Irish-Americans and No Lamps

Kevin Kenny’s article “Twenty Years of Irish American Historiography” begins mostly with a defense of Kerby Miller’s work in Irish American historiography, primarily Emigrants and Exiles. Kenny summarizes Miller’s thesis and then goes on to address several criticisms of it, noting that most of Miller’s critics overlooked details in his analysis. He goes on to say that Irish-American historiography is very heavily focused on the 19th Century, and only somewhat recently has begun to properly investigate other Irish immigration patterns, including Protestant Irish during the colonial era: “Some of the most exciting recent scholarship has tried to broaden the definition of Irish American history, both religiously and chronologically, by including Protestants as well as Catholics and by taking the colonial period rather than the 1840s as its starting point.” There’s an element of sense to this, but I’m not sure if including these migrations under the same term “Irish American historiography” isn’t a tad misleading, considering the largely distinctive identities of the Scottish/English Ulster Plantation descendants of the 17-18th Centuries and the Gaelic-speaking Catholic Irish. There seems to me to be enough of an ethnic, religious and historical distinction between the two to justify calling it a different immigration history altogether, despite the fact that both groups set out from the same island. Kenny does state “Working in this early period allows historians to break free of the confines of the nation-state; the past unfolds in the contexts of imperial and Atlantic history” but if that is to be the case, why not simply analyse all the lands of the British crown under one umbrella, noting the diversity of religious, linguistic and ethnic identities within it, since this was the relevant imperial polity prior to the existence of an Irish nation-state? Perhaps the existence of Irish-American historiography at all is related to Irish nationalism itself.
Probably the most interesting part of this article was when Kenny starts complaining about the “whiteness” narrative. The money quote is this: “According to the “whiteness thesis,” experiencing racism was the necessary precondition of becoming white: to say that the American Irish were initially seen as less than white was to say that they were consigned to an inferior race. The Irish allegedly set out to acquire “whiteness” in order to improve their position. Yet if these immigrants could “become white,” and black people, by definition, could not, then what sort of racism did the Irish experience? Put another way, to what race had the Irish supposedly been consigned?” This is something I’ve always wondered as well when people say “the Irish weren’t considered white.” White is a skin color Irish people clearly have, and under the 1790 Naturalization Act which explicitly reveals the United States’ White Nationalist foundations, Irish would surely have never been allowed entry if they weren’t considered “white.” Despite the differences between Ulster Scots/English living in Ireland and the native Catholic Irish I pointed to earlier, it is a fact that in the colonial era immigrants from Ireland were labelled merely as “Irish,” this I happen to know because I looked at ship records of immigrants coming in the 18th Century from Belfast into Charleston, South Carolina, including a ship some of my ancestors came over on, which had them labelled merely as “Irish Protestants” without bothering to make any ethnic or linguistic difference (to avoid appearing to undermine my point before, I do want to point out that just because these 18th Century documents lacked nuance, doesn’t mean modern scholarship should. I’m merely pointing out that these people were considered Irish at the time, not that they are in fact the same as Gaelic-speaking Catholic Irish).
The end of the article, which discusses transnationalism and how Irish Nationalism was used by Irish-Americans as a means of assimilation, directed towards American ends more than Irish ones, is interesting as well. The concept of “diaspora nationalism” is an interesting one.
Roger Daniels’ “No Lamps Were Lit for Them: Angel Island the Historiography of Asian American Immigration” begins with describing the great contrast between Ellis Island and Angel Island. The main difference is that while Ellis Island, primarily for European immigrants, had at least some welcoming aspect to it, Angel Island was essentially a dangerous detention center. He points out that most of the literature is just about Chinese immigrants, but that there were in fact many Asian immigrant groups as well as European. He then discusses Chinese attempts to argue about immigration in American courts. He then talks about how the 1906 earthquake and fire in San Francisco destroyed a sufficient number of records to allow Chinese immigrants to lie about having American citizenship and make up false names. Next we have the opportunity to read a poem by a Chinese immigrant who thinks of Americans as “barbarians,” and promises that one day if China is united they will “cut out the heart and bowels of the western barbarian.” I have to hope these words aren’t prophetic given China’s presently powerful position. Following this we get to read the remarks made by Americans about the Chinese, mainly those who value their potential as workers, guest-laborers with little status more than slaves from the sounds of it. The Socialist Morris Hillquit had a rather imaginative, if vulgar, description: “”an inflowing horde of alien scabs.” He certainly didn’t mince words.
Daniels goes on to describe recent Asian American scholarship, including a note that not all of this is actually directly tied to immigration, but then says that it is still a terribly neglected field. He says “Most contemporary immigration historians explicitly reject both nativism and racism, but tend, almost reflexively, to assume that, for most of the American past, the terms “immigrant” and “European” were interchangeable.” He then concludes by stating that most Asian-American immigration is quite recent and has nothing to do with Angel Island, but that Angel Island is still important.

