of nativism that was turned against Asian Americans has also played out against the Irish, or Jews and Muslims—legal citizens after their own diasporas—who settled in communities as servants, shopkeepers, mill workers or domestics.
Not every story about ethnic separation comes with stories of overt discrimination. And seemingly endless accounts of forced removal or denial of entry include most cultures on every continent. Daily headlines currently focus on in-migration to southern Europe and North America. Even so, it is all the more ironic that American citizenship per se may now mean less to many than membership in a specific cultural community.
Recent comments from actor/writer George Takei of Star Trek fame raises a representative moment. Takei was a Japanese American aged five when his family was swept up in yet another diaspora: this one initiated by F.D.R. at the beginning of World War II. A federal order called for the round up Japanese Americans—men, women and children—to be held in camps far removed from their homes. The government seemed to favor one-story barracks in the desert, like Dalton Wells in Utah. Camps were typically surrounded by guards and barbed wire. By chance, Takei’s family was moved from California to a small camp in Arkansas. The official argument then was as weak as it is now: Japanese Americans might be disloyal in the war against Germany and Japan.
His account is chilling as it is simple. At gunpoint they were ordered out of their home by two military guards and held in a prison camp from 1942-1946.
We were loaded onto trucks that morning and we were driven down to Little Tokyo, the Japanese American community in downtown Los Angeles. We were let out at the Buddhist temple there, and the area was crowded with other Japanese Americans who had been picked up. There was a row of buses, and we were tagged and loaded onto those buses, and the buses took us to the Santa Anita racetrack and there we were unloaded and herded over to the stable area. Each family was assigned a horse stall, still pungent with the stink of fresh horse manure. That’s where we would sleep temporarily while the camps were being built. For my parents, going from a two-bedroom home with a front yard and a backyard, to taking their children into a horse stall to sleep was devastating. My father told me about it when I was a teenager, and said it was absolutely horrific, humiliating, and degrading. The government at that time called it a Japanese neighborhood, or relocation center, but it was really a prison camp.
When we wonder how so many Americans and more than a few presidents could stray so far from the nation’s professed beliefs, we should remember that an unearned form of nativism seems woven deep into the nation’s fabric. It’s clearest manifestation is in the nation’s original sin of slavery. And it’s all the more ironic when the country was built up by immigrants and their heirs who fled their own states, only to appropriate lands of the indigenous population already present.