07 December 2011
It's time to come out. For way too long I've tried to cope by means of denial and aversion therapy, but I've finally come to accept that it's genetic, something that I can no more change than my need to breathe. For sixty-two years I've hidden behind my Irish surname. I've endured in secret the shameful stereotype that my people are aggressive, nasal-sounding peasants of dubious hygiene who originated in a country of haughty, cheese-eating surrender-monkeys. It is such a palpable relief to acknowledge the elephant in the room. No more living the lie: I'm French-Canadian.
My resolve to go public crystallized when I read this announcement:
A Little Known History of Discrimination in New England: The Ku Klux Klan Attacks on Franco-Americans in the first half of the 20th Century.
In her lecture, Dr. Eileen M. Angelini, Ph.D. will discuss the influx of over one million French Canadians from Quebec, who came seeking positions in New England textile mills and moved into largely English Protestant communities. Many expected to return to Quebec someday and thus remained loyal to their own traditions, culture, and Roman Catholic beliefs. However, some Protestant communities became fearful of these foreigners and formed branches of the Ku Klux Klan which tormented French Canadians from Massachusetts to Maine. At one point, New England KKK members outnumbered those in the South.
My first thoughts did me no credit. I was smug and elated. I had achieved the moral high ground of victimhood. I could flaunt my new status as an oppressed ethnic minority. I would swear off any pesky libertarian principles, sue somebody and get bucketsful of free money, which would make my shattered pitiful life whole and good.
The euphoria wore off, and the KKK reference titillated, although I suspected Prof. Angelini of indulging in hyperbole regarding the Klan's strength. Of course, I myself am completely above sensationalism in the service of a catchy title.
My friend Google found one of Prof. Angelini's articles ("New England and Canada: Understanding the Language, Cultural, and Historical Connections"), upon which her lecture is partly based, and from which the lecture announcement quoted. It confirmed what had always seemed obvious to me as I genealogically researched my Francophone ancestors. Their communities, if not actual ghettoes, were close-knit and insular. They were intensely Catholic, or, as my gut reaction has it—from a different culture and time—priest-ridden. However, it was a revelation that they viewed their time in the U.S. as a presumably short sojourn until they could return to Quebec, that it was conscious, unified policy to preserve their own language, culture, and religion, and to resist assimilation. In a word, to remain alien.
It's extraordinarily exciting to learn something new, a far-reaching piece-clicking-into-the- puzzle game-changer. They freaking did it on purpose. Now it makes sense. When you go on exodus you're forced to choose between weathering potentially lethal xenophobia or losing your identity. My ancestors chose the hard-ass bloody-minded way. I admire them for it.
But it's no wonder they suffered discrimination. That kind of isolation is corrosive. It breeds distrust. It's a self-inflicted form of the malignant balkanization resulting from glorifying ethnicity. There needs to be cultural intercourse—if you catch the drift—so that the host nation's immune system learns not to attack alien interlopers. As a matter of courtesy and self-preservation the aliens would do well to learn their host's language—language is so primal, the basis of much of what we perceive as dangerous otherness. With a lingua franca it's at least possible to agree to disagree. Without one, conflict is inevitable.
Prof. Angelini's article illuminated a part of my earlier life I had taken for granted: so that's why one of the two Catholic churches in my hometown was known as "the French church," unwritten law dictating which one you'd go to. It wasn't coincidence or the timing of the waves of immigrants; it was deliberate segregation. How little I understood in my raw youth of the schismatic nature of churches and how easily language could trump religion.
Her article also helped set the stage for one of my favorite Grampa stories. My grandfather is the only Catholic I know who quit the church cold turkey, and made it stick. Stories are legion of those who've drifted away after more or less agonizing, some to reconciliation, some to constant seeking, some to apostasy. But Grampa, in the course of at most a few minutes, cast the die that changed his own life, and the lives of his descendants. Though the chances are vanishingly slim, during the afterlife I would love to hear his story from the horse's mouth, over and over again, and interview the other players and witnesses—no doubt in French. Not to mention apologize for any mistakes I make in the telling, and for using his name in the same breath with the KKK.
Grampa—Ray, for whom I'm named—came from a paternal line of WASPs dating back to the 1630s. His mother was a second generation Irishwoman, born to a couple who figured gaudily in the local newspaper for drunkenness and beating the hell out of each other. According to the rules of the time, Ray's father converted to Catholicism, and Ray and his siblings were raised Catholic. Ray's future wife Eva's forebears were Quebec French Catholic—maybe you can see where this is going. Her mother and father migrated from upstate New York to Huntington, the small western Massachusetts town where Eva was born and Ray grew up. Ray and Eva met, possibly because Eva worked in a paper mill where Ray's father was a superintendent, and courted. Devoted to Eva, Ray helped nurse her through the weeks of her touch-and-go bout with typhoid fever, cementing her parents' gratitude and approval. They married in 1920 in their Huntington church, which at the time was administered by Fathers McCarthy and Curran, literal Irishmen both, who apparently had no problem with this instance of assimilation.
For about four years they lived in Springfield, and then moved to Westfield, about ten miles closer to their childhood homes. Both Springfield and Westfield were big enough to support a French church, and I conjecture it was in one of these that it hit the fan. From the pulpit, according to family lore, a priest denounced Ray and Eva for miscegenation. They walked out, and Ray abjured the Catholic church, swearing never again to set foot in one of its edifices. Electric ripples throughout the congregation—approval or condemnation? White-hot rage on his part, or cold determination? No matter: steel-willed, he kept his oath. Ray and Eva's two children—my mother and uncle—were required only to attend a church of their own choosing. My uncle's friends went to the Methodist church; that's where he went. My mother's friends went to the Congregational church; that's where she went, and Ray had no problem going there for her marriage. It's another measure of the man that he never forbade Eva the consolation the Catholic church afforded her while their son, a Navy fighter pilot during the war, was dodging Japanese bullets. And there was always a small crucifix on the wall over each bed in their house.
I owe Grampa more than my name. If antipathy to churches is heritable, he gave me that in profusion, and I'm pretty sure I got my fair share of his wide-ranging curiosity. I'd gladly have taken more than a dash of his steel, if I got even that, weak-willed connoisseur of rationalization that I am. He had only ten years to make himself larger than life to me, but he did a damn fine job.