Assignment: Double Consciousness
Can all Americans perhaps share a form of double consciousness, as their deep history points to other continents? That we are all immigrants could be the answer here, and one finds even the migration across the Bering Strait of the people who would become American Indians merged into this unifying story of a nation of immigrants. The migratory back- ground could be folded into a neatly harmonized family metaphor, as when the Danish immigrant Jacob Riis wrote in his autobiography, The Making of an American (1901): “Alas! I am afraid that thirty years in the land of my children’s birth have left me as much of a Dane as ever. . . . Yet, would you have it otherwise? What sort of a husband is the man going to make who begins by pitching his old mother out of the door to make room for his wife? And what sort of a wife would she be to ask or to stand it?”21 Mother country and country of marriage partner are thus rec- onciled as unchangeable parts of one single family story. One can surely be proud of both one’s parent and one’s spouse, and spouses should not demand the discarding of their mothers-in-law. One also notices Riis’s weighty phrase, “land of my children’s birth.” As the dominant cultural
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Introduction • 11
outlook may have subtly shifted from following the example of one’s parents to imagining a better future for one’s children, the importance of success stories of upward mobility is not negligible for this reorienta- tion to work. And the fact that American-born children may be the first American citizens in immigrant families intensifies this forward-looking identification.
Yet in situations of war or other great conflicts, the immigrants’ parent- age or former citizenship, their “foreign propensities” and “attachments to the persons they have left behind,” could matter again.
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