“It is not the English language that hurt me, but what the oppressors do with it, how they shape it to become a territory that limits and defines, how they make it a weapon that can shame, humiliate, colonize.” (Macedo, 23) Bell hooks was speaking about the English language in the context of American oppression over African Americans, but these words are so timeless – the statement could be applicable to one of the many marginalized and oppressed groups that have faced hatred and scorn in America.
Language has is a powerful tool of oppression and marginalization; America is no exception to this model. Anglo Americans have used the English language as a powerful tool to assert their dominance to remain the dominant group in America. After 1675, the Anglo American had established themselves as the “native” group along the Atlantic coast, from Massachusetts to Virginia, through sheer force of violence against the Native American peoples who had previously inhabited the space. Anglo Americans where white and most importantly, English speaking. Throughout history there have been three great immigrant streams; each one was correlated with a strong xenophobic reaction on the part of the “native” white Americans.
The First Great Immigrant Stream from 1820 to 1889 was comprised mostly with people form Ireland, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Both the Irish and the German immigrants were seen as barbaric peoples due to their religion or their language. Indeed, most German immigrants who settled in America during this time never aspired to assimilate into American society; they never learned English, and many schools, businesses, and other public services were set up by these immigrants and conducted solely in German. Depicted below are some anti-German and anti-Irish cartoons that were published around the time of their arrival and settlement into America.
The first cartoon shows an Irishman and a German man dressed up as a Irish Whiskey barrel and a Lager Bier barrel, respectively – they are the likely cause of the commotion in the background and both groups are portrayed as drunks.
The second cartoon shows two Irishman depicted as a monkeys, buying and selling handguns – with no regard for themselves. The caption reads “Yong Ireland in Business for Himself.” The two men are depicted as very violent and reckless individuals.
The third cartoon is a picture of a ruthless and murderous Irish monster; the caption, a quote from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, reads “The Baneful and blood-stained monster…yet was it not my Master to the very extent that it was my Creature…Had I not breathed into my own spirit?”
The Second Great Immigrant Stream from 1890 to 1924 was dominated by people from southern and eastern Europe, Austrians, Italians, Russians, Geeks, Slovaks, etc. This group was seen as even more foreign than those from the First Great Immigrant Stream; they looked different and spoke languages that were incredibly alien to English. They were seen as criminals, leeches of society, and were considered to be completely foreign from “native” Americans.
Here is a political cartoon about the Anti-Italian immigration sentiment during this time period.
The captions read: REGARDING THE ITALIAN POPULATION “A Nuisance to Pedestrians.” “Their Sleeping Arrangements.” “Afternoon’s Pleasant Diversions.” “The Way to Dispose of Them.” “The Way to Arrest Them.” The Italians are made out to be disorderly and uncivilized individuals – the only way to get rid of them is to drown them like rats!
Now we are in the midst of the Third Great Immigrant Stream that started in 1946 with immigrants from Asia and Latin America predominating. Again “native” Americans feel that their place is threatened. They are taking our jobs, they are using tax payer dollars, they are leeches on the system, they are dragging down the American economy, etc. The propaganda goes on and on. Here is an anti-Mexican cartoon, showing two Mexican immigrants running back across the border to evade paying taxes.
The man in the “Show Me the $” shirt is saying: “But…There’s a new law coming soon!...We’ll be able to stay LEGALLY! Why are we running away?”
We have built a wall across the US-Mexico border to keep immigrants out of our borders, we have placed limits on the types of immigrants that are allowed through our borders, and now, once again, there has been a movement towards the use of English only in all government operations. There have been various incarnations of the English only movement in America – from the abolishment of French language rights after the Civil War, the instruction of Native American children in English only boarding schools, the establishment of English as the language of instruction in Puerto Rico, etc. Now states nationwide are considering making English their official language, marginalizing the immigrants who came to America for freedom and prosperity with a single stroke of a pen.
Here is a clip about the recent debate in Oklahoma to make English the state’s official language: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HT7mUpefbOo (Unfortunately, this clip is unembeddable) Please note in the news clip the stock image that flies up is an American Flag crossed with a Mexican flag, along with some thunderous and ominous music. Yet during the entire clip there is no mention of Mexicans or the Spanish language – all those opposed to the movement who are interviewed are Cherokees – the most native of the native Americans – not the English, Dutch, French and Spanish who came over hundreds of years after the Cherokees had established their own civilization. The Cherokee language, among many other Native American Languages were stamped out and taken from the people, stripped away from children in government boarding schools, pronounced worthless for gaining success and dangerous for assimilation in America.
Now once again, we are embedded in a debate about what makes a true American. Is it the language they speak? Is it the color of their skin? Is it the food they eat? For centuries, lawmakers and the lobbyists behind them have tried to define who is and isn’t worthy of citizenship, most especially the rights and protections that citizenship provides. Declaring English as an official language rails against the embedded ideology of America as a nation of immigrants who escaped oppression in their home countries to find freedom, both economic and political, within our borders. Declaring English as the official language is effectively communicating to immigrants that they are not welcome here and are not worth the government’s and thus the American people’s time.
- Holley Davis