It's awfully convenient to edit literature -- and even history. The U.S. Congress gave it the good old college try.
I’ve been called a few names in my time, some worse than others. So occasionally I had to turn the other cheek. But the toughest name to bear was something I heard back in the ‘60s — hard for me to ignore. It was the name on my birth certificate.
I was away from home for the first time, homesick and short on friends. Someone at scout camp suggested that I head on over to the swimming hole and loosen up a bit. When I got there the life guard on duty allowed that no one played until proving his abilities in the water. All the campers lined up. When we heard our names called we were supposed to dive in and swim to the end of the pool. “Ozzwahhlld!” the counselor called out. Everyone in line laughed.
I had the funniest name in camp.
Later that year, back home in school for the fall semester, I felt my last name lose its amusement when we heard that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated by a non-relative named Lee Harvey Oswald. No one ever laughed at my name again.
That same year when we read Huckleberry Finn out loud in class, we weren’t really sure we were supposed to say all the colorful words Mark Twain used. We’d stammer and stumble, and a few kids would give a nervous snicker. That’s when the teacher talked a little about slavery, race, and the way people were back then. It was a learning experience.
A few weeks ago a professor at Auburn University decided to cleanse the racist-sounding parts from Samuel Clemens’s classic novel of pre-civil war life on the Mississippi. He doesn’t like some of the words and names that the book’s characters used. The 112th Congress must share his sentiment, and they adopted his solution, too: during this year’s opening session when members of the House took turns reading the Constitution aloud, they edited references to slavery out of the Second Amendment.
Such is the power of words that they can make children laugh and afflict politicians with selective amnesia.
Before we’d leave the ‘60s behind, my generation got a lesson on how hard it can be to make people write the future without reading menace into every line. Nothing describes it better than the song “Abraham, Martin, and John,” first performed by Jerry Vale with the lyrics, “He freed a lot of people but it seems the good all die young.” Those words rang true for our politics just as they for did young Americans fighting in Viet Nam.
Even though I’m rosy pink in winter and fiery red in summer, America’s word for me is White. Based on my ancestry there are other names for me–Cracker, Red Neck, Honky, Jock, Mick, or Kraut. Maybe Hick is the one that fits me best of all. Sam Clemens didn’t put those words in his book. If he wrote a modern sequel he might borrow a commercial phrase that describes nearly all of us today: Heinz 57.
For a bashful farm kid who didn’t really feel he belonged at camp, there’s something reassuring about being an American in America. That’s because everyone can fit here. No matter what name we’re called, all of us belong somewhere in the red, white, and brown patchwork we call USA.
If I could come face to face with ancestors from places like Ireland, Scotland, England, and Germany, I’d probably get a good lesson in how much the language and my family have changed, because it’s been nearly 200 years since most of them arrived. For my oldest relation, it’s been twice that long. A few like Samuel Scamman came to this country about the same time as the first slaves from Africa did, but as a free man with little to show for it.
We all look for that special label, the assurance of unique traits that set us apart. About the time I was going to camp and grade school, a ‘60s satirist became a hit by making fun of Pilgrims and Native Americans alike; Stan Freberg put his finger on it with the original elitist claim: “After all, WE came over on the Mayflower!”
I’ve been told that at least one of my great-great-grandfathers helped shepherd John Brown runaways on their trip north. As with other Irishmen who stepped ashore on Ellis Island, being from the Emerald Isle didn’t exactly place him at the top of the social order. That, along with his own morality, may have been the source of his compassion. Many descendants of those he helped probably don’t know the name of their own great-great-grandfathers and great-great-grandmothers who escaped slavery, let alone the ‘white’ man named Casey who helped.
Names left out, words changed, make our proud history hard to understand, and our shameful history easy to ignore.
Richard Oswald is a fifth generation farmer in Langdon, Missouri.