National Insecurities

In this piece, Deirdre Moloney looks at immigration laws and issues surrounding illegal immigration into the United States. He notes the attacks on 9/11 being one factor for increased immigration concerns. He also  reveals how illegal immigration has historically been favored by and beneficial to business and corporate interests, because paying low wages suited their drive for profit. Labor unions, on the other hand, desired increased immigration restrictions so that American workers could be hired and wages would not be driven down. This changed when most manufacturing jobs were lost and unions turned to service employees, which saw their immigrant membership grow. Moloney notes that by 2006 illegal immigrants felt they had a right to protest American policies.
Moloney examines the development of immigration laws over time. He notes that original US immigration law was explicitly restricted to white people. He argues that even when race was not explicitly used as an immigration restriction factor, “racially based proxy methods” have been. He asserts that there is a secret racial motivation behind opposition to illegal immigration or concerns about Islam in the United States in the wake of 9/11, claiming these secret racist perspectives are “veiled in racially neutral rhetoric.”
Moloney goes on to describe the history of immigration, race and deportation, highlighting the fact that at the turn of the 19th-20th Century Northern Europeans saw fewer expulsions than other immigrant groups, which is hardly surprising given the country was founded by Northern Europeans. He also points to the Red Scare, and how the government increased deportation for Eastern European men at this time, out of concerns about Communists. He notes that the government only considered white men to be political actors at this time, and then admits they were right to do so: “that attitude reflected reality in the strictest sense of political activity.”
Moloney uses social history and public policy history in his analysis. He gives a history of deportation and exclusion, and while noting some limitations he offers some insight: “Although the deterrent effect of deportations cannot be accurately measured historically, newspaper accounts, personal experiences of returned immigrants, and word of mouth in originating communities certainly played a role in discouraging groups of affected immigrants from seeking to settle in the United States.” The deportations, then, seem to have been effective in preventing many people from attempting to illegally immigrate in the first place.
Moloney, in his use of social history, concludes by reiterating the intersecting roles of race, gender, class, international relations, and labor needs in driving immigration law and the practice of deportation.

The Italian American Table

The Italian American Table: Food, Family and Community in New York City by Simone Cinotto discusses the pivotal role of food in the formation of Italian American identity. It points out that what came to be Italian-American food was largely a combination of innovation and tradition, shaped greatly by class and immigrant generation. He discusses the unifying force of food culture within Italian immigrant communities, centered around family values and community cohesion. This has been highly present in media representations of Italian-American communities. This also led to the formation of an American middle class identity and became a part of the Italian relationship with whiteness. It also arguably made Americans more comfortable with cultural diversity. The article concludes by restating its argument that food is central to the formation and Americanization of Italian-American communities in the US.

