One was lynched solely for his surname. Some angrily said these immigrants ought to be taken out at sunrise an shot. In some towns immigrants were prohibited from speaking their native language. After all, it is said, if they are going to live here they ought to learn the language. Still in some places, they were not allowed to play their native music.
About whom am I speaking? No, not Latinos – Germans. Germans? Yes, Germans who at one time were vilely mistreated and considered unwanted here in our country.
In a recent conversation with a man I have known for some time and one who will probably read this, he vehemntly demanded Hispanics learn the language (presumably English) if they are going to live here. He then recounted how his family immigrated from Italy. His grandmother never learned to speak American English. Double standadrd? Yes.
I invite you to read this excerpt from Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, by Daniel Okrent, pages 100-101.
The [First World] War’s clinching contribution to the ‘dry’ cause arrived in February 1918, as the Eighteenth Amendment was beginning its journey through the state legislatures. ‘We have German enemies across the water,’ a dry politician named John Strange told the Milwaukee Journal that month. ‘We have German enemies in this country too. And the worst of all our German enemies, the most treacherous, the most menacing, are Pabst, Schlitz, Blatz, and Miller.’ … When the fear was attached to all things German, it proceeded to breed like an out-of-control virus.
“Soon Red Cross leaders were claiming that German-Americans had penetrated their organization and were putting ground glass in bandages meant for U.S. troops. Addressing the members of the Union League Club in New York, Elihu Root-former secretary of state, former secretary of war, Nobel Peace Prize winner, recently retired U.S. senator-said,’There are men walking about the streets of this city who ought to be taken out at sunrise and shot for treason.’ In his infamous ‘Babel Proclamation,’ Governor William L. Harding of Iowa declared speaking German in public or on the telephone unlawful. German books were burned in Wisconsin, playing Beethoven in public was banned in Boston, and throughout the country foodstuffs and street names of German origin were denatured by benign Anglo-Saxonisms. Nearly ninety years before french fries became freedom fries during the Iraq War, sauerkraut became liberty cabbage and, in an odd homage to the president, Cincinnati’s Berlin Street became Woodrow Street. ‘Cotton Tom’ Heflin of Alabama, who could always be counted on to transcend the limits of ordinary, everyday bias, said, ‘We must execute the Huns within our gates. The firing squad is the only solution for these perverts and renegades.’
Is it not time to learn from history, our history? Regarding “learning the language”, American English isn’t one of the easiest languages to learn. In fact, it’s the most verbose in the entire world with over 1,000,000 cataloged words.
As you can plainly see, xenophobia (a dislike or fear of people from other countries or of that which is perceived to be foreign or strange) isn’t a new experience for our nation. Isn’t it time for us to turn to the Biblical commandment recorded in Exodus 23:9: “Also thou shalt not oppress a stranger; for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt”?