As a young tech savvy student with almost ten years of genealogical research experience; I was more than happy to save my grad student travel funds to spend on this relatively expensive conference. In the end this turned out to be an exciting, eye-opening and frustrating experience. It was certainly worth the money and the time in my current situation but I can now definitely understand why some people were turned off by the event. But, for the sake of organization and flow, I will get to that later.
I landed in the gorgeous city of Salt Lake last Tuesday February 4. It was rather late at night thanks to a long day of flying so I was happy to check into the Airport Inn Hotel. That place was shockingly nice for the price. Plus I received a rather large free breakfast each morning. Hats off to the AIH!
My first day of the conference was the Wednesday Technology Summit. It started off a bit rough for me since even though I had the pleasure of meeting three Roots Tech attendees on the morning train, our lovely conversation about genealogy was momentarily derailed (at least for me anyway) by some ugly comments about modern immigrants. I was still exhausted from the trip/grad school/time change so when the middle aged woman from California went from proudly talking about her Polish immigrant ancestors to the "just any ol body they let in these days, you know and they don't have to prove anything any more. They just let everybody become a citizen...", well I found myself in a bit of a quandary. I did not know much about the three people I was sharing the train with other than that one was a casual genealogy fan and the other two worked for genealogy companies. As a poor grad student in her final semester, who has a constant eye out for job opportunities, and knows how to code-switch, I knew I had three reaction options:
A) Have a, as the great Dave Chapelle once put it, "when keeping it real goes wrong," moment and completely flip out on the woman for her ignorance, short sightedness and lack of understanding of the history of immigration in this country and how incredibly difficult it continues to be for many wonderful, hard working, tax-paying immigrants to gain their citizenship.
B) Spend the entire rest of the train ride discussing America's many waves of anti-immigrant hysteria that have stretched back to, well, before there was an America. I mean have you seen Gangs of New York? Ok thats a movie, bad example. Have you heard of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798? Those were signed to keep the French and Irish immigrant populations disenfranchised in America. Ok how about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 or the Gentleman's Agreement of 1907 which very ungentlemanly fought to keep the Japanese from immigrating to America? Nativists and their sentiments have been demonizing new, unassimilated and culturally "different" peoples for centuries.
"Many scholars have pointed to Americans’ affinity for feeling and displaying an aggressive sense of nationalism, or nativism, as a root cause for this broad anti‐alien sentiment" (Mathison)
That includes my fellow passenger's Polish ancestors. She sat their by the window, proudly expounding on her ancestors immigrant story. One day, while in his tiny Polish home town, he was enlisted to work in Appalachian Mountain mines by a recruiter from a big American mining company. Arriving at Ellis Island alone, he made his way south with other Polish men and set to the hard, dangerous work of mining. Then after the requisite number of years he was able to prove to the American government that he had the financial stability to support not only himself, but his wife and children if only they could join him in America. "You see", she stated proudly, you had to be able to prove that you could make money and be a good supporter before you could bring your family. Now everyone comes right away and"...I think I stopped listening. Yes, yes I know the terrible, uneducated, unskilled, immigrants of today are a burden on the American native tax payer! Perhaps her research stopped, or she chose to ignore the rest of her ancestor's story; the parts that did not fit the lovely narrative of progress, pride and assimilation into American cultural values. The Polish just like almost every other early immigrant group faced some of the same negative stereotyping and bigotry that Mexicans, Vietnamese and Pakistanis receive today. The Polish, like other Eastern European immigrants who arrived between the Civil War and the early 1900's were "considered unassimilable and harmful to the United States’ economic, political, social, and moral progression. They were continuously compared to the desirable ‘old’ European immigrant stocks that came from the British Isles and northwestern European countries between the colonial period up until the Civil War" (Mathison). I could go on... probably ending my lecture with some suggested viewing of the surprisingly educational and compelling documentary - Hillbilly: The Real Story which taught me quite a bit about the history of the various post-colonial populations that have claimed the Appalachian mountains as their home. I say it was surprisingly educational because it was narrated and produced by Billy Ray Cyrus (you know Miley's dad).
C) Let my friendly smile fade, momentarily look away, take a deep breath and try to change the subject.
I decided to go with option C because I was too tired and too new to the city to attempt a deep intellectual conversation about American history while also trying to figure out which stop to get off at, in which direction to walk to the convention center, admire the gorgeous mountains, am I going to arrive late to the first session of the day, OMG the mountains are so pretty!!, consider where to find an inexpensive dinner that night, oh wait did I miss the stop? no its the next one, wait what were we talking about?
I can sometimes be very non-confrontational and downright shy in new environments. Add to that the fact that once I arrived at the convention center I found myself in the minority at such an extreme that I had moments of feeling like A) the mouthpiece for all that is Black and B) a strange oddity to be stared at. The next day I was forced to come out of my shell anyway. There was too much to say and too much to do, to keep quiet. Not to mention there is no hiding when you are highly visible.
Stay tuned for Part 2: Genealogy, Technology & Networking
Mathison, Courtney-Jane. Civil or Hostile?: American Nativism and the Interactions between Migrants in Appalachia, 1865‐1915. http://cas.uwo.ca/documents/mrps/MRP%20CMathisonpdf.pdf