This song contains both an important truth and a dangerous lie. The truth at the heart of this song is that the United States is, and always has been, a nation of immigrants. Over the years, successive waves of immigrants have come into the United States and added their cultural distinctiveness to the country, and been assimilated and changed or even warped beyond recognition. Food, for example, is a concrete and easy to see example because most of what we take to be stereotypical American cuisine comes from other countries, but we have taken them, mangled them and put a distinctly American stamp upon them. Pizza and pasta came to the U.S. from Italy, but as served here, they are radically different from their origins. Hot dogs came to the U.S. in a roundabout way from Germany, but no German would recognize them as such. And so on. The culture of the U.S. is the result of this sort of mingling and mangling, creating something new out of the various cultures of the people who have immigrated to here.
The song contains a dangerous lie, however. The lie is simply this: This process of assimilation was not a gentle, easy process in which people came to the U.S., were accepted as Americans, and melted in. This is a myth that Americans like to tell themselves, but the reality is that pretty much every wave of immigrants has sparked a xenophobic and often violent backlash. In the early part of the nineteenth century, there were nativists who targeted Irish immigrants, often with violence. Later when waves of Jewish and Eastern European immigrants came to the United States, there were virulent anti-immigrant groups that sprang up to complain about them polluting American culture. Most Americans now happily eat a diet that includes lots of food from Italy, but at one point in time, Italian immigrants were weird, menacing, and despised. Chinese immigrants were openly discriminated against for extended periods of U.S. history. Japanese immigrants, and even descendants of immigrants, were interred during World War II. It is only after the assimilation has taken place that the xenophobia would die down, and in some cases, it only subsided a bit and never went away, as the Japanese-American experience shows.
Why is the lie at the heart of the Great American Melting Pot myth so dangerous? Because it makes it seem like the immigration, assimilation, and acceptance process was an easy and painless one. Because people mentally compare this idyllic and ideologically pleasing tale with the experience of immigration in the present, and come to believe that there is something "wrong" with new immigrants. I cannot count the number of times I have heard people complaining that Muslim immigrants from Somalia, or Sudan, or Iran, or any number of other places are "not assimilating" into American culture in a timely manner. What these comments really do is expose the historical ignorance of the commenter. Almost every cultural group has had a rocky and lengthy period of assimilation - that['s in part why there are regions in many cities called something like "Little Italy" or "Chinatown", or any of the myriad of other traditionally ethnic neighborhoods that dot the American landscape. Complaining about Muslim immigrants not assimilating as quickly as you expected them to ignores the history of immigration and assimilation in the United States.
I expect that a few generations from now, the various groups of Muslim immigrants will be considered, like Irish-Americans, Polish-Americans, Italian-Americans, and all the other permutations of "-Americans", to be a perfectly normal part of the cultural landscape, and everyone will wonder why there was so much anti-Muslim hysteria in the early part of the twenty-first century. But it won't happen easily, and it won't happen overnight. Until then, I expect ignorant xenophobes will keep screaming, and everyone else will have to keep working against them to keep the United States living up to the promise of its ideals.
Lynn Ahrens Lori Lieberman Musical Monday Home