Selling the East in the American South

“Selling the East in the American South: Bengali Muslim Peddlers in New Orleans and Beyond, 1880-1920” by Vivek Bald begins by broadly describing the past focus of scholarship on South Asian immigration to the US- the vast majority of which has focused on immigration post-1965. The focus of his project, however, is on Bengali immigrants who migrated from India to New York in the 1880s and from thence into the American South and into Central America and the Caribbean. He notes that during this time there was an American fascination for India and “”Oriental” goods and entertainments” of which Indian migrants took advantage. He also goes on to state that most Indian migrants did not permanently reside in these southern regions, and those that did mostly integrated into African-American working class communities.
The 19th and early 20th Centuries are described by Bald as being times of “commercial orientalism” during which “exotic” Asian products were fashionable among American elites. This mostly began with an obsession with China, but during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries India and the Middle East became increasingly important. Profiting from this, Bengali peddlers were able to market “embroidered cotton, silk kerchiefs and tablecloths, small rugs, wall hangings.” As Bald puts it, they were “selling the exotic.” This interest in eastern products was tied to orientalist fashions generally, such as the great interest in Fitzgerald’s translation of “The Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayyam.”
These Indian peddlers settled throughout the South, Charleston and Savannah being significant destinations, but the main location was New Orleans. This was because New Orleans was quickly rising during this time as a major center of travel and tourism.

Nation of Migrants/A Part and Apart

“Nation of Migrants, Historians of Migration” by Adam Goodman begins by noting the pervasiveness of the “nation of immigrants” myth in the United States and then criticizing its eurocentricism. European immigrants, the paper argues, have always been depicted as the standard immigrant by which all others are measured or compared. Immigration historiography has neglected to proportionately explore the history of non-European immigration, and in many ways discounted African-American and Native-American histories altogether. However he notes that over the past two decades this has changed, with scholars greatly expanding their scope. He notes that this is “important in contemporary political terms,” which makes me wonder as to his own political convictions. He notes the growth of the term “migration” over “immigration” and that the field is growing more interdisciplinary.
He speaks a great deal about “de-centering.” First he discusses de-centering the nation-state and political borders. Then he suggests de-centering the northeast of the United States in terms of migration. He goes on to prove why “migration” is better than “immigration” some more by mentioning the huge numbers of migrants who returned to their countries of origin after some time in the United States, Brazil, Argentina, and other countries. He concludes by saying different migrant groups act differently and historians must acknowledge this.
“A Part and Apart: Asian American and Immigration History” by Erika Lee discusses some of the biggest names in immigration history scholarship. She begins by bringing up the division of opinions between George Sanchez and Rudi Vecoli. Sanchez was of the opinion that racial discourse had its origins outside the field of immigration historiography and that there was a bifurcation between those who studied primarily European immigration and those who studied the racial politics surrounding immigrants of color. He suggested that the two be bridged and this division be ended. Vecoli took issue in this and suggested Sanchez was making a caricature of the field, a bold accusation if you ask me. Vecoli essentially advocated drawing more from past immigration scholarship while Sanchez suggested further incorporation of theoretical frameworks drawn from other fields. The paper goes on to extensively investigate the relationship between race, racial discrimination, and the Asian immigrant experience. It states that despite very diverse origins, Asian immigrants have often been lumped together into one large group, perceived as monolithic. She challenges the dichotomy of “remaining Asian” and “becoming American.” She seems to take a view of reconciliation regarding the debate within immigration historiography.

