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A concerned member of the human race

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Defining Your Identity on "The Sidewalks of New York": Happy St. Patrick's Day!

If you teach in any place replete with immigrants and children of immigrants, chances are someone will ask you, "So, where do you come from?"  It is not enough to say that I am American.  Students want more.  It, of course, naturally begs the question, "How long does one have to live in a country before one can call it his own?"

The topic comes up in class when we deal with the formation of nation states and the growth of nationalism.  Most of my students, including the ones born in the U.S., do not consider themselves American.  I don't let it bother me.  Perhaps, I had ancestors that felt the same way.  I am happy to let people define themselves in the way that suits them best.

Many people choose to identify themselves exclusively as one thing.  I know a person who is half Polish, but wishes to be known as all Irish.  I know another person who is half Irish, but wants to be known as all German.  Off hand, I would guess most people are much more than they know.

In my early years as a teacher, I took up the hobby of genealogy.  It led me to the NYC Public Library and the National Archives at Varick Street (where I quite happily volunteered countless hours trying to help others do their family research and find their immigration records).  In the past, you might unwind reels upon reels of census data on microfilm before you discovered one meaningful hit.  Today, so much is indexed and available online.  

I am all too aware that too many people face insurmountable impediments when looking for written records.  There may be none.  They may have been destroyed through accidental fires, wars or malicious acts.   Sometimes, the history is too painful.  And, sometimes records exist, but research is complicated by the fact that there are too many identical names in the correct place.   

Many years ago, my brother said he would like to join the Sons of the American Revolution.  So, I did some research.  I obtained pension papers from the American Revolution and the U.S. Civil War.  I obtained records of baptisms as well as death certificates.  Ultimately, one connection seemed impossible to make.  Then, I met a gentleman online who had a family Bible from the early 1800s.  He went to a professional photographer and sent me copies of the relevant pages.  Booyah!  

If all this genealogical research seemed like a sacrifice of time and energy for my brother, I was reminded by a set of pension papers that my revolutionary ancestor not only served under some pretty tough circumstances, he also served as a substitute for his brother.  I'm glad to be here today to tell you that he survived!

For people who cannot access written records or have neither time nor the inclination to do so, there are DNA projects.  In 2010, I participated in National Geographic's "The Genographic Project."  With nothing more than a scraping from my cheek and a check, given the mutations of mitochondrial DNA, I was able to trace my earliest ancestors to East Africa and Ms. "Mitochondrial Eve," 150,000 years ago.  (I bet she was one hell of a lady!)  

Then, my haplogroups had the journey of a lifetime.  They passed through the Sahara, most likely when times were better, and up into Europe.  I share genetic ancestry with those who moved to Asia, but somewhere along the path of centuries, we went our separate ways.  Now, we meet again!

On Mothers' Day last year, I completed the "DNA tests for Ethnicity & Genealogical DNA testing at AncestryDNA." This time I had to send along some of saliva.  The results took us much closer to the current time.  Most of my ancestors turned up in Western Europe, Ireland, Great Britain and Scandinavia with a few in the Iberian peninsula (doubtless, Don Quixote) as well as Eastern Europe.  

If you put together results from a DNA project and a search of the more recent historical records, you will learn we are all world travelers.  Along the course of my genealogical odyssey, I uncovered an article written in German on microfilm in the NYC public library.  Double booyah!  My neighbor gladly translated it for me.  My German ancestors sailed for America after being blacklisted following the 1848 street fighting in Berlin.  They were among a huge wave of free thinkers who managed to get out while the getting was good.

My earliest Americans were French Huguenots who fled intolerance and ended up in Holland.  There, in 1624, they jumped a ship to the "New World."  It was the first ship of settlers to New Amsterdam.  And there, they gave birth to the first baby girl of European ancestry born in N.Y.  I am one of her millions of descendants.  I know N.Y.'s history is not without its horrific blots, but I am glad that my ancestors came to build one of the more tolerant Colonial-American communities--and one that my future ancestors would stop in on their way westward.   

And, yes, I am part Irish among many other things.  It turns out a pretty large part.  For the sake of its music and its warrior bards, Ireland will always hold a special place in my heart, "the land of happy wars and sad love songs."  On this day, here's a song for the Irish in America--including those who are Irish for only one day of the year.  Happy St. Patrick's Day!  

"The Sidewalks of New York"

Down in front of Casey's old brown wooden stoop
On a summer's evening we formed a merry group
Boys and girls together we would sing and waltz
While Jay played the organ on the sidewalks of New York
East Side, West Side, all around the town
The tots sang "ring-a-rosie," "London Bridge is falling down"
Boys and girls together, me and Mamie O'Rourke
Tripped the light fantastic on the sidewalks of New York
That's where Johnny Casey, little Jimmy Crowe
Jakey Krause, the baker, who always had the dough
Pretty Nellie Shannon with a dude as light as cork
She first picked up the waltz step on the sidewalks of New York
Things have changed since those times, some are up in "G"
Others they are wand'rers but they all feel just like me
They'd part with all they've got, could they once more walk
With their best girl and have a twirl on the sidewalks of New York

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