Submitted By: Mike Spindell, Guest Blogger
The election of Barack Obama, a Black Man, was certainly a landmark for this country with its history of slavery and of oppression of those considered non-Whites. That history includes the treatment of Native Americans which was replete with deception, broken treaties and examples of outright genocidal behavior. The history is also one of ethnic and religious prejudice that was heaped upon the waves of immigrants “welcomed” to our shores. The American heritage of bigotry in thought and language was never limited to the vile epithets of “Nigger”, “Spic”, “Savage” and “Chink” commonplace and accepted through the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries. We also had “Mick”, “Polack”, “Heinie”, “Kike”, and “Wop” considered acceptable, common parlance. Many dismissed the use of these derogatory terms as being merely good natured banter and descriptive terminology. For those to which these terms were directed though, they stung deeply. These were people trying to become accepted in a new land and who had for the most part fled their native countries to escape poverty and oppression. They came to America seeking “freedom” and financial stability. These immigrants yearned for acceptance and each instance of others characterizing them by their ethnicity, or religion, came as a blow to their self-esteem.
While the majority of Americans no doubt look back upon the prejudices of those times with discomfort and embarrassment, it is human nature to try to diminish these histories and the unpleasant picture they paint of this country. My grandparents immigrated to America before the turn of the 20th Century. They came from Hungary or Poland depending on where the borders were set in different eras. They were Jews, born to poverty and oppression in Eastern Europe coming here to build a better life for themselves and for their children. My paternal grandfather was a tailor and came to this country with some children and with a marketable skill. I never met him, since he died before I was born, but was honored to be his first male namesake in the Jewish tradition of only naming after the dead. All the stories I heard about him told that he was intelligent, warm and gentle. My maternal grandfather was an orphan, who came to America at age 11. He was in the dry goods business at that age. He described to me how he had to literally fight his way towards success, which he achieved. Both my Maternal and Paternal families each had 9 children so I had a total of 16 Aunts and Uncles. Unlike some of his older siblings, my father was born in America. He described to me life in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn and the ethnic warfare that took place between the various neighborhoods. My father was a large man and a brawler in his youth, which from his perspective was a necessity of his times. I was born near the end of World War Two into an America where the ongoing hatred of Jews was decreasing, nevertheless I did experience some of that prejudice even in Junior High School, where I was called a “Christ Killer” and subjected to various jokes ridiculing Jews.
pNo doubt many among our readers can relate similar histories of the tribulations suffered because of their heritage ethnicity and religion. Stories handed down to them by their families. This is a fact of the history of America and no euphemistic retelling of history can erase it. This was the true “melting pot” of our country. For the most part though, whether the ethnicity was Irish, Italian, Polish, Jewish, etc. there was one saving grace and that was the color of our skin. When I was younger I had blond hair, I still have blue eyes and my last name has little ethnic identity. Many people who’ve met me in my life have been surprised that I was Jewish, taking me for Irish or Scandinavian, which had become acceptable ethnicities. Those of European Heritage, born of immigrants, they were able to eventually escape that initial prejudice because they were White and they could further escape their ethnicity by changing their last names if they desired. This fluidity has never been available to non-Whites and to my mind it still isn’t fully available, despite those who would hold up our President as proof that such bigotry is a thing of the past and that non-Whites face life in our country on an equal footing. (more…)
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