Thursday, May 8, 2008

English-speaking White Men

In his review of the book Seizing Destiny: How America Grew from Sea to Shining Sea by Richard Kluger, Alan Taylor writes about an influential essay by an American historian: "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" by Frederick Jackson Turner which was published in 1893.

From The Old Frontiers by Alan Taylor:

Later in that century, powerful critics emerged to challenge almost every element of the "frontier thesis." They faulted Turner for treating the American land as a howling wilderness free for the taking because it was thinly inhabited and virtually unaltered by Indians, who posed scant obstacle to American destiny. Treated as doomed, Indians vanished from Turner's vision of history once they became constricted within reservations. Turner also paid little attention to the continent's Hispanic and French colonists -- and he slighted African Americans and Asian Americans as participants in North America's transformation. Like almost all other historians of his race, class, and generation, Turner thought of the American people as fundamentally white and English-speaking. Narrating American history as an east-to-west story of expansion by Anglo-Americans, he and his disciples scanted the south-to-north story of Hispanic colonization in Texas, New Mexico, and California. They also had little to say about the French enclaves around the Great Lakes and along the Mississippi -- and nothing about the Russian colonial advance into Alaska.

Turner's sharpest and most resourceful modern critic, Patricia Nelson Limerick, has asserted that "Turner was, to put it mildly, ethnocentric and nationalist. English-speaking white men were the stars of his story; Indians, Hispanics, French Canadians, and Asians were at best supporting actors and at worst invisible." Turner's critics also faulted his claim that America's frontier experience created a uniquely democratic society. They pointed to other frontier colonial regions -- Argentina, South Africa, Canada, and Australia -- which were slower to develop an egalitarian individualism and democratic politics. On the other hand, the twentieth century brought democracies to India and western Europe: places without Turner's version of a frontier as "free land."
And yet today we have many white American males who are baffled and afraid of Jeremiah Wright and anyone who doesn’t look, sound, or think like them. I wonder where they could have possibly learned to think that way.

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