More Trans, Less National; Globalizing Migration Histories

“More Trans, Less National” by Matthew Frye Jacobson is a careful critique of older immigration historiography, particularly taking on Oscar Handlin’s The Uprooted despite the author’s praise for the invaluable influence of that work. The article makes the point that “nation of immigrants” rhetoric has become essentially another form of nationalism and American exceptionalism. By viewing immigration to the United States as the story of the development of the exceptional nation-state of the USA rather than within the wider context of migration back and forth to North America, important nuance is lost in favor of a mythic nationalist narrative. The article goes on to point out that with increased awareness of globalization, such as the economic dominance of transnational corporations over the governments of nation-states, there should be a common understanding that the history of globalization is much older than is often supposed. As the article puts it, globalization begins with Columbus, not Master Card. Jacobson proposes three ideas to start improvement in immigration historiography: restoring emigration to immigration, replacing the nation with the continent in terms of organization, and recovering the corporation in terms of significance. The first of these is basically that instead of focusing on American exceptionalism, outward migration patterns should be more objectively studied to reveal all the various places historical migrants chose to go, whether that be Canada, South Africa, Argentina, the US, etc. The second suggestion essentially makes the point that the continent of North America makes a much more logical destination to examine than the United States as a sovereign nation. This is because the complex history of North America is not easily fit into the compartment of the United States alone, with imperialism, colonization, forced migration and other factors complicating this issue. The last change Jacobson suggests is to greatly expand on the role of corporations in immigration history. As he puts it, “ConAgra or Wal-Mart or Tyson’s can shape immigrant lives as profoundly as Homeland Security.”
“Globalizing Migration Histories? Learning From Two Case Studies” by Bruno Ramirez discussing semantics, then saying “it is not my intention to turn my discussion into one of semantics,” and then continuing to discuss semantics. After exploring the meanings of the term “global” for another few paragraphs, he begins to describe the history of the historiography of immigration. He first mentions the Eurocentric nature of immigration historiography in the late ’70s and ’80s, and the tendency to view the pattern of immigration as simply occurring between two countries, as a process of shedding one nationality for another, as Ramirez calls it “bi-national terms.” Following this however came a new understanding of transnationalism, an awakening to the reality that “migration engendered cultural, political and identity dynamics that transcended the parameters of nation-states.” He goes on to claim that it is not the case that this transnationalist historiography only originated with the past few decades of increased globalization, but rather that transnational history has always been inherent to the field.
Ramirez goes on to talk about his collaborative work with George Pozzetta The Italian Diaspora: Migrations Around the Globe, which he identifies as an early historiographical use of the word “globe.” This mostly concerns the outflow of Italian migrant workers across the globe, showing an enormous transnational influence which simply cannot be properly analysed in a bi-national context. This changes with the Canadian case, which Ramirez nexts examines. In the Canadian case, “diaspora” would be a misleading term for the intense immigration which occurred during the 19th and 20th centuries from Canada to the United States. The most studied of these is the migration from Quebec to New England, which Ramirez terms “regional,” despite the crossing of an international border. Despite the French Canadian immigration being much more studied, at least initially, Ramirez points out that for every one French Canadian immigrant to the US there were three Anglo-Canadian immigrants. Ramirez largely considers this regional as well, pointing out that Eastern Canadians tended to head to New England, Midwesterners stayed within central regions, and British Columbians overwhelmingly went to Washington State and California. This is in contrast to the Italian case, and Ramirez concludes by saying that for this reason the idea of “global” migration needs to be studied case by case.

The Invention of Ethnicity

The article “The Invention of Ethnicity in the United States” begins by undermining traditional American ideas about assimilation. It makes the claim that immigrants actually fought to preserve their cultures against assimilation in many cases. Pozzetta then brings up differing ideas about what constitutes ethnicity. For Geertz and Isaacs, ethnicity provides a natural place for the human need to belong. For Glazer and Moynihan, it’s more complex than this: ethnicity provides a collective interest group. They explain this by suggesting that the ethnicity provides an easier method of pursuing group interests in light of the uneven distribution of power and wealth than uniting by class. For the author, ethnicity is a social construction grounded in real life experiences which changes and evolves over time. He also rejects individualism and suggests a collective consciousness among immigrant groups in defining culture and tradition. He suggests a dual purpose in the ethnic community in both maintaining its collective identity and pursuing its own interests while also proving their compatibility with the broader American culture.
The essay goes on to say that “ethnicity” became invented as a concept (then called nationality) in the 19th Century as Americans were consciously trying to define their own national identity and explain cultural differences within the United States. He notes that English immigrants, however, were not identified as “ethnic” as other immigrants were. As far as my own experience goes, as the grandson of one English immigrant and 3rd great grandson of another, I can see why he would say this. My grandmother from Lancashire really had no issues being considered part of American society and there wasn’t much of a process of assimilation. So I can see the truth in this statement about English immigrants.
Pozzetta goes on to talk about how both Anglo-Saxon Americans and immigrant groups contributed to the invention of ethnicity. The Americans did so by grounding their idea of a continuous American republic in Anglo-Saxon ethnicity rather than in faith or ideology. At the same time, nationalist ideas which had worked in Ireland and Germany as forms of resistance against occupiers were carried over to the United States to some extent. During the 20th Century, however, ideas about a pluralist “melting pot” society became more and more common. The idea was that the American political system was settled but the American ethnic makeup was continually changing. However, factors like the “periodic unanimity of German voters” put into question the perceived irrelevance of different ethnic groups in the United States.
“Race, Nation, Culture in Recent Immigration Studies,” by George Sanchez discusses the “invisibility” of women among the immigrant workforce, despite their disproportionately large numbers. The article discusses the shockingly poor conditions of many immigrant workers, and how immigrants have been treated like criminals even after being illegally exploited. The article goes on to describe trends in immigration. Since 1965, when immigration laws changed, Asians and Latin Americans have dominated immigration into the United States rather than Europe. This has been dramatic in its implications since immigration historiography has always been focused on Europeans as the standard immigrant, and this is now well out of date. Sanchez describes how scholars now treat race as “relational” rather than biological, and that observing the development of racial relationships is fundamental to understanding immigration. “Foreignness” has continued to be a big racial issue for Asians and Latinos, which played a role in Japanese internment during WWII. In this vein, the article cautions against merely ascribing the history of Asian and Latino immigration to the past since 1965, and instead notes that there is a “longer, complicated history of interaction, movement and border-making.”

