History of Immigrant nations: What is it like to be American?

Theodoric

Ad Honorem
Mar 2012
2,549
#1
Summary: My understanding of American history is limited, literally the only events I know about it relate to the American people and how they separated from the British Empire in a war of independence. But America is also called "the great melting pot," and this is the part of the history I am interested in - and it is perhaps more complex than a single thread can unravel. Films like Gangs of New York are fascinating windows onto the American history that I have no clue about. More importantly, I am wondering about the development of immigrant cultures in general; and there isn't a bigger example than the US.

Immigrant cultures are something I'd like to write about someday from a fictional perspective (it fascinates me). I imagine that your understanding of your place in the world is considerably different from mine. To be from a European country (and many other places) generally means you can trace back your roots to a distant history -- the accuracy of the bloodlines are irrelevant, if you have that name and that family, you are entitled to that history and tradition. In many cases that goes back until at least the medieval era, in many cases a great deal longer: thousands of years.

But the US is like an infant in comparison; I would guess immigration is still a big part of it, and given the sub-cultures (Irish-American, Italian-American, Anglo-American, etc...) it seems that a large portion of you are not so far divided from "old countries" that you consider your heritage as purely American. The immigrant culture is everywhere, even in your sports teams - "The Minnesota Vikings" which happens to be a team in a location where a lot of Scandinavian people settled. Jewish Americans attach themselves to 5000 years (whether partially mythical or not isn't relevant here, the fact is that story exists) of history and there's Jewish American comedy. Irish Americans seem like your version of plastic paddys. There seems to be a thriving Italian American culture and Chinese American culture, it's all in the food, and there are locations in New York City called "China Town" and "Little Italy."

So I have a few questions:

1. Is it a general thing for Americans to attach themselves to the history of their ancestral lands? Or is it only a small fraction of people?
2. For people unsure of their exact roots, do they just consider themselves by their continent of origin or skin colour, or is their surname generally enough?


"European American" isn't a term I hear used by Americans, but I have heard the term "African American" quite frequently as an identity for black people living in the US - and this is the one I am most curious about because there's the "Black History Month," the "black lives matter" movement, and a lot of black and or general African culture stuff. If my assumption for question 1 that most non-black people generally have an understanding and attachment to the nations their ancestors came from, this points to a fundamentally different understanding of history between African Americans and virtually everyone else in the country.

What really struck me the most was an interview with Morgan Freeman that I read - and the very thing that got me thinking about this topic - saying something along the lines of "A DNA test shows that I am part Songhai, part Nigerian, part Congolese." That really struck me about it is that he literally didn't know what he was; there's no single culture he links to, but rather a shattered understanding based only on blood tests, like an adopted child from an orphanage who doesn't have the records of the child's origin. The other thing that struck me is that this is the only time I have ever heard of a non-immigrant "African American" describe their national identity. His last name "Freeman" wasn't a clue, he's obviously not of English origin despite his name being English - and while the UK has its Freemans, I suspect Morgan Freeman's name didn't originate in England.


So I began looking up DNA history sites, and found that there's a lot of interest from the African American community; but it's not some hobby curiosity like me who looks it up and discovers "Hey, I'm mostly Swedish, but I have some Caucasian, German, and Welsh ancestry, wow!" - Because even those anomalies within my DNA do not change my fundamental nationality; if 80% of my DNA were of foreign origin, there'd be no difference. Among the DNA site fanbases, one of the most active and outspoken groups are African Americans. And to many of them this is more than just a little hobby, this is them trying to reconnect with a lost heritage. And I am unsure if it is just my perspective (given I have never been anywhere near the US before), or if this is the common order. So I have a few more questions.

3. Is this common that African Americans, those descended from the slave trade, not to link to a specific cultural group in Africa?
4. Are other black groups: Kenyan immigrants, Congolese immigrants, Nigerian immigrants, Jamaicans, etc... Are these people counted among the African American ethnic group, or are they considered something separate?
5. Assuming #3 is a yes: Is Pan-Africanism popular among African Americans?
6. Do African Americans who do not know their background generally attach to American history and purely the American story? Or only from the time of slavery? If you are African American, what is your relationship with your own history?
7. For people who are descended from Europeans, but of multi-national background (and this includes part German, part Italian, part English, etc...) how do you identify yourselves? (e.g. European, white, literally a percentage of everything you know, or the most dominant culture - like Italian even if you are part Italian blood but have an Italian surname)
8. What about biracial people? Is Mariah's account (in the below video) accurate? That identifying as multiracial (as Mariah does) is controversial for partially black people to not to consider themselves black?




