We lived for twenty-three years in Jamestown, NY, a community heavily populated by people with Italian and Swedish heritage, and one of the annual golf tournaments in town was The Italian-American Member-Guest. It always annoyed me that they put “Italian” in front of “American.” Why not the American-Italian, I thought. They formed a sort of band of Italian brothers, basking in their Italian heritage, calling each other “goomba” and delighting in using broken Italian swearwords, some apparently practicing for an audition for Godfather 6 or 7 or 8. Clinging to one’s cultural heritage is fine as long as it doesn’t override our own American heritage.
But that leads me to all kinds of speculation about the ways we designate racial and ethnic and national origin among our citizens. We say Asian-American, Mexican-American, Native-American, African-American, but we don’t tend to say European-American, Jewish-American, Catholic-American, or Irish American, to name only the most obvious among the possibilities. “Native-American” may be the only sane way to describe people from the many Indian tribes in this country. Most Native-Americans don’t want to be called Indians because they didn’t arrive from India, and the old film designation, “Redskins,” was just too demeaning. But even “Native-American” isn’t necessarily accurate, since they too arrived here by way of the Aleutian Archipelago. The other choice is to call them by the tribal designation from which they descended—Sioux, Hopi, Apache, Blackfoot, Mohican, etc. But that too would be amazingly complicated.
“African-American” has ascended from a long line of terms for our Negro citizenry, an odd ascendency, I think. Let’s start with Caucasian and Negro, white and black. I’m Caucasian, but if I had one drop of blood from some distant Japanese forebear, would I be considered Japanese or Asian? If I had one drop of Negro blood from some distant forebear, would I be considered Negro? From the eighteenth century, Negro slaves were considered to be Negroes, then with a slight pronunciation slip, it went to Nigras, then to that most unfortunate term, Niggers. And then to Coloreds. What an odd label to give Negroes. Colored could mean pink or red or green or purple or blue or yellow or even colorfully striped. Then for a long time it went to Blacks. But many Negroes objected to that term because not all blacks are black, and instead wanted African-American, the term now considered to be politically correct. And now we’ve come full-circle. Why do African-Americans insist on claiming an origin that isn’t true except for those who emigrate to this country from one of the African nations? My ancestors came from England and Germany, but I don’t consider myself an English-American or a German-American.
Why not simply designate anyone who was born in this country as American? Why not reserve all those other ethnic, or racial, or national terms for those who were not born here but who choose to live in this country. Why can’t the vast majority of us simply be Americans?