Women and Immigration

The first piece, “Immigrant Women: Nowhere At Home?” begins by discussing how academia saw increased studies of immigrants, ethnics and women in the 1970s and 80s, and how those three were linked to a common agenda to bring marginalized groups to the forefront of scholarship. It goes on to state the problems with the interdisciplinary nature of studying women and immigration, in that it is often difficult for scholars to reach across boundaries of discipline in their work. It distinguishes between the methods of study. Immigration studies shifted from studying great individuals to studying communities, and examined the ways in which men and women interacted. Women’s historians, on the other hand, focused on the uniqueness of women as distinct from men. According to Gabaccia, this creates issues in interdisciplinary discussions on immigrant family life. There is also a struggle in studying women and immigration with trying to avoid racial stereotypes- Gabaccia brings up the example of students of Mexican and Chicano immigrants downplaying “machismo” or ideas of patriarchy so as not to reinforce Anglo “myths” which attempted to “other” Mexican immigrants. Most women immigration historians emphasize instead the large role women play in kinship and community. She goes on to discuss a possible difference in Anglo “assumptions that feminism originates in individuation and the pursuit of individualism” versus other cultures in which feminism emerges through “connection to others.” She concludes by pointing to different views of feminism from the perspective of middle-class (white dominant) feminists and minority women, who in many cases are more concerned with “threats to the family integrity” rather than male domination.
The second piece, “Women’s Place in the History of the Irish Diaspora: A Snapshot,” by Janet Nolan starts out by mentioning the underemphasized vastness of Irish immigration to America, pointing out how this immigration is not remotely limited to just the northeast, but all over the country. Nolan also discusses how Irish immigration was unique in that female immigration was just as numerous as male immigration, and at times even more numerous. Gender is playing a larger role in the historiographical analysis of Irish immigration. She mentions several fields in which knowledge of Irish women immigrants needs to expand: the formation of Irish ethnic and national identity in Ireland, the Irish-American contribution to Irish independence, and Irish women’s involvement in the US labor movement. The article continues on by noting all kinds of new developments in the field of study for Irish women immigration. One part that was of great interest to me was about Irish women’s role in spreading literacy and orthodoxy among Catholics. The article specifically mentions the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and their role in Catholic education in the Midwest. This is important to me personally so it’s probably the part of the article which most stood out to me. The article concludes by noting the uniquely powerful imprint the Irish have had as immigrants on the United States, which has not been surpassed by newer immigrants. It states boldly that “Their epic journey has at last begun to be examined in new ways.”


