Thursday, July 2, 2009

Immigration and the Fourth of July

1918 Fourth of July parade passing the midtown Public Library, courtesy of the library's online records

For American citizens and residents, July 4th is the day to celebrate our nation's independence and freedom with fireworks, barbecues, and parades.
But throughout history, Independence Day has raised questions of national identity for immigrants.

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, well-off, native-born Americans were concerned about the assimilation and loyalty of immigrants. Millions of newcomers were concentrated in particular neighborhoods, like New York City’s Lower East Side, where their cultural differences in dress, language, and food were highly visible. Independence Day displays of revelry and “liquid patriotism” by immigrants, as one newspaper claimed, did not meet the expectations of some native-born Americans. Immigrants also continued to celebrate the national holidays of their home countries, even as they began the process of assimilation.

The outbreak of World War I in 1914 exacerbated fears about the dangers of nationalism. Could immigrants from Russia and Germany, two nations at war with one another across the Atlantic, maintain civil relations in America? Would German immigrants subvert the American war effort after the United States declared war on Germany in 1917?

Such concerns must have plagued the New York City Mayor’s Committee on National Defense when it planned the pageant parade for July 4, 1918. According to a New York Times article from 1918, the parade was organized so that Americans of foreign birth could demonstrate their loyalty to the United States. A reporter wrote: “…in this long, kaleidoscopic pageant, now bright with splendid costumes, now drab with long columns of civilians…there was slowly woven a picture of fighting America of today, a land of many bloods but of one ideal.”

In the parade, many immigrants wore their native clothing but carried American flags, in a symbolic reconciliation of their dual identities as foreigners and Americans.
Today, questions remain about what defines an American - is it the length of residence in the United States, the right to vote, or the country of birth? We no longer have such choreographed displays of patriotism as the 1918 pageant parade, but you can be sure that people of manifold nationalities will be watching the fireworks across the United States this Saturday, July 4.

Share your memories of past Independence Day holidays and tell us how you plan to celebrate July 4, 2009!

-posted by Penny King

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