Americans All
"Of Plymouth Rock and Jamestown and Ellis Island"; or,
Ethnic Literature and Some Redefinitions of "America"
by Werner Sollors


I shall here, however, in conclusion, concentrate on the problematic situation of black Americans, one of the "oldest" and most "indigenous" yet most persistently excluded groups that consists mostly of descendants of people who did cross the Atlantic, though involuntarily and as slaves. Is Ellis Island a more appropriate myth than Plymouth Rock for African Americans? How would the American story have to change in order to accommodate black history? In his last writings the late historian Nathan Huggins took American historians to task for dealing with Afro-American history only too rarely, and then usually as an "exception" and "anomaly," in their generalizations about America (Huggins 1990, xliv-xlvi), and I would like to continue his questioning with a few literary texts.

Identifying himself in the Atlantic Monthly merely as "a peaceable man," an astute observer wrote during the Civil War that there was a special affinity between Puritans and southern Blacks:

There is an historical circumstance, known to few, that connects the children of the Puritans with these Africans of Virginia, in a very singular way. They are our brethren, as being lineal descendants from the Mayflower, the fated womb of which, in her first voyage, sent forth a brood of Pilgrims upon Plymouth Rock, and, in a subsequent one, spawned slaves upon the Southern soil, --a monstrous birth, but with which we have an instinctive sense of kindred, and so are stirred by an irresistible impulse to attempt their rescue, even at the cost of blood and ruin. The character of our sacred ship, I fear, may suffer a little by this revelation; but we must let her white progeny offset her dark one,--and two such portents never sprang from an identical source before.
(Hawthorne 1862, 50)

PICTURE The observer was Nathaniel Hawthorne; and his appears to have been a lonely voice. The relationship between Plymouth Rock and American slavery has more typically been drawn as a contrast rather than as an affinity. Malcolm X, for example, who said at Harvard: "I'm not a Democrat. I'm not a Republican. I don't even consider myself an American" (Sollors 1993, 346) put it most vividly: "We didn't land on Plymouth Rock, my brothers and sisters--Plymouth Rock landed on us!" (Malcolm X 1966, 201). This is the quote from the autobiography, though what Malcolm X actually said at Michigan State University on 23 January 1963 was: "this twentieth-century Uncle Tom, he'll stand up in your face and tell you about when his fathers landed on Plymouth Rock. His father never landed on Plymouth Rock; the rock was dropped on him" (Malcolm X 1989, 40). This may be a statement with a "separatist" thrust; yet Malcolm X may also have been thinking of Cole Porter's song "Anything Goes" (1934), which opens with the claim that if the Puritans were to arrive today "'Stead of landing on Plymouth Rock, / Plymouth Rock would land on them."

In Mark Twain's "Plymouth Rock and the Pilgrims," an 1881 dinner address at a New England Society, he said that "those Pilgrims were a hard lot. They took good care of themselves, but they abolished everybody else's ancestors" (Twain 1992, 782). Then he offered his own putative genealogy:

My first American ancestor, gentlem[e]n, was an Indian--an early Indian. Your ancestors skinned him alive, and I am an orphan. . . . The first slave brought into New England out of Africa by your progenitors was an ancestor of mine--for I am of a mixed breed, an infinitely shaded and exquisite mongrel. I'm not one of your sham meerschaums that you can color in a week. No, my complexion is the patient art of eight generations. . . .
(Twain 1992, 782- 784)
This joyful acceptance of the derogatory term for miscegenation led Mark Twain to a full- fledged attack on the genealogical associations:

O my friends, hear me and reform! . . . . Oh, stop, stop, while you are still temperate in your appreciation of your ancestors! Hear me, I beseech you; get up an auction and sell Plymouth Rock! . . . .Disband these New England societies, renounce these soul-blistering saturnalia, cease from varnishing the rusty reputations of your long-vanished ancestors--the super-high- moral old ironclads of Cape Cod, the pious buccaneers of Plymouth Rock--go home, and try to learn to behave!
(Twain 1992, 784-785)
Extending Shelley Fisher Fishkin's recent question one could also ask, "Was Mark Twain black?"

For a long time, African American writers have questioned American national symbols by confronting them with the history of slavery, miscegenation, and segregation. In the first novel published by an American Negro, William Wells Brown's Clotel, or the President's Daughter (1853), the author dedicated a whole page to the contrast between the two American beginnings of the "May-flower" and of Jamestown, of freedom and of slavery (Brown 1970, 147). At the end of the novel, the titular heroine and slave woman dies, pursued by slave catchers, in the Potomac, "within plain sight of the President's house and the capitol of the Union" (Brown 1970, 177). Her father Jefferson was not only the "author" of the Declaration of Independence but also of unacknowledged slave children--whether or not this was literally the case is not important Huggins continued, since it is "symbolically true" (Huggins 1990, xlvii).