Last question:
9. Any books, documentaries, or websites to recommended discussing the history of the melting pot of the US?

And my apologies, I didn't expect my post to grow to 9 questions! =P
Maybe I should have broken this up into several topic threads.
So thanks in advance to anyone who answers these.
 
Likes: Mikeduke324
Oct 2018
33
Raritania
#2
Summary: My understanding of American history is limited, literally the only events I know about it relate to the American people and how they separated from the British Empire in a war of independence. But America is also called "the great melting pot," and this is the part of the history I am interested in - and it is perhaps more complex than a single thread can unravel. Films like Gangs of New York are fascinating windows onto the American history that I have no clue about. More importantly, I am wondering about the development of immigrant cultures in general; and there isn't a bigger example than the US.

Immigrant cultures are something I'd like to write about someday from a fictional perspective (it fascinates me). I imagine that your understanding of your place in the world is considerably different from mine. To be from a European country (and many other places) generally means you can trace back your roots to a distant history -- the accuracy of the bloodlines are irrelevant, if you have that name and that family, you are entitled to that history and tradition. In many cases that goes back until at least the medieval era, in many cases a great deal longer: thousands of years.

But the US is like an infant in comparison; I would guess immigration is still a big part of it, and given the sub-cultures (Irish-American, Italian-American, Anglo-American, etc...) it seems that a large portion of you are not so far divided from "old countries" that you consider your heritage as purely American. The immigrant culture is everywhere, even in your sports teams - "The Minnesota Vikings" which happens to be a team in a location where a lot of Scandinavian people settled. Jewish Americans attach themselves to 5000 years (whether partially mythical or not isn't relevant here, the fact is that story exists) of history and there's Jewish American comedy. Irish Americans seem like your version of plastic paddys. There seems to be a thriving Italian American culture and Chinese American culture, it's all in the food, and there are locations in New York City called "China Town" and "Little Italy."

So I have a few questions:

1. Is it a general thing for Americans to attach themselves to the history of their ancestral lands? Or is it only a small fraction of people?
2. For people unsure of their exact roots, do they just consider themselves by their continent of origin or skin colour, or is their surname generally enough?


"European American" isn't a term I hear used by Americans, but I have heard the term "African American" quite frequently as an identity for black people living in the US - and this is the one I am most curious about because there's the "Black History Month," the "black lives matter" movement, and a lot of black and or general African culture stuff. If my assumption for question 1 that most non-black people generally have an understanding and attachment to the nations their ancestors came from, this points to a fundamentally different understanding of history between African Americans and virtually everyone else in the country.

What really struck me the most was an interview with Morgan Freeman that I read - and the very thing that got me thinking about this topic - saying something along the lines of "A DNA test shows that I am part Songhai, part Nigerian, part Congolese." That really struck me about it is that he literally didn't know what he was; there's no single culture he links to, but rather a shattered understanding based only on blood tests, like an adopted child from an orphanage who doesn't have the records of the child's origin. The other thing that struck me is that this is the only time I have ever heard of a non-immigrant "African American" describe their national identity. His last name "Freeman" wasn't a clue, he's obviously not of English origin despite his name being English - and while the UK has its Freemans, I suspect Morgan Freeman's name didn't originate in England.


So I began looking up DNA history sites, and found that there's a lot of interest from the African American community; but it's not some hobby curiosity like me who looks it up and discovers "Hey, I'm mostly Swedish, but I have some Caucasian, German, and Welsh ancestry, wow!" - Because even those anomalies within my DNA do not change my fundamental nationality; if 80% of my DNA were of foreign origin, there'd be no difference. Among the DNA site fanbases, one of the most active and outspoken groups are African Americans. And to many of them this is more than just a little hobby, this is them trying to reconnect with a lost heritage. And I am unsure if it is just my perspective (given I have never been anywhere near the US before), or if this is the common order. So I have a few more questions.

