‘The Melting Pot’, Home of the Immigrant’, ‘Land of the Free’, there are a number of ways to refer to America and its history as a nation of immigrants. During the 20th century many were trying to redefine themselves as immigrants and look into their own past for a connection to a place they never knew. While their immigrant parents tried hard to assimilate, as in take on all characteristics of American life and society, it was their children and grandchildren who wanted to know about and reconnect to their past ancestors. This brought on the rise of ethnic definition, multiculturalism, pluralism, and an anti-modernist movement amongst other things.
Starting with the 1960s, then president John F. Kennedy’s ‘return’ to Ireland, home of his forefathers. This was an early high point for the romanticism of ethnicity and heritage. Kennedy’s return to Ireland could be seen as the final assimilation for those watching. His ancestors left Ireland to make a place in America and the return of Kennedy shows they were able to make something of themselves to return triumph. The following trend in later years, of white Americans tracing their ancestors and connecting links between America and their homelands. This was reflected in the literature, movies, and tourism of the time. Most literature of the time about ethnicity was on the ‘white ethnic’ showing a distinguish from other whites and people of color. Films, television shows, and TV movies include The Sopranos, The Godfather, and revivals like Fiddler on the Roof and Zorbra the Greek. Heritage tourism, when people including some celebrities, would go to the ‘homeland’ to look into their past. It was also an advertisement ploy by airlines with tag lines like “All of us came from someplace else” (46). These trips were largely for the personal reasons of self-discovery and less education in learning about the history of the area and culture.
The Civil Rights movement brought out this phenomena. This political movement brought out a way to define whiteness, as the movement and plight of people of color was moved aside. In the past, ethnic European whites were different to American born whites who saw them as white, but not enough. Which is what the grandparents and parents of the ethnic European were trying to accomplish when they reached America because they saw how horrible you were treated for not being white and the reason behind the Civil Rights Movement for people of color. The ethnic whites sought ways to distinguish themselves from their American white counterparts and their crimes in America. They too sought images of oppression, as solidarity towards the Movement, to show that the “nations crimes are not our own” (21) and a separation of the privilege their whiteness did grant their forefathers and does grant them now. Instead of trying to define and distant their whiteness they could have used it in conjunction of the Civil Rights Movement and help the cause. Though it would have been hard because they were not seen as totally white by American whites. The roots movement also stems from the popular book series and later television series ‘Roots’ by author Alex Haley on his families slave history into the present. This work spoke to everyone but not for everyone. Meaning it was felt by all who had come from another place and wanted to look at their families past, but not for everyone because not everyone had a story like Haley’s. It was a narrative on assimilation through the generations.
Finally, through the rise in these heritage hunts and self-discovery tours, was a more public and political response of saving heritage sites. Ellis Island had not been used in decades until then president Lyndon B. Johnson designated the station as part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument in 1965, a state sponsorship and insolvent in ethnic revival. After years of renovation and preservation the island was opened to the public in 1990. The opening of the island was like a shorthand trip for those who could not make it back to their families ‘homeland’ and instead wanted to at least walk where they did in entering the country. The biggest problem for Ellis Island though was what message to send, who’s stories were allowed to be told for the museum was more of a “white man’s museum” and less inclusive for today immigrants. In the end the ethnic revival showed the difference in the white European immigrant, the forced migration of slaves, and the new immigrant for removed from places like Ellis Island. It was a geographical movement versus legal standing, citizenship, and civic incorporation.