Former President Theodore Roosevelt was vehemently opposed to hyphenating Americans, whether they were American by birth or had become naturalized. In fact, it was a well-known fact that he was extremely anti-hyphen, and the media frequently publicized several of his speeches against the intentional division of the races in the United States.
In a speech given at a Knights of Columbus hall on Columbus Day 1915, Roosevelt made his position clear. He stated that:
“There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism. When I refer to hyphenated Americans, I do not refer to naturalized Americans. Some of the very best Americans I have ever known were naturalized Americans, Americans born abroad. But a hyphenated American is not an American at all […] The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin, of preventing all possibility of its continuing to be a nation at all, would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities, an intricate knot of German-Americans, Irish-Americans, English-Americans, French-Americans, Scandinavian-Americans or Italian-Americans, each preserving its separate nationality, each at heart feeling more sympathy with Europeans of that nationality, than with the other citizens of the American Republic […] There is no such thing as a hyphenated American who is a good American. The only man who is a good American is the man who is an American and nothing else.”
Roosevelt’s audience was made up primarily of Irish and German Catholics, many of whom sympathized with the plight of their home countries during World War I and caused suspicion among their U.S.-born peers who believed that due to their hyphens, they could never be truly loyal to America alone.
Roosevelt himself made it clear that he did not disapprove of naturalization, and welcomed immigrants of a variety of ethnic backgrounds. He saw the benefits of naturalization and recognized that one did not need to be born on American soil to love and respect the country. Clearly some great shift has taken place in the many years since Roosevelt gave this passionate speech, since we now not only view immigrants with suspicion, but cannot even accept an American-born black person as a full American!
President Woodrow Wilson was similarly distressed by the term “hyphenated American.” His belief was that “Any man who carries a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic whenever he gets ready.” While this statement might seem overly reactionary in hindsight, it indicates the fact that by the mid-1910s, when Wilson was in office, the American people had begun to associate the hyphen with disloyalty, treason, and betrayal.
With the threat of war hanging so heavily over our country, Americans at this time wanted to feel certain that they were standing as one, rather than as a divided nation. Those who appeared unwilling to leave behind their foreign loyalties were often the first to be singled out.
Today, cultural differences continue to thrive in many communities throughout the U.S. For example, most large cities have neighborhoods primarily occupied by people of one particular ethnic background. Certainregions and states have higher percentages of Hispanics, blacks, Asians, and those of Middle Eastern descent.Contrary to Roosevelt’s prediction that naturalized Americans would have to cease celebrating their heritage in order to fully adapt to the American way of life, our country has broadened its horizons and allowed for much diversity.
For many Americans with different ethnic backgrounds, the hyphen has become a way of life in itself, and something to be proud of. Many of us don’t stop to question how it may be directly influencing white Americans’ attitudes towards people of color. But early Americans were aware of the consequences of creating a “hyphen-nation,” and Roosevelt wasn’t the only President who took issue with it. Woodrow Wilson was also outspoken about his dislike of hyphenating American citizens.
The term “hyphenated American” was first used around 1889. Initially, it was not used derogatorily, but as the years went by, American citizens with racial biases took hold of it and gradually, the term began to enforce thesecond-class status of people of color living in the United States.
On August 9, 1899, a political cartoon appeared in the magazine Puck, depicting an image of a disgruntled Uncle Sam standing before a ballot box, frowning disapprovingly as a line of people, all of whom had apparently recently become naturalized, stood waiting to cast their votes. The text read, “Why should I let these freaks cast whole ballots when they are only half Americans?”
By 1915, when Roosevelt gave his Columbus Day speech, it had become a highly controversial term in the eyes of many Americans. By 2015, it is undeniable that it is now an extremely racially charged one, too.
Today, some linguistics experts argue that the term is simply a way of indicating foreign ancestry, and if anyone manages to find a negative racial connotation, they are being overly paranoid. The negative associations have long since been erased, they say, and hyphenating is merely a way of clarifying a person’s heritage. But history tells a different story.
There was a time when many Americans did employ the term to differentiate between what they saw as “real,” full-blooded Americans, and the other.In 1914, a group of Americans formed a “Nordic supremacy” moving, which was headed by Madison Grant, the president of the New York Zoological Society. This ideological movement took hold and spread rapidly after the release of Grant’s book Passing of the Great Race.
A popular view around this time was that the Nordic race was scientifically superior. Racial cleansing and eugenics were better, so-called “nationalists” claimed, for the fate of humanity as a whole.
This basic ideology encouraged racial prejudice and perhaps began to give communities affected by the wara scientifically legitimate reason to view “hyphenated Americans” with particular suspicion and disdain. And this very same worldview continues to encourage anti-black biases today.
Modern conservatives often point to Roosevelt’s speech as proof that the early Presidents did not wish for the United States to become a diverse, multicultural nation—even though Roosevelt’s opposition to the hyphen had more to do with anxieties about the impending war, and not diversification. He clarified that he was not opposed to naturalization as a general rule, but did not trust immigrants who still felt loyal to the countries of their birth.
According to the Literary Digest, released in October 1915, the hyphen was by far the biggest and most significant political issue of the day. Roosevelt, and to a lesser extent Wilson, saw the American people’s fervor surrounding this subject and attempted to suppress their anxieties about the war.
In the spring of 1916, Roosevelt would again discuss the hyphen in a speech given to an audience in St. Louis, Missouri. He spoke on the issue of what he called “Americanism.” This was the belief that to be a citizen of the U.S., one needed only to encompass the American “soul” and “spirit.”
