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And all in the same boat
I regularly give talks to groups beyond my classroom. I make a point to leave time for questions. During the last few years one question has been asked more frequently than any other: Is our country hopelessly and permanently divided? Is there nothing we can unite around?
Before covid, I suggested that a commonly felt national emergency could have a unifying effect. Pearl Harbor and 9/11 had produced such effects. I changed my tune after observing the politicization of public health amid the pandemic.
Perhaps wishfully, I still clung to the idea that a charismatic figure who could summon what Lincoln called the "better angels of our nature" might yet conjure a unifying vision—something we all have in common, something that makes us distinctively Americans.
What could that vision be?, my audiences asked. A war on climate change? No. Climate change has produced a war but not the sort I had in mind.
Investment in education, in our children's future? The battles over curriculum make this seem a nonstarter too.
Here's my current idea: America as a nation of immigrants.
I realize it's actually an old idea, and that on its face it would seem to exclude African Americans and Native Americans. But I'm thinking bigger than Ellis Island.
Twenty thousand years ago, give or take, there were no humans in the Americas. The first arrivals came from Asia, over the Bering isthmus, as it then was, or perhaps by boat across the North Pacific. Eventually their descendants were met by Europeans coming across the Atlantic, and then Africans from the same general direction.
The Africans did not come voluntarily but rather as slaves in chains, and for this reason are often not counted as immigrants. But all of the migrants faced the challenge of adjusting to a land not of their birth, among people who were not always friendly. When they looked to the past, they saw a decisive break in their family histories.
This was less true of the Indians, whose family migration stories were so far in the past as to be wrapped in myth. But still, compared to Europe, Asia and especially Africa, everyone in the Americas was a recent arrival.
In my beginning course in American history, I introduce immigration as a single story spanning a thousand generations. I describe the different phases of the arrivals and ask the students to silently note when their first ancestor arrived, to the extent they can.
Many of them have no good idea when their first forebear touched American soil. But my students of Native American descent can identify with the first wave. And those of African descent can reasonably guess that an ancestor arrived before the Atlantic slave trade to America was outlawed in the early 1800s.
And everyone, I hope, can get a sense that we are all in this boat—or continent—together. In one way or another we are descended from people who learned to build a new life in a new country. They made this country theirs, and they made it ours.
They built well enough that this country continues to attract new people from foreign places, more people in total than migrated to any other country in history. And we’re still building it, all of us, no matter when our ancestors arrived.
I understand that anything touching immigration will set off the activists in both parties. But I’m looking beyond them to the larger public. And I'm not drawing any policy conclusions. I'm merely suggesting away of looking at our past that might unite us rather than divide us.
Am I simply dreaming?