Lara Putnam: Children of Immigrants, the American Way: Mitt, Gwen, and Barack

Radical Moves: Caribbean Migrants and the Politics of Race in the Jazz Age, by Lara PutnamWe welcome a guest post today from Lara Putnam, author of Radical Moves: Caribbean Migrants and the Politics of Race in the Jazz Age. In the generations after emancipation, hundreds of thousands of African-descended working-class men and women left their homes in the British Caribbean to seek opportunity abroad. But in the 1920s and 1930s, racist nativism and a brutal cascade of antiblack immigration laws swept the hemisphere. Facing borders and barriers as never before, Afro-Caribbean migrants rethought allegiances of race, class, and empire. In Radical Moves, Putnam takes readers from tin-roof tropical dancehalls to the elegant black-owned ballrooms of Jazz Age Harlem to trace the roots of the black internationalist and anticolonial movements that would remake the twentieth century.

In this guest post, Putnam juxtaposes contemporary nativist sentiment in the U.S. with the immigrant family histories of presidential candidates as well as one of the media figures covering the national party conventions.—ellen

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Which candidate is the “real” American? Does a Hawaiian birth really make you a U.S. citizen? Which candidate will spend more money policing the border?

In the midst of a presidential campaign in which angry nativism is a constant rumble, it’s worth taking a deep breath and remembering that learning from immigrants is itself the American way.

I’m reminded of that this week as I sit watching convention coverage and admiring three very accomplished children of immigrants: Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, and PBS correspondent Gwen Ifill.

In some unexpected ways, it is Mitt and Gwen who have the most in common. For both of them are not only children of immigrants, but children of parents who were themselves children of immigrants. George W. Romney was born in Chihuahua in 1907 to parents who had emigrated from Utah. In 1912 they came to the United States, where they struggled through a series of new homes in hard times. Oliver Urcille Ifill was born in Panama in 1921 to parents from Barbados; he lived in the Canal Zone and then Barbados before migrating to the United States in the 1940s.

George Romney became a missionary, L.D.S. elder, and civic leader—enormously respected both inside his community and for the way he reached out from it to serve the society around him. O. Urcille Ifill became a missionary, A.M.E. preacher, and civic leader, enormously respected both inside his community and for the way he reached out from it. Each, working alongside a tireless partner (Lenore Romney, Eleanor Ifill), instilled in his children a deep religious faith and ethic of public service.

Children of immigrants stand simultaneously inside and outside of multiple cultures at once. They see the benefits of close reliance on kith and kin but they also question things their neighbors may take for granted: like where the line should be drawn between black, brown, and white or between native and foreign. They know that social divides that seem immutable in one context may fade in importance elsewhere.

It’s not happenstance that pioneering research on racial identity formation was carried out by Dr. Kenneth Bancroft Clark—who was born in Panama, too, just a few years before Gwen Ifill’s father. Clark too was the son of British Caribbean immigrants: from Jamaica, in Clark’s case, rather than Barbados. Young Kenneth left behind in Panama bilingual schools full of children from across the Caribbean, left behind too a place where some men, like his father, had good jobs in spite of their skin color. In Harlem he had to learn a whole new set of lessons about what it meant to be black—and then, through activism and scholarship, including research cited by Brown v. Board of Education (1954) in outlawing segregation, he set about changing the system.

People whose families have had to negotiate multiple societies, languages, and bureaucracies grow up comparing—asking both “why?” and “why not?”

A quarter of American children today are children of immigrants. Hopefully they’ll ignore the nativist blasts on display this electoral season. They’ll ignore the smoke and mirrors about “real” Americans, and look directly at Mitt and Barack and Gwen. They’ll see children of immigrants living lives of service, bringing new insights and questions—and they’ll follow them, in the American way.

Lara Putnam is associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh and author of Radical Moves: Caribbean Migrants and the Politics of Race in the Jazz Age and The Company They Kept: Migrants and the Politics of Gender in Caribbean Costa Rica, 1870-1960.

2 Comments

  1. I am very excited to read Radical Moves! In my recent trip to Barbados to research the family roots of Shirley Chisholm, I saw the Ifill name in several places and wondered whether Gewn Ifill’s family had Bajan connections. Shirley Chisholm, herself a daughter of immigrants, had a lot to teach Americans about asking the right questions.

    • Great article. I found in my book – Proud Americans: Growing Up As Children of Immigrants – that people who grew up in the U.S. as children of immigrants lived in different worlds – including the one inside their home where English may not have been spoken and the one outside, where children attended school, helped their parents understand the maze of Americans ways, etc. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is among the 40+ people featured in the book – and yes, the late and quoteable Shirley Chisholm is another.

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