"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Friday, June 26, 2015

Why It’s Better To Be An Outsider

I write and publish regularly on the small town urban condition, using the towns of Pennsylvania’s lower Schuylkill River as my examples.  Thus my primary topic is urban life; what it was like back then and how that evolved into what it is like now.  You already know that I never lived in any of the towns about which I write, and some of you are bothered by this.  Well, here are some further confessions.

In giving the present a context from the past, I often find myself writing about—or at least mentioning—ethnicity.  The history of the towns on the lower Schuylkill River is an often-repeated sequence of the arrival of different ethnicities, the discrimination they had to endure and their eventual assimilation, and it’s still going on. 

The fact is, however, that I am an outsider, to both urban life and ethnic heritage.  This is by no means an apology; I believe my personal history has aided me immensely in the study of both subjects.  Not only have I never lived in any of the towns about which I write, my understanding of both urban life and ethnicity comes overwhelmingly from research and observation.

I am neither urban born nor urban reared.  I was brought home from a hospital in a medium-sized Kansas town to one of those prefab and trailer residences that grew up around our universities after World War II, courtesy of the G.I. Bill.  Upon receiving his degree, my father moved us out of Kansas, an act for which I shall forever be grateful.  After a few years in Michigan, it was on to New York.  Not the city, although my father was a professor at Brooklyn College.  He determined to move us to that new way of living, the automobile suburbs, on Long Island, even farther out than Levittown.  For many years this required him to commute daily on the Long Island Railroad, about which little more needs to be said, at least by me. 

Yes, I grew up in the environment I have come to despise, and I am relatively certain that this enhances my occasional comments on suburbia.  In the late 1950s, a Long Island developer had purchased some farmland, torn out the trees and removed the topsoil, then subdivided it into ¾ acre lots.  On this he mass-produced three types of houses, but mostly two-story Colonials (my neighborhood was part of a second phase development that followed the Levittown of one-story Cape Cods on ½ acre lots).  My family bought one of them.  Where I grew up there were no corner stores, no churches, no recreation facilities, not even any trees.  Just houses, very much alike, one after another along gently-curving streets.  If you wanted to do anything more than visit someone else in the same development, you needed a car.

Do I even need to mention that not a single person of color inhabited a house in that development?  Mind you, it wasn’t the fault of the development; the entire school district had exactly one black family, that of a school administrator, and I don’t remember any South or East Asians.  For me, “diversity” meant having Jewish friends, and some of my WASP friends looked askance at me for that.

Which brings me to the subject of ethnicity, or “people who are different from us.”  Not only am I a WASP, I descend from the very core of waspishness, England.  My direct ancestor first arrived on these shores (Maryland, actually), in 1663.  He appears to have come over as an indentured servant.  That was, briefly, contractual slavery for a set number of years; an effective recruitment tool for the down-and-out who could not afford to leave but would not be missed.  This fact accounts for why inducements to discover my ancient family crest have never moved me.

Such an origin offers several topic threads to pursue.  It does allow me to look upon almost all of my U.S. readers as “newcomers,” and period of one’s arrival in this country is all pretty much the same to me.  Are your ancestors Irish?  Their arrival was met with disgust by the local Protestants.  They were considered sub-human, dirty, clannish, drunken louts, prone to crime.  Or are you descended from the Italians, Poles, Russians and other peoples that arrived later?  Then your family history recounts how they were treated by the descendants of those earlier arrivals, including the Irish: in exactly the same way.  But now you are an “American,” and a new wave of immigrants is arriving, Hispanics.  How many of you view these newcomers through the same ethnic stereotype that your ancestors were subjected to, utterly oblivious of the irony?  I can only sigh sadly when I hear self-described “real Americans” speak out against immigrants.  The more things change…

What interests me most, however, is the subject of ethnicity itself.  I have met a great many people who use ethnicity to describe themselves.  This is foreign to me.  “My people” originated in England.  Is English even an ethnicity?  Does anybody refer to himself as an “English-American”?  “Englishness” is tied to religion just as much as being Irish or Italian, but that religion is Episcopal (the Americanized Anglican Church), and that makes it quite a different thing.  A religion of convenience rarely becomes the cornerstone of one’s life.  It certainly didn’t for me.

Even if I am an “English-American,” don’t you think that after some three and a half centuries resident in the United States (and no record of wives possessing any strikingly different last names), ethnicity might no longer be a personal issue with me? My heritage might explain my love of English folk music (Fairport Convention’s Liege and Lief is perhaps my favorite album), but then again, I have never had the desire to learn Morris Dancing.  As for food, well, the less said about English food traditions the better.  So what do ethnic baggage do I carry courtesy of my ancestors?  None that I have ever been able to discern.  I’m not a hyphenated American, just an American; a mongrel, a mutt (although not widely cross-bred).  At times I despair that only at some indefinite future date, when everyone’s ethnicity has been stored away in some dusty memory hole, will we find true community in being an American.

I believe that these two circumstances of my upbringing have enabled me to take a fuller measure of the history of life along the river, because none of it was implanted in me by childhood experiences.  Writing history—as opposed to memoirs, biographies, etc.—requires distance from the subject, both of intellect and emotion.  It is in that sphere that I write, not just of eight towns on the lower Schuylkill River, but of urban life and ethnicity in general.  I’m going to publish my second example of this next month.  It focuses on urban life, and ethnicity is woven into the text.  I’d like you to read it, of course, but I would also like to hear from you afterward, about my approach and what you think of the results.  I look forward to them all.