In The Souls of Black Folk (1903) W. E. B. Du Bois also specifically mentioned the slave-ship that "first saw the square tower of Jamestown" as an American beginning point (Du Bois 1986, 424) and asked, "Your country? How came it yours? Before the Pilgrims landed we were there" (Du Bois 1986, 545). Richard Wright, in his 12 Million Black Voices (1941) came close to Hawthorne's critique when he wrote: "The Mayflower's nameless sister ship, presumably a Dutch vessel, which stole into the harbor of Jamestown in 1619 and unloaded her human cargo of 20 of us, was but the first ship to touch the shores of this New World, and her arrival signalized what was to be our trial for centuries to come" (Wright 1988, 14).

For a black perspective "Jamestown" memorializes--not 1607, John Smith, and Pocahontas--but 1619, the first arrival of Africans in the English colonies that were to become the United States. This is, incidentally, an event that--until very recently--has not been remembered much even in Jamestown itself. It has hardly played a part in the 1907 and 1957 anniversaries of the founding of Jamestown (Hatch 1957, 23-24; Anniversary 1958, 78; Jamestown 1958; True 1983; Roosevelt 1924, 585n, 585, 589), though on 20 August 1994 the 375th year of the African arrival was celebrated at the Jamestown Settlement ("Africans").

African-American artists, however, did react to Jamestown of 1619. Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller contributed a commissioned series of sculptures on the "advancement of the Negro since he landed" to the Jamestown tercentennial in 1907; in less than two months, she modeled "fifteen groups with one hundred and fifty figures" that were "in the nature of models, to be dressed in historic costume (Washington 1909, 293-94; Ovington 1927, 222); and Duke Ellington in 1944 publicly claimed Jamestown descent (Adamic 1945, 195). James Edwin Campbell's poem "The Pariah" makes an explicit case for the merger of Plymouth Rock and Jamestown through the union of the black-white couple that follows the formula: "She the Brahmin, I the Pariah." Speaking about the woman's father, the poem explicates:

Traced he back his proud ancestry
To the Rock on Plymouth's shore,
Traced I mine to Dutch ship landing
At Jamestown, one year before.
( Campbell 1895, 82)

Whereas Paulding wanted to see a Northern-Southern merger of Puritans and Cavaliers, and immigrant enthusiasts such as Zangwill, Antin, and Adamic thought that the whole American synthesis was embodied in the fusion of Ellis Island and Plymouth Rock (leaving out the legacy of slavery that way), the black poet Campbell viewed the matrimony of the black Pariah and the white Brahmin (as in Paulding's "Ode to Jamestown," with echoes of the Pocahontas story and with a focus on an intermarriage) as the hope for a casteless country of Jamestown and Plymouth Rock (ignoring the arrival point of immigrants). Both the "Jamestown" of black Americans and the "Ellis Island" of European immigrants were, in different fashions, symbolic alternatives to the narrow interpretation of America as Mayflower-descended, yet alternatives that-- even though they were both "thresholds"--could also exclude each other.

In 1942, the black modernist poet Melvin B. Tolson contributed to Louis Adamic's journal Common Ground the poem "Rendezvous with America," in which he seems to have desired to represent America as the merger of all points of arrival. The poem opens with the lines:

Time unhinged the gates
Of Plymouth Rock and Jamestown and Ellis Island,
And worlds of men with hungers of body and soul
Hazarded the wilderness of waters,
Cadenced their destinies
With the potters'-wheeling miracles
Of mountain and valley, prairie and river.
(Tolson 1942,3)

Tolson's critique of American symbols is directed against their exclusiveness that he tries to break (unhinging Aldrich's "gates") by the listing of many points of entry. The Whitmanian conflation of old and new national symbols reaches a higher pitch when Tolson explicitly makes a special place for those groups (such as Indians) not included by the "Plymouth Rock and Ellis Island" formula, when blind bigots are rebuked for their prejudices, or when the question "America?" is answered in the following way:

America is the Black Man's country,
The Red Man's, the Yellow Man's,
The Brown Man's, the White Man's.
An international river with a thousand tributaries!
A magnificent cosmorama with myriad patterns and colors!
A giant forest with loin-roots in a hundred lands!
A mighty orchestra with a thousand instruments playing
(Tolson 1942, 4-5)

PICTURE PICTURE Tolson worries about inadequacies in the image of the Statue of Liberty; yet his poem, written upon the occasion of Pearl Harbor, sees this inadequacy in a tranquilized Uncle Sam's lack of watchfulness: he "Pillows his head on the Statue of Liberty" (Tolson 1942, 7). In his harmonic vision of a polyethnic America the shadow of one enemy--Japan--remains. In a similar vein, the post-Pearl Harbor Life magazine carried the American flag on the cover {left}, while the issue was full of anti-Japanese materials {right}. Perhaps the Japanese enemy image may even have helped with the project of integrating Red, Black, and White (though Tolson does mention "Patriots from Yokosuka and Stralsund" in one of his melting-pot catalogues [3]).