3. Is this common that African Americans, those descended from the slave trade, not to link to a specific cultural group in Africa?
4. Are other black groups: Kenyan immigrants, Congolese immigrants, Nigerian immigrants, Jamaicans, etc... Are these people counted among the African American ethnic group, or are they considered something separate?
5. Assuming #3 is a yes: Is Pan-Africanism popular among African Americans?
6. Do African Americans who do not know their background generally attach to American history and purely the American story? Or only from the time of slavery? If you are African American, what is your relationship with your own history?
7. For people who are descended from Europeans, but of multi-national background (and this includes part German, part Italian, part English, etc...) how do you identify yourselves? (e.g. European, white, literally a percentage of everything you know, or the most dominant culture - like Italian even if you are part Italian blood but have an Italian surname)
8. What about biracial people? Is Mariah's account (in the below video) accurate? That identifying as multiracial (as Mariah does) is controversial for partially black people to not to consider themselves black?




Last question:
9. Any books, documentaries, or websites to recommended discussing the history of the melting pot of the US?

And my apologies, I didn't expect my post to grow to 9 questions! =P
Maybe I should have broken this up into several topic threads.
So thanks in advance to anyone who answers these.
I can answer both 1. And 7. for you as a 3rd generation Irish - Italian American.
1. Many ethnic groups, in fact, do that. For example, we have parades for historical figures that represent our ancestral lands. Like for people of Irish decent, we have St. Patrick’s Day Parades. For Germans, Oktoberfest. For Italians, Columbus Day Parades. I have noticed that people of Italian and Irish decent are among the people that do this most. In Italian and Irish- American neighborhoods it is quite common to see an Italian or Irish flag below the American one. This is very common on the East Coast in big cities most of all (Boston, NY, etc.).
7. Many people will identify with the largest group or groups. I’ll use myself as an example here. My father is of 99% Italian heritage, but my mom is around 75% Irish and some German and other Western European mixed in. But my mom and her family have always identified as Irish and not Irish - German because it’s the bigger group on both her maternal and paternal sides. I identify as Italian - American usually because that was a big part of my culture growing up, too. We ate pasta all the time, had Sunday Dinner, and scream at each other a lot, all very Italian - American things to do. My last name is Del Duca, so that also might be why I identify with it. For people that are descended of many groups they may just use ‘white’. If you need any other questions answered, I’ll be glad to help.
Edit: One other fact you may find interesting. Many Jewish people will not identify with their ethnicity (German, Russian, Polish) and instead will just say ‘Jewish’. That’s most Jewish people I know however, so that may not be true with everybody.
 
Likes: Theodoric

Theodoric

Ad Honorem
Mar 2012
2,549
#3
Thanks for the answers.

On the Jewish note, it's about the same in Europe. Jewish is considered a nationality unless they come from Israel, then they will identify as Israeli, though the Jewish part is generally implied. Although, the actual native Israeli Jewish, I believe, identify as Palestinian Jews... though the term is in dispute and I believe the differentiation is political (pro-Zionist or not).

There's a difference in Europe that may not occur in the US. Many (certainly not all) people here would hide their Jewish ancestry from the public due to fear of another deadly rise in anti-Semitism. It's to the point that some younger people are doing DNA tests and discovering they are as much as 100% Jewish.
 

Chlodio

Ad Honorem
Aug 2016
3,061
Dispargum
#4
The term Euro-American does exist but it's rarely used - usually by scholars who wish to avoid the racial baggage that comes with terms like white and black. Calling people Euro-, Native, and African-Americans somehow avoids the racial implications.

Most Euro-Americans are aware of their ethnic heritage but many only mention it if someone asks. Like 'What's your horoscope sign?' most Euro-Americans don't consider ethnicity very important. It depends on how many generations their family has been in America. Families that have been here the longest have the least attachment to their country of origin. Some of the last European groups to come to America in large numbers, Italians and Poles among other Southern and Eastern Europeans, have the strongest attachments. To a lesser extent maybe the Irish, too. Most Southern and Eastern Europeans came between the Civil War and the Great Depression. The Irish started coming here circa 1850. Most American families of British, German, Dutch, or Scandinavian extraction have been here for six or more generations and no longer have any cultural affinity for the old country. One used to be able to assume an ethnicity by a person's surname but with all of the inter-ethnic marriage in the last few decades, one can not even do that anymore. A surname only reveals the ethnicity of a person's paternal grandfather. The ethnicity of the other three grandparents is hidden. Among Euro-Americans there's very little ethnic prejudice anymore. In the 1800s you could find signs reading "Help wanted - Irish need not apply." In the 1970s there was a wave of ethnic jokes about Poles, but that has disappeared from America today. Even Jews have been largely assimilated. Among Euro-Americans you are far more likely to find prejudice against LGBTQs or religious minorities like Mormons and atheists than ethnic-based prejudice. In the 1980s it was a big deal when the first Italian-American was appointed to the Supreme Court. When the second was appointed a dozen or so years ago, no one cared.
 