This article is about the transformation of American conceptions of national identity over time. Specifically it looks to the change from the classic American concept of the “melting pot” towards “structural pluralism.” This represents a distinction both from old racial ideas as well as the melting pot idea, the notion that everyone can and should assimilate to a singular American identity. The passage begins by taking a look at President John F. Kennedy’s transforming effect on American consciousness. President Kennedy was remarkable in his unapologetic Irish identity- which was particularly troublesome to some who worried about the loyalties of the first Roman Catholic president at a time when anti-Catholic nativism was still somewhat prevalent. However, ultimately most would come to see Kennedy’s identification with his Irish heritage as not at odds with his Americanness, and increasingly there has been a spread in ethnic consciousness among Americans of many diverse backgrounds. However, the article also warns that despite the best efforts of some, the concept of ethnicity and ethnic pluralism has not managed to get rid of lingering ideas about race and racism. There still remains a fundamental understanding of “whiteness” and “blackness” which affects people and their prejudices.
The article also talks about how ethnicity, race and immigration became increasingly studied and discussed academically in the 1960s and 70s as “Cold War universalism” became increasingly replaced by pluralistic ideas, and the notion of the “nation of immigrants.” However, the article goes on to discuss an erasure and sanitizing of American history that comes with this new understanding. Indeed the article speaks of “the harsher realities of power that are most often hidden in the celebratory rhetoric of heritage.” There’s a certain irony in the fact that as Ellis Island became increasingly important and even hallowed ground in widespread public consciousness, it was overwhelmingly a place for white immigration, and that contemporary immigration is still often ignored or marginalized even while historical immigration is celebrated by the mostly white population of Ellis Island descendants. The article describes this as “self-congratulatory” and “strangely exclusive.” It concludes by noting that the modern, diverse “nation of immigrants” concept is not the Anglo-Saxon Protestant America of yesterday, but still white and exclusive nonetheless.

Immigration Essays

“Immigration Portrayed as an Experience of Uprootedness” discusses the extreme and even traumatic change in lifestyle for immigrants coming to the US from the European peasantry. It mentions how the change in lifestyle coming to America was completely unprecedented for them, and how many would latch on to romantic notions of the past in order to deal with their new surroundings. These immigrants were “uprooted” from their ancestral villages and ways of life and naturally came to a sort of hierarchical conservatism in trying to preserve what they understood, as the article puts it “acceptance of tradition and authority,” which also meant accepting an inferior position for themselves within society.
“Immigration Portrayed as an Experience and Transplantation” discusses the relationship and reactions immigrants had with American capitalism. It states that there were two different classes of immigrants, middle and working class. The middle class was smaller and made up largely of entrepreneurs who celebrated their success in their newfound capitalist society, while the working class was much larger and poorer. It talks about how old ways of life were modified as well as the role of immigrants in their communities, including religious institutions and workers’ unions.
“From the Uprooted to the Transplanted” begins by describing a sort of rebellion against the conventional US history that dominated at the author’s time. He states that his chosen subject, Italian immigration to the US, was not in vogue until ten years into his career. He also discusses the shocking fact that Ellis Island was considered an unimportant historical site until very recently.
He goes through the history of historians’ analyses of immigration, and talks a great deal about recovery and memory against a societal “amnesia” when it comes to immigration history. He discusses economic factors, but says immigration historians are skeptical of trying to explain migration patterns solely through economics. He also discusses women in immigration history and states that their presence in history was “invisible” until recently. He brings up the increased tendency towards intersectionality, noting that in the past historians of worker movements hadn’t taken ethnicity into account, and immigration historians had been ignoring class consciousness. He also brings up the topic of assimilation, and notes that this is distinct from “Americanization,” with assimilation being described as a negotiation and “selective adaptation,” rather than a total cultural overhaul. He concludes by describing a process of “syncretism,” wherein “they did not just become Americans; rather they became ethnic Americans.”
It doesn’t surprise me that examining immigrant history in terms of intersecting factors such as class, gender, etc. has become more prominent since that seems to be an overall academic trend. Probably the most interesting part of the essay for me was learning about the great gap in attitude towards whether Ellis Island was an important place or not between the 1970s and the 1990s.