The incorporating mood of the depression and war years affected even politically radical writers such as Richard Wright {left}. He did not only publish radical American paeans such as "Transcontinental" (Salzman 1978, 314-320), but he also let his character Boris Max, the communist lawyer, defend the black murderer Bigger Thomas in the novel Native Son with the plea: "In him and men like him is what was in our forefathers when they first came to these strange shores hundreds of years ago. We were lucky. They are not" (Wright 1940, 332). PICTURE When Wright was invited to go to France shortly after World War II and repeatedly denied a passport, however, he sounded a different note. His friends, among them the painter Marc Chagall, appealed to the French cultural attaché Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Wright received an official invitation by the French government and, finally, after much more maneuvering, a US passport, too. In an allusion to the classic Ellis Island scene,Wright described his emotions in the essay "I Choose Exile": "I felt relieved when my ship sailed past the Statue of Liberty!" (Wright 1948). The feeling is familiar, except that Wright was leaving the United States for France! A few years later Wright described the American Negro as "an American who is not accepted as an American, hence a kind of negative American" (Wright 1964, 16).

Exclusion of any group from national symbolism may generate not only the insistent argument for the group's compatibility with those symbols but also a rejection of such symbols. This rejection may also be undertaken with the intention of facilitating an ultimate integration on equal footing. Wright's ironic reversal of interpreting the Statue of Liberty was not a unique occurrence. Thus, Du Bois--whose analysis of double-consciousness as "an American, a Negro" is often cited--described in his Autobiography how, upon returning from Europe in 1894 on an immigrant ship, he saw the Statue of Liberty: I know not what multitude of emotions surged in the others, but I had to recall [a] mischievous little French girl whose eyes twinkled as she said: "Oh yes the Statue of Liberty! With its back toward America, and its face toward France!" (Du Bois 1968, 182) While both Du Bois and Wright tilted the interpretation of the Statue from the "immigrant" toward the "Franco-American" reading--that they, however, slanted toward French liberty--neither of them drew here on Whittier's connection between Statue of Liberty and slavery.

The strategy of paradoxically associating the Statue of Liberty with political tyranny is of course a politically radical as much as an ethnic device. Thus Emma Goldman may have misremembered her happy arrival in American with the Statue of Liberty precisely in order to build up a more dramatic contrast between what "the generous heart of America" (Goldman 1982, 11) meant to her when she arrived and her political imprisonment--she highlights a Fourth of July in prison (Goldman 1982, 663)--before she was ultimately deported from Ellis Island in 1919. Seeing the "revolutionary martyrs being driven into exile" she asks whether this was Russia, only to answer:

But no, it was New York, it was America, the land of liberty! Through the port-hole I could see the great city receding into the distance, its sky-line of buildings traceable by their rearing heads. It was my beloved city, the metropolis of the New World. It was America, indeed, America repeating the terrible scenes of tsarist Russia! I glanced up--the Statue of Liberty! (Goldman 1982, 717)

In our days the symbol of Ellis Island is used explicitly to incorporate Afro- Americans, too. Thus the black former congresswoman Barbara Jordan, together with Frank Sinatra, was awarded the Ellis Island Medal of Honor by the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation ("Chronicle" 1990); more recently, Alex Haley was honored (posthumously) with the same medal, along with a most amazing lineup of winners: Natalie Cole, Norman Schwarzkopf, Connie Chung, Elie Wiesel, Strom Thurmond, and Arnold Schwarzenegger ("Chronicle" 1992).

It was during World War II and in the Supreme Court decisions and Civil Rights bills of the 1950s and 1960s that the term "American" actually became intertwined with ethnicity and flexible enough to include--in widely accepted public and official usage--such groups as immigrants, African Americans, and American Indians. Minorities have moved into the center of the cultural industry; and the metaphor of the "invading hordes" seems to have fallen into disfavor. The growth of a more flexible term for an American national identity thus seems to be a success story. Yet it is not only that, and the hymnic synthesis invoked by some poets has hardly become an American reality. After all, the successful expansion of the term "America" came about only in the heated debates about national loyalty generated by two world wars, and after immigration had been severely limited along racial categories. The broad notion of "America" has never really included everybody, all the arguments for compatibility notwithstanding; and the inclusive use of "American" remains ambiguous even today. Xenophilic cosmopolitanism may have helped to alienate some liberal intellectuals from people other than those in distinct ethnic groups and encouraged some conservatives to embrace racism and antiintellectualism with less restraint. The educational system confronts tough debates over which American culture should be taught to children and adolescents. The battle for "America" continues, and there are today more contradictory notions and definitions of what is or ought to be "American" than there are views of the Statue of Liberty.


[PAGES]     [1]    [2]    [3]    [4]    [5]    [6]    [Bibliography]    NYU Press