His speech, now famously entitled “America for Americans,” centered mainly on the importance of maintaining a duty to American needs and leaving behind loyalty to other nations, no matter where you were born or raised. During wartime, this seemed reasonable to many people, although many others still believed that they had a right to divided loyalty. As such, they adopted the hyphen in order to carry their heritage with them proudly.
Later, people adopted the phrase “America for Americans” as the slogan used to advertise Roosevelt’s fierce opposition to the hyphen.
In this second speech, Roosevelt made the claim that:
“The children and children’s children of all of us have to live here in this land together. Our children’s children will intermarry, one with another, your children’s children, friends, and mine. They will be the citizens of one country. Even if they wished, they could not remain citizens of foreign countries. The attempt to keep them with a half citizenship, with a divided loyalty, split between devotion to the land in which they were born and in which their children are to dwell, and the land from which their fathers came, will merely mean that they fail to remain citizens of the old-world land and yet do not get the benefit of being citizens of the new-world land. The effort to keep our citizenship divided against itself by the use of hyphen and along the lines of national origin is certain to breed a spirit of bitterness and prejudice and dislike between great bodies of our citizens.”
He also goes on to say that when a foreign-born American returns to their home country, the citizens of that country immediately recognize that they have been Americanized, and as such no longer view them as fully Scandinavian, or fully Italian, or fully French, or fully African.
“The American of German descent who goes to Germany is not looked upon as a German. He is looked upon and treated as a foreigner, as an American; and his ways of thought are different from the ways of thought of the people of the land […] He becomes a man without a country who has forfeited the right to be stirred by the feeling of patriotic devotion to any land, or to have a special and peculiar kinship with any people. The American birthright is the birthright of all of us; and it is a shame and a disgrace for any man to barter it for so poor a mess of pottage as is implied in that kind of hyphenated citizenship which means that the individual tries to be a half-way citizen of two lands and forfeits the right to be a whole citizen of any land.
When our nation was formed in the stress of the Revolution, it was under the lead of men of many different race strains […] But they were all Americans and nothing else. Their loyalty to this country was whole-hearted and undivided, and they sought to serve only the United States and not any of the countries from which their ancestors had come.”
The resounding idea that all Americans are created equal has been passed down throughout the decades, from generation to generation, until its meaning has become so diluted that many of us say the words without being fully certain what it actually refers to.
If the original intention of “Americanism” was truly to erase our differences and ensure that we all had an equal chance at success in the new world, then it has become distorted unimaginably in the time that has passed since then. Americanism and Nordic supremacy became so intertwined at certain points in history that they were indistinguishable from one another, and today’s white nationalists claim that they are only protecting their ethnic heritage.
We now live in a vastly different socio-political climate than Roosevelt did in 1915. Racial tension is at an all-time high. Reports of police brutality against black Americans indicate without a doubt that prejudice and violence are still commonplace in America. And the hyphenno longer seems to be used as a marker of loyalty to America. Now it is simply used as a signifier, one that says clearly “you are different, no matter if you were born here or not.”
Still, we use it! Contrary to what Roosevelt would have wanted, we continue to use the hyphen, unceasingly, often due to the prevailing belief that we are doing the black community a disservice by not intentionally drawing attention to our otherness.
We are told that we must celebrate our uniqueness and our diversity, while simultaneously adopting a hyphenated name that does not necessarily speak to our own histories. While the U.S. has been built on the strengths of many different ethnic backgrounds, and it is important to recognize the differences in races, calling oneself an African-American without any personal association to Africa isn’t logical.
Roosevelt did make some accurate predictions. He was correct in assuming that the U.S. would become a uniquely multicultural nation, and the descendants of many people in his audience that day probably did end up raising several generations of American-born children who are raising their own children stateside today. Additionally, interracial marriage has become increasingly common, due to the diversity of ethnic backgroundsthat can currently be found throughout the United States.
What Roosevelt failed to predict was how the term “hyphenated American” would change over the course of a century to mean “someone with divided loyalties” to “someone who is different than you.” This is an important distinction to make because many of us continue to use the hyphen without realizing that it is a subtle microaggression.
In certain parts of the country, such as southern California, Hispanics have raised families for generations, and yet are still frequently viewed as outsiders, even though their parents and grandparents were born in the U.S.
I am not referred to as an African-American because I was born in Africa and became a naturalized citizen later in life. On the contrary, Americans like myself are Americans through and through. We are given that particular title in order to establish that we are still second-class citizens, distrusted solely by the color of our skin and not the legitimacy of our birth certificates. The hyphen serves as a very subtle reminder that we will never live up to the standards of the ideal American—that is to say, a white American.
Not to mention, the widespread fear surrounding undocumented immigration has made it increasingly difficult to be certain whether white Americans fear immigration as a whole or simply a certain kind of immigration. Historically, as Roosevelt said, we have not had a problem with immigration. We have, in fact, welcomed it, seen its value, and used it to create a diverse and strong nation made up of the combined strengths of many racial backgrounds.
Near the end of Roosevelt’s May 1916 speech, he described his own personal experiences with naturalized citizens and immigrants who became proud to be Americans:
“Here in this city I could repeat name after name of men of German birth who as American citizens have had distinguished records of intense loyalty to the Union, […] and as patriots.”
The same could be said about Americans today, many of them black, many of them given the label “African-American” as a misguided sign of respect. Most likely, you have black friends, neighbors, and colleagues who, at the back of their minds, see the hyphen and allow it to serve as a reminder that they are different, that they will never be viewed as full Americans, no matter what their personal experiences may be.
The hyphen began in Roosevelt’s day as a way of signifying patriotism. Now it has been twisted into a subtle, seemingly insignificant code word meaning “other” or “different.” Having now lived in the UK as well as the U.S., where the hyphen is unnecessary, I would love to see Americans begin to make a step towards removing it from their vernacular as well.
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