“Truly a melting pot” said a fifth-grader speaking into a microphone last week as his classmates at Westmere Elementary School, many of them dressed in clothes reflecting their heritage, cheered and waved flags for countries around the globe.
They had gathered with members of their families to celebrate their diverse backgrounds and to share in a feast of foods from around the world.
Where did this term “melting pot” come from and what does it mean?
In the 1750s, a Frenchman by the name of Michel Guillaume Jean de Crevecoeur moved to the Province of New York, becoming a citizen and taking the American name of John Hector St. John. He married an American woman, bought a farm in Orange County, and successfully raised both children and crops. He wrote about his life in Letters from an American Farmer, published in1782, a book that became popular in Europe, helping to define an American identity, rather than just describing a particular colony.
“What then is the American, this new man?” he asked, answering himself: “He is neither a European nor the descendant of a European; hence that strange mixture of blood, which you will find in no other country….He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds. He becomes an American by being received in the broad lap of our great Alma Mater. Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.”
A century later, Frederick Jackson Turner, the historian whose ideas formed the Frontier Thesis — that American democracy and character was shaped by the evolving western frontier — also wrote of a “mixed race” fused by “the crucible of the frontier” into Americans.
“The frontier promoted the formation of a composite nationality for the American people,” Turner wrote in The Significance of the Frontier in American History. “The coast was preponderantly English, but the later tides of continental immigration flowed across to the free lands. This was the case from the early colonial days. The Scotch-Irish and the Palatine Germans, or ‘Pennsylvania Dutch,’ furnished the dominant element in the stock of the colonial frontier. With these peoples were also the freed indentured servants, or redemptioners, who at the expiration of their time of service passed to the frontier….
“In the crucible of the frontier the immigrants were Americanized, liberated, and fused into a mixed race, English in neither nationality nor characteristics. The process has gone on from the early days to our own.”
In 1909, the term “melting pot” — where different metals are thrown together and in extreme heat form something new — came into common use as a term to describe immigrants being transformed into Americans when Israel Zangwill’s play of the same name was performed in Washington, D.C.
The play tells of two star-crossed lovers, Russian immigrants — David, a Jew, and Vera, a Christian, who fall in love in America despite the differences between their families.
David has come to America after the 1903 Kishinev pogrom that killed the rest of his family; he discovers that Vera’s father is the Tsarist officer responsible for his family’s death.
David waivers in his belief expressed in the symphony he has composed, “The Crucible,” that America is a place where ethnicity has melted away. “America is God’s Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and re-forming,” David says in the play’s first act. But this is not an Old World play that ends in tragedy because the lovers are from warring houses. It is a New World play where a new order is possible.
After David’s horror in learning who Vera’s father is, and the break-up that follows, the couple reconciles and together, in the final act, they watch the sun set over the Statue of Liberty. “It is the Fires of God round His Crucible,” declares David. “There she lies, the great Melting-Pot — Listen! Can’t you hear the roaring and the bubbling? There gapes her mouth, the harbor where a thousand mammoth feeders come from the ends of the world to pour in their human freight.”
David believes the melting pot will make the old animosities of immigrant groups disappear as they are fused into one people. “Here shall they all unite to build the Republic of Man and the Kingdom of God,” says David.
Although, in recent years, the idea of a melting pot has been disparaged by some, who see it as a call to conformity, we believe the kids and teachers at Westmere Elementary got it just right.
Each fifth-grader, at 10 or 11 years old, researched his or her heritage. For some, it was as immediate as talking to family members. Kajaro Evans, for instance, could talk to his family about Guyana and has even visited the South American country himself.
Hawa Sano, resplendent in a full-length gown of electric blue, a dress that belongs to her mother, said both of her parents were born in Guinea in West Africa.
For other fifth-graders, like Kayle Messier, her family has been in America for so long with so many different pieces of the melting pot playing into her heritage, she had a choice of countries to study — France, Ireland, Austria, England, Holland, and Germany.
She chose Germany and, as she stated, “I did a lot of research.”
Each of the fifth-graders, following a month of research, created detailed boards to describe their heritage. The boards had maps, and flags, family pictures and family trees. As visitors circled about the classrooms, they learned about the heritage of their children’s classmates from the kids who had become both experts and ambassadors.
This celebration accomplished two things essential to the future of our country. It let the children understand and take pride in their heritage, to explore the value and worth of it, and it taught others to understand and respect those diverse backgrounds.
As Crevecoeur wrote 230 years ago, “Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.”
We believe that brave new world, with that race of men and women is here — forged of many diverse heritages, not into a single mold, but as something new and vibrant, ever capable of change and new strength as more are added.
No longer do we have an unfolding frontier to define our American charcter; our borders are well established and we must work to preserve, rather than tame, the scant wildness that remains.
But, in the spirit of Israel Zangwill’s David and Vera, we must continue to create a world that is greater than the sum of its parts, that allows individual freedoms because it transcends the bonds of hostile histories.
Our leaders over the centuries have spoken of this shared heritage. Abraham Lincoln, on the eve of the Civil War spoke of the need to free those who were enslaved.
“What constitutes the bulwark of our own liberty and independence?” he asked in a speech given in Edwardsville, Ill. in 1858. “It is not our frowning battlements, our bristling sea coasts, our army and our navy. These are not our reliance against tyranny. All of those may be turned against us without making us weaker for the struggle. Our reliance is in the love of liberty which God has planted in us. Our defense is in the spirit which prized liberty as the heritage of all men, in all lands, everywhere. Destroy this spirit and you have planted the seeds of despotism at our own doors.”
A century later, John F. Kennedy spoke of a similar common heritage that defined Americans a half-century before now.
“Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike,” he said in his inaugural address in 1961, “that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.”
We trust our newest generation to value the shared heritage of American liberties and keep the torch burning bright.