Likes: Mikeduke324
Oct 2011
7,631
MARE PACIFICVM
#6
Wow, that's quite a question.

I will speak a little bit from my own experience.

On my mother's side, I descend from what are sometimes called "Old Stock Americans", those who can trace their ancestry back to colonial times in the 17th and 18th century. It's a typical mix of mostly English, Scottish, Scots-Irish, and Irish with some German and Scandinavian thrown in. In general, this side of the family doesn't take their European heritage too seriously, but rather embraces their American identity whole heartedly. Apple pie and the Fourth of July types.

My father's side is quite different. It is entirely Irish. They came to Massachusetts during the Potato Famine, as is such a common story, worked in Boston, saved up enough money to buy a farm, and eventually moved out of the city and worked the land in rural western Mass. The little town they lived in was divided into ethnic neighborhoods, and it was understood that the Irish didn't mix with the Italians, neither of them ventured into the more well-to-do WASP neighborhood, and everyone stayed out of black neighborhoods completely. That's how it was back then.

This side of the family was very proud and defensive over their Irishness and their Catholicity. My father's generation and uncles grew up calling each other "Micks", and generally picking fights with "guineas and ni**ers". Because they grew up in an environment where their family, friends, and church were all Irish, they came to identify much more strongly with that side of their identity than with the American side of it, at least during their youth.

Things changed a lot during my generation. I grew up in California after my dad migrated there in the '60s. Growing up outside of any ethnically segregated neighborhood, on the racially pluralistic West Coast, I never absorbed too much of my father's Irish identity. He still referred to us as "Irishmen", but I've never taken that too seriously. The racial and ethnic hatred which functioned as an effective defensive mechanism in my father's childhood environment seemed stupid and wrong in the environment I grew up in.

I remember one time when I was on a Little League team, they handed out our jerseys with the names of last year's players still sewn on the back. So for the first game I ended up wearing a jersey with a very obvious Italian last name on the back, and it bothered my father somewhat. I remember him saying that his grandfather is probably rolling in his grave in outrage. All of that sort of thing seemed a bit quaint and out of touch to my young mind.

Meanwhile, growing up in California there were different identities at play. Rather than Irish/Italian/German/ etc, the relevant categories became White, Hispanic, Black, and Asian. Nowadays even these categories are becoming less well defined and less relevant, at least on the West Coast.
 
Last edited:
Likes: dreuxeng
Oct 2010
4,764
DC
#7
1. Is it a general thing for Americans to attach themselves to the history of their ancestral lands? Or is it only a small fraction of people?
The attachments I have seen are mostly to cultural stuff (Music and Food) and not to traditions especially when you move down the generational lines.
2. For people unsure of their exact roots, do they just consider themselves by their continent of origin or skin colour, or is their surname generally enough?

"European American" isn't a term I hear used by Americans, but I have heard the term "African American" quite frequently as an identity for black people living in the US - and this is the one I am most curious about because there's the "Black History Month," the "black lives matter" movement, and a lot of black and or general African culture stuff. If my assumption for question 1 that most non-black people generally have an understanding and attachment to the nations their ancestors came from, this points to a fundamentally different understanding of history between African Americans and virtually everyone else in the country.
3. Is this common that African Americans, those descended from the slave trade, not to link to a specific cultural group in Africa?
I am not sure to be honest, I notice that some African Americans from Louisiana having French sounding names and they do not seem to link to anything else but that place. My observation of others split them into two types, those who do not link and others who attempt to link and even name their children using these links that they could trace with some level of certainty
4. Are other black groups: Kenyan immigrants, Congolese immigrants, Nigerian immigrants, Jamaicans, etc... Are these people counted among the African American ethnic group, or are they considered something separate?
Simple answer: No
Long answer: it is complicated and political and depends on how much the "community" gains/loses from such proclamation.
5. Assuming #3 is a yes: Is Pan-Africanism popular among African Americans?
The ones I have noticed are the followers of Elijah Mohammad and their offshoots.
8. What about biracial people? Is Mariah's account (in the below video) accurate? That identifying as multiracial (as Mariah does) is controversial for partially black people to not to consider themselves black?
see answer to Q4
9. Any books, documentaries, or websites to recommended discussing the history of the melting pot of the US?
I remember reading some in College, I will try to trace them for you if I can, generally I have noticed that melting pot is a contentious point despite what many Americans proclaim, people proclaim it to erase their heritage, others proclaim it as a sign of "we all are Americans" , you rarely see a midline in that discussion (personally speaking).

