by Stephanie Golightly Lowden for The Storied Past
As the author of a middle-grade novel about anti-immigrant sentiment in World War I, I know that the current prejudice against immigrants and immigrant-American families is not new. In Jingo Fever, my main character, young Adelle Klein, is bullied because she’s German-American. She lives in Wisconsin, a heavily German-American state in 1918. But World War I was raging in Europe, and a rampant patriotism was surging on the homefront. It was a difficult time to be of German origin, even if you were also an American.
Jingo Fever deals with the issue of “Fear of the Other” during a time of war. I first learned about the abuse German-Americans and others took during World War I when I was an undergraduate with a work-study job. I was doing research for a history professor who was researching just that abuse.
It happened in rural communities, in small towns, and even in Milwaukee, a center of the flowering of German culture in America from the mid-1800s. As mentioned in Jingo Fever, there really was a machine gun set up at one point in front of the famous Pabst Theatre in downtown Milwaukee, by a bunch of anti-German vigilantes who wanted to prevent a performance of Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell (ironically, a play about resistance to tyranny). Other German cultural activities were cancelled during the war years, from fear of public opposition.
A law was passed that people could not speak out against the war. German language newspapers were confiscated (stolen) by the post office. People were forced into buying war bonds (the money used to help fight the war) even if they could not afford them.
It wasn’t just German-Americans who suffered. Other groups, such as the Mennonites, were persecuted for their opposition to the war. In time of war, people become frightened. Fear all too often leads to the loss of civil rights.
When I decided to write a book reflecting my roots here in Wisconsin, I remembered a story my mother told about the burning of German books in Milwaukee during World War I. My mother was only seven years old, but the fact that she remembered it indicated that it must have made quite an impression on her. Her stories led me to research that time period, and ultimately Adelle’s story, Jingo Fever, was born.
I took some liberties with dates and events in the fictional story of a young girl, growing up during the summer of 1918 in Ashland, a town in northern Wisconsin on Lake Superior. But the culminating incident is based in a factual event: two German professors indeed were tarred and feathered in Ashland, Wisconsin, in April 1918.
Studying history, it became clear to me that we keep making the same mistakes over and over. War breaks out in the early 1900s, so German-Americans are harassed. In the 1940s, Japanese-Americans are “relocated” to internment camps. Now, in the 21st century, Muslim families living in America become a target of abuse because of wars abroad.
Although we are a nation of immigrants, the so-called “nativists,” people who view themselves as being here “first,” have always resented the newcomers. At the same time, Americans with more money have long appreciated immigrant willingness to work, often for the lowest of wages. Still, during tough economic times, it is feared the newcomers will steal jobs from “real Americans.”
Yet our country is stronger because of the widespread contributions of immigrant of all types. Most people have heard of immigrants like Albert Einstein and Alexander Graham Bell, but here are just a few recent immigrants to America and their diverse contributions: Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security advisor to President Carter (and father of Mika who co-hosts Morning Joe on MSNBC), born in Poland; Actress Natalie Portman (Star Wars, Black Swan) born in Israel; Actress Mila Kunis (That ’70s Show, Black Swan) born in Ukraine; Pramila Jayapal, born in India and the first Indian-American woman to serve in the House of Representatives; Joni Mitchell, singer songwriter, born in Canada; Gold Medal winning gymnast, Nadia Comaneci, born in Romania; inventor Sergey Brin, a Google co-founder, born in Russia.
Speaking of Google: just Google “famous US immigrants” and you will see lists that show that our country is stronger for the contributions of many whose families were born abroad but decided to become Americans and helped make the U.S. a better place.
If it was the Irish, Italians or Germans immigrants in the past, today it is a sweeping indictment of “brown people” who are under suspicion. Muslims are assumed to be potential terrorists, even though the terrorism is often perpetrated against them in the U.S. Here in Wisconsin, in 2012 a man with ties to White supremacist organizations attacked a Sikh house of worship in a Milwaukee suburb and killed six people. Sikhism, the world’s fifth most popular religion, is a faith that believes in equality, community service, and inclusiveness. But Sikh have come under attack, perhaps because the turban some Sikhs wear, the Dastaar, is mistaken to indicate that they are Muslims. Intolerance, it turns out, is often based largely on ignorance.
Often anyone who looks vaguely Hispanic is assumed to be an illegal alien. Some years ago, a law in Alabama frightened the Hispanic population there to such an extent they kept their children out of school.
Today, an executive order suddenly keeping people from a number of primarily Muslim countries out of the United States results in chaos at airports. Even refugees from war-torn nations were denied entry. That order is on hold by the courts.
Growing out of all the abuses, though, came an organization that works to prevent intolerance and persecution. Its origins are from 1919, just after young Addy Klein’s fictional encounter with anti-immigrant fever. Today, that organization calls itself the American Civil Liberties Union. According to the ACLU’s website:
In the years following World War I, America was gripped by the fear that the Communist Revolution that had taken place in Russia would spread to the United States. As is often the case when fear outweighs rational debate, civil liberties paid the price. In November 1919 and January 1920, in what notoriously became known as the “Palmer Raids,” Attorney General Mitchell Palmer began rounding up and deporting so-called radicals. Thousands of people were arrested without warrants and without regard to constitutional protections against unlawful search and seizure. Those arrested were brutally treated and held in horrible conditions.
In the face of these egregious civil liberties abuses, a small group of people decided to take a stand, and thus was born the American Civil Liberties Union.
Bullying is alive and well in America, and not just on the playground.
The antidote isn’t to turn our heads the other way, or to be swept along in the mob, but to speak up whenever bullies start to pick on individuals, families, or whole groups of people who may look a little different from others, but who still are Americans.
Young Addy did in Jingo Fever. Today, you can do the same for others facing the same intolerance that German-American families like hers once faced in times of American turmoil.
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Stephanie Lowden is an author of middle-grade historical fiction. Her books include Jingo Fever, a story of prejudice against German-Americans during World War I, and Time of the Eagle, a tale of two Ojibwe children facing a winter survival trek, fleeing a smallpox epidemic that devastates their village in the 1700s. A member of SCBWI, Ms. Lowden lives in Madison, Wisconsin.
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