17 July 2009

Hyphen: Divided loyalties?

Tablet Magazine appears in my email every morning, and there is always something interesting to read.

Today's offering is "Hyphen Nation: A Brief History of a Short Punctuation Mark," by Sarah Imhoff, a University of Chicago PhD candidate focusing on works on gender and American Jewish history.

Today, dual-identities are common in the US: Jewish Americans, Swedish Americans, Persian Americans and everyone else. We incorporate our pride in having a specific ethnic, racial or religious identity, and incorporate our past into our American identities. This includes the languages, foods and culture of our ancestors.

Tracing the Tribe believes we are the richer for not forgetting our ancestors and our roots.

Imhoff provides history indicating that this was not always the case.

When Sonia Sotomayor suggested that she was a “wise Latina,” she sparked a controversy about the meaning of being a member of a minority community in American culture. Is having a “hyphenated identity” an asset or a liability? The question resonates far beyond the walls of the U.S. Supreme Court. ... The recent PBS series The Jewish Americans wondered, “Are we American Jews, Americans without a hyphenated identity, or simply Jewish?” Dozens of other cultural commentators refer to the state of being both American and Jewish as having a “hyphenated identity.”

Despite its unmistakable postmodern ring, the idea of a hyphenated existence first became popular in a much earlier historical era. And in contrast to its current celebratory application to ethnic and religious difference, the hyphen has not always had a positive connotation.

Imhoff provides information on the hyphen's history, in the late 19th century, as a marker and a metonym for a person with two cultures. During that mass immigration, Americans wanted the immigrants to assimilate quickly and completely, but the immigrants themselves were slow to discard their identities and values.
In 1899, The Washington Post declared, “Hyphenated Hybrids Impossible,” which, it went on to explain, meant that those with two cultures were undesirable. During the 1904 elections, some politicians and voters wished forthe day when hyphenated “factions” and “contingents” would no longer rear their ugly heads.
Hyphenated identities were common at the turn of the 20th century, but concern grew about the usage, particularly as WWI loomed.

In 1915, Theodore Roosevelt said, “There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism.… A hyphenated American is not an American at all.” After a 1915 speech in which Woodrow Wilson announced, “You can’t be an American if you think of yourselves in groups,” the Los Angeles Times wrote: “No vigorous American should hesitate to rebuke any busybody of the hyphenated type who opens his lips to voice any spirit but the American spirit.”
Even in the Jewish community, the feelings ran strong. In 1910, a Boston rabbi declared, “Hyphenated Americans are among my pet aversions as Americans.” If they insisted, he said, the first choice should be simply “Americans,” and the second choice “Jewish Americans.” The focus should always be on Americans.

At a New York synagogue dedication, the opposite point was made that Jews were not hyphens, but said they are American Jews, not Jewish Americans.

The hyphen, according to a Washington DC rabbi in 1915, is a political and moral contradiction, indicating a divided allegiance, and that differing cultures did not impact loyalty to America.

The term “hyphen” carried with it not only the insinuation of two incompatible cultures or sets of values, but also the idea of “dual loyalty” to two different nations.

There is much more, so read the complete article at the Tablet Magazine link above.

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