The only book I remember is George Washington Gomez by Americo Paredes (Fiction)

It is interesting that you brought up the heritage part, When I trace my family DNA , we mostly link to the Caucasus (about 2/3 lineage) and Middle eastern (1/3 North Arabic), yet my wife is pretty certain about her lineage of almost 14 centuries to a very specific person from Mecca. I don't know what my son is going to learn about that or make use of it during his daily life, I am not sure what use for him to do so either. It sounds archaic and political to me but I guess reading that history might be fun.
 

Rodger

Ad Honorem
Jun 2014
4,975
US
#8
From my experience, the further one gets from their immigrant roots, the more difficult it becomes to relate. For example, one of my paternal great grandfathers was from Italy. My grandmother often shared the transitional cultural effects with me as a child. Subsequently, I related to this side of my ancestry. My children did not receive this, as my grandmother died while I was still a child. On my mother's side, they were old stock: English, Scots-Irish and German, with the latest immigrant coming in the 1840s (compared to my father's side where his Polish ancestors arrived in 1889 and his Italian ancestor in 1907). I also think different regions have different experiences. Aside from the obvious: places where there are a number of recent immigrants, the place I grew up was somewhat unique, complete with a number people from different European immigrant pools, to the extent that, when I was younger, I recall those who had immigrated from the "Old Country" ( as it was affectionately called) still speaking their native tongue routinely, and engaging in cultural and religious affairs from their homeland. They are some of the most pleasant memories I have. Interest in cultural differences sparked my interest in topics such as history. Italians, Poles, Slovaks, Greeks, Serbs, Croatians, Ruthenians, Ukrainians, Eastern European Jews, Lebanese and Syrians were all part of the neighborhoods I experienced. As for a reading, I have recommended this before. It is insightful with plenty of data, just the way I like to learn:
UI Press | John Bodnar, Roger Simon, and Michael P. Weber | Lives of Their Own: Blacks, Italians, and Poles in Pittsburgh, 1900-1960
 
Jan 2010
3,983
Atlanta, Georgia USA
#9
1. Yes--it's common. My spouse is 100% Italian-American (mostly Sicilian) and is very connected. My genetic heritage is what you might call European-American (German and English) but there is a tradition on my Mother's side that at least some of her ancestors came from Scotland (Fife and Edinborough).

The German part of our ancestry has been downplayed, probably owing to the two World Wars.

Here in Atlanta, there are large Scottish, African-American, Latino and Greek Festivals. Other ethnicities, not so much .

2. Can't help you there, as I've got specific ethnic roots.

3. I believe that's the case.

4. In my opinion, African-Americans are those whose ancestors were enslaved in the US. So. for example, Jamaicans would not qualify, even though their ancestors probably experienced slavery. At least, that's how I think about it and use the term. If I want to talk about the whole African diaspora, I use the term "Black".

I'll let someone more qualified than I am answer the rest of the questions.
 
Oct 2018
33
Raritania
#10
Thanks for the answers.

On the Jewish note, it's about the same in Europe. Jewish is considered a nationality unless they come from Israel, then they will identify as Israeli, though the Jewish part is generally implied. Although, the actual native Israeli Jewish, I believe, identify as Palestinian Jews... though the term is in dispute and I believe the differentiation is political (pro-Zionist or not).

There's a difference in Europe that may not occur in the US. Many (certainly not all) people here would hide their Jewish ancestry from the public due to fear of another deadly rise in anti-Semitism. It's to the point that some younger people are doing DNA tests and discovering they are as much as 100% Jewish.
No problem. And that’s an interesting tid bit about people hiding their heritage, I never knew that. Here’s one more immigration fact you may find interesting. Many people, specifically Eastern Europeans but others as well, had their names shortened at immigration stations while coming in from
Europe because the agents didn’t know how to spell their names.
 

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