When I was in fifth grade, the year started with “Who Discovered America?” and we were given a set of long, creased and faded cards in different colors, on which were printed illustrated descriptions of all the different groups you could plausibly claim had “discovered” America: the Native Americans (or American Indians as they were called on the cards) coming over the Bering Strait landbridge, Columbus on his three ships, the Vikings in Nova Scotia, the Chinese who maybe landed in British Columbia, the claims that the King of Mali sent ships in the 1300s that may have reached South America, the English on Plymouth Rock and Roanoke Island, John Cabot and Samuel de Champlain exploring the North American continent and even the Dutch in New Amsterdam, the card for which included the memorable line “the Dutch are a short and portly people,” which, having visited some relatives in Holland a few years before, was news to me.
The goal was unmistakably that each of us, no matter who we were, could see some group we could identify with, and feel pride in their “discovery” of America, even if we all came to the endorsed conclusion at the end of the lesson that the Indians were the ones who really discovered America. “Everybody is Ethnic” was a school slogan that my older sister, who had the same 4’11”, Thunderbird-driving 5th grade teacher a few years before me, recalls from that time.
In truth, the school wasn’t all that ethnic in the 2016 sense. The only non-white kid I remember distinctly from my class that year was Jose, who loved the class pet, a white rat that I detested, and would always try to hold it during lessons, and who told me the last day of school that he hated summer vacations since it meant working in his dad’s auto body shop. Hating summer vacation was a new concept for me.
Homogeneity aside, the school was committed to us thinking about race and ethnicity in certain ways. There were separate lessons, for example, about whether it was better to think about America not as a melting pot but as a tossed salad, in which different groups complemented one another in taste and color but never really merged.
But while Everyone is Ethnic and America the Tossed Salad are in some ways as corny as an “It’s a Small World” Disneyland ride, they aren’t intrinsically less sophisticated than, say, the intersectionality hierarchies and micro-aggression warnings you’d be taught at the most elite universities . Ethnic pride, pride in one’s ancestry, is a natural part of life. It would be strange to me not to feel pride at my grandmother, walking off that bombed Nazi transport train, shrapnel still in her breast, or in my grandfather, making it off of that Italian hillside with his life, if not both his legs, or for that matter in my other grandmother’s cooking and embroidery and little poems, or in my other grandfather’s love of books and languages and American hamburger restaurants. My children, who are the descendants of West Indian slaves on their mother’s side, should feel pride someday that their grandmother came here with little in formal education or money and managed to save up to buy a house and send her daughter to an overpriced private university, and indeed that their ancestors endured the bondsman’s unrequited toil and came through it with their own culture, music, religion, food, and stories. I would be lying if I said that, for all I’ve criticized the forces that propelled Obama to the Presidency, his election a few weeks before my son’s birth didn’t fill me with its own sort of pride and relief. At last, to turn the page, and let the past just be the past, a source of pride and of warning but no longer of overweening guilt.
Around the time I finished 5th grade, my sister, who had moved on from wearing black turtlenecks to wearing tattered thrift store dresses, and from reading long books about the Holocaust to reading long books with titles like “Institutional Racism in America,” handed me Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. The book presents American history as nothing but a sorry series of outrages perpetrated by the white and wealthy against the non-white and poor: smallpox blankets, the overseer’s lash, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, and lots, lots more. Zinn is biased and one-sided in his presentation, but few of his facts are entirely confabulated. Certain parts of the story are inarguable, the eradication of American Indians from whole sections of the continent most markedly (even if the Columbian Exchange of disease was probably as much at fault as conquest and ethnic cleansing.)
But what do we do with that knowledge? Is the only response to try to drive a spear through the past’s heart, to disavow it, at least those parts of it that don’t correspond to our ideal of oppression resisted and hate overthrown? Moreover, as more of our population- especially kids- are farther in ancestry from the old shared Western and American culture that once was taught to everyone, can that culture still even be shared or taught?
Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus, the Proust of the Papuans, as Saul Bellow may or may not have asked? I’d like to think that Tolstoy speaks for almost everyone, but I know that’s not the case. I’d like to think that Jefferson’s flowery words and Franklin’s inventions and Hamilton and Madison’s architecture of the state are the shared patrimony of all Americans, but I realize it isn’t that simple. The idea of a universal world and shared American culture, derived in large part from Western sources but accessible to all, is unpopular these days, but it is not intrinsically ridiculous or incompatible with acknowledging either the harm that men of every sort have ever done other men, or, indeed, with acknowledging that the biological divisions among human beings may be deeper laid than was previously thought, older even than the emergence of anatomically modern humans from Africa 70,000 years ago, since humans picked up different genes from interbreeding with archaic hominids in some places than in others:
(It’s funny/not-funny that the NY Times write-up of the study the flow-chart diagram above is taken from does not make clear at all the idea that genes were acquired from archaic hominids, and only emphasizes “A Single Migration” from Africa.)
In five weeks, the election will be over, and regardless of who wins, we’ll have to figure out what stories we need to tell each other, and tell our kids, about who we are as Americans, about what binds us and sets us apart. The temptation, almost certainly, will be to attack the past, to drive the spears of our words into its corpse.
But pride in and gratitude to the past, even if it comes in the form of creased and faded cards showing John Cabot reaching North America or Siberian hunters crossing the landbridge, is always better than hate against its wrongs, and recognizing that, hey, we made it this far, and those that came before us helped us do so, is better than stewing in our guilt or using it as a lever to push ourselves a little higher than everyone else.
I mean, after all, Everyone is Ethnic.