Saturday, February 13, 2010

A Whites Only Tea Party?

A photograph in this week’s Economist shows an actor dressed in a tri-cornered hat and colonial garb attending last week’s national Tea Party convention, surrounded by a sea of white faces.

Former Congressman Tom Tancredo, who led the roster of speakers, lamented the fact that citizens who couldn’t even speak English or spell the word “vote” sent a socialist to the White House.  Tancredo didn’t mention that President is black, yet his tirade against “multiculturalism” and his call for a return to the kind of literacy tests that disenfranchised African Americans in the Jim Crow South spoke for itself.

While the blogosphere ponders just how racist the Tea Party counter-revolution really is, historians agree that the original American Revolution was anything but. Every school child knows that Crispus Attucks, the first patriot to fall in the Boston Massacre, was a black man.  But most don’t know that  African Americans were present in nearly every major battle in the War for Independence. The Continental Army was probably the most racially integrated up until the 1950’s, when Harry Truman officially de-segregated the armed forces.

And while I am anything but a linguist, Americans in the colonial period spoke Dutch, German, French, Swedish, Spanish, a variety of African dialects and dozens of Native American languages as well as English.  In a document titled  “Colonial Irish Immigration to North America,” Jerry Kelly observes:

English spies and Tories reported back to their English masters that "Irish is as commonly spoken in the American ranks as English," which thereby puts English speakers at about 30% of the Continental Army once you count in the Gaelic-speaking Irish from every state; the German-speakers from Pennsylvania and Virginia; the Dutch from what had been New Holland (Long Island, northern New Jersey, the Hudson Valley, and the Mohawk Valley); the French of the frontier and Louisiana; the Finns and Swedes of what had been New Sweden (parts of Delaware and New Jersey), the Spanish of what had been Spanish Florida and Louisiana, and our Algonquin and Iroquois allies. Anybody who had a serious grudge against the English went into rebellion, and that was a lot of people. Anglo Saxons and their language were a minority. The Continental Army was multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, and ready to welcome the likes of Lafayette, Von Steuben, Kosziusko, and others as valued officers even if (or because) they barely spoke English or didn't speak English at all. English was regarded as the language of the enemy - Tories and Regulars alike.

That may be stretching a point.  But Tea Party nativists who want the nation to “return” to its English-speaking, Euro-centric roots surely misunderstand the racial and linguistic diversity that the American experiment has welcomed since its very beginning.

That diversity, which extended hope to all races and manners of people—not a phony homogenous “Tea Party” of Sarah Palin look-alikes—constituted the real American Revolution.

1 comment:

Vicky said...

Thanks for the historical perspective!