Monday, June 29, 2015

Start Immigrant Stories with Yourself

We are sharing this article with you and readers of all ages as a starting point for reflecting on one’s own immigrant heritage, no matter how recent or distant. This activity can enrich  classroom and dinner table conversations about immigrants and immigration while deepening understanding and context.

-- Contributed by Michael D’Innocenzo

If you want to appreciate what our new generations of immigrants will contribute to our nation, consider doing a check of your own family “roots.”

All of us in the United States are descended from immigrants. The only questions we need to ask ourselves are:

1. How long ago?

2. What awareness do we have of the journeys of our ancestors?

As a youngster, I thought, for a while, that anyone who had a name that ended in a vowel shared my Italian heritage. But then I learned that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was one of our early multi-ethnics, combining Dutch ancestry with the “de la noes” of French Huguenot background.

That both a Republican and a Democrat Roosevelt (with Dutch/Huguenot backgrounds) rose to the American presidency (in a still-prevalent “Anglo” society) should receive more emphasis than has been accorded.

FDR (like his 5th cousin Theodore Roosevelt) knew his ancestors arrived in the 1600s, even before New Netherland became New York State.

He also knew that his female ancestors could claim membership not only in the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), but also in The Colonial Dames of America.

At a time when the DAR resisted newcomers, describing their ancestors as “colonists” and all others as “immigrants,” FDR offered a striking response:

“Remember, remember always, ladies that all of us, and you and I, especially, are descended from immigrants – and revolutionists!”

John Kennedy’s father did not like to be called “Irish-American;” he asked what it took to be regarded as “American.”

But when Jack sought the presidency he learned what every ethnic person experiences in our nation: no matter how you define yourself, you need to deal with how others see you.

Jack Kennedy increasingly highlighted the heritage his father sought to transcend. If you have not seen the documentary, “Kennedy in Ireland,” it powerfully demonstrates the enormous pride of people in Ireland for one of “their kind.” On that June 1963 visit, President Kennedy said:

“When my great-grandfather left here to become a cooper in East Boston, he carried nothing with him except a strong religious faith and a strong desire for liberty. If he hadn’t left, I would be working at the Albatross Company across the road.”

As his politics moved beyond Boston, President Kennedy wrote a book, appropriately entitled, “A Nation of Immigrants.” When Robert Kennedy added a new introduction after his brother’s assassination, he emphasized: “Our attitude toward immigration reflects our faith in the American ideal. We have always believed it possible for men and women who start at the bottom to rise as far as their talent and energy allow.

Neither race nor creed nor place of birth should affect their chances.”

Frank Sinatra, bolstering FDR during World War II, was awarded a special Oscar for his film song from “The House I Live In.”

“The faces that I see
All races and religions
That’s America to me.”

As I mentioned earlier, one effective way to relish our immigration heritage of diversity with its quests for progress and inclusion is to do some family history checking.

This is not a new idea; but it could be expanded with beneficial results – because those who seek perspectives on their own families are very likely to appreciate the journeys of those who have more recently arrived.

During the 1970s, I had a fellowship at Chicago’s Newberry Library, which specializes in family history studies. As a result of that experience, I developed a college course that was one of the most satisfying I have ever taught.

I called it: “Roots and Beyond: Family and Community in American Society.” The “Chronicle of Higher Education” gave a report on the experiences of those Hofstra students.

Young undergraduates began by doing a brief autobiography of part of their life (often junior or senior high school), then did a grandparent study, followed by examining changing developments in the community to which their families migrated.

Among the many fine results cited in the CHE report was the building of connections across age divides as college students got to know their grandparents better by interviewing them, while also getting perspectives from their contemporaries and other family members. Unanimously, young people came away from their studies with high appreciations of what their elders had done, a sense of where they began, the obstacles and challenges they faced, and the efforts that were expended in order to advance.

By seeking to place their family in the context of their community they also became aware of its demographics and the nature of suburban bonding experiences.

Those young people in that first course in the 1970s achieved much of what the American Historical Association recently said is still lacking in our history classes (and in our society): 1) an ability to foster informed, critical thinking, and 2) to nurture empathetic citizenship.

Every individual and every family can be enriched by doing their own “Roots and Beyond” study. From that is bound to come a deeper appreciation of what fellow citizens have experienced and are newly experiencing as today’s immigrants.

All a teacher needs to do is assemble the stories ready to be written in their classrooms.

This is the final post of a five part series written by esteemed historian, professor, and activist Michael D’Innocenzo and published by Long Island Wins. You can read the entire series here. 

Additional Resources:

  • Interested in planning a classroom family heritage and digital storytelling project for the upcoming school year? This lesson plan for K-12 teachers uses digital storytelling to capture immigration stories and family heritage of students.  Digital storytelling on immigration is a powerful way for teachers to create opportunities for “empathetic moments” among students and shape classroom environments while building literacy and writing skills. 

We offer free lesson plans, resources, book/film reviews, and grants to #teachimmigration. Stay connected! Follow us on twitter @ThnkImmigration.

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