This time of year, you see all sorts photos in newspapers and on websites of cute children and their parents at St. Patrick’s Day parades. The kids are bedecked in green bows and shamrock stickers and “Kiss Me I’m Irish” t-shirts.
Even if the family is named Piazza or Rubenstein or Romanowski.
There’s a temptation to wish we saw more folks named O’Gara and Feeney and McGuire in photos like this. But, first of all, who’s to say there isn’t a genuine Hibernian not too far back in the family tree?
More importantly, at a time of tremendous tension and conflict across this country, we should pause and reflect on just how astonishing it is to host a grand Irish parade attended by folks of varying ethnicities, races and religions.
It proves, first of all, that one can quite easily balance an appreciation for your roots and heritage while also pledging allegiance to the U.S. It also shows -- more importantly -- that immigrants bringing new customs to the U.S. need not necessarily signal a looming apocalypse.
For a long time the term melting pot was used to capture America’s blend of ethnicities. Then that term fell out of favor because some felt it was unfair to expect immigrants to “melt,” or vanish or disappear.
The problem is, these days, too many people have given up on the melting pot concept entirely. This even though proof that it can and does work might well be marching down a street in your own hometown, led by bagpipers blaring a song about running guns.
This even though our culture is so much more rich because of the many influences that flow through it.
Listen to Mat Johnson, the author of an acclaimed Philadelphia-set novel entitled Loving Day. Johnson told NPR’s Fresh Air program about he hopes not be viewed simply as a “black” novelist.
“Every time I had to say I was black, it felt like I was...beheading my father and denouncing his entire family. You know, and my father...I love him, and I love my family. You know, my grandparents used to be a huge part of my life, and...part of my connection to Philly, it's not just me. It's an Irish-American Philly that went back, you know, to the 1830s,” he said.
“Like, my humor -- my sense of humor, I have an African-American influenced sense of humor -- probably comes from watching Eddie Murphy tapes and Redd Foxx and tapes like that, listening to Bill Cosby tapes. But I also have an Irish American sense of humor that's dry and self-deprecating and probably fairly bleak that I get from my father.”
Meanwhile, there is a new Netflix documentary out about the singer Nina Simone, whose popularity grew in the 1960s during the struggle for civil rights. Attempting to explain her genius, the famous poet Langston Hughes once said of Simone: “She is strange. So are the plays of Brendan Behan.”
Then there’s this wild story author Susan Jacoby recently told interviewer Terry Gross. Jacoby has written extensively on the Jewish faith she practiced before becoming an atheist. But a large number of her ancestors were, in fact, Irish Catholic.
And at a time when “mixed marriages” (Catholic and Jew) were frowned upon, Jacoby’s Irish Catholic grandfather “was very favorable toward (Jacoby’s mother’s) marriage because he believed stereotypically that Jewish men make good husbands because they don't drink and they don't beat their wives.”
Where do you begin to deconstruct all those stereotypes? (By the way, Jacoby’s father turned out to be a gambling addict.)
And yet, Jacoby’s father beat the problem, thanks in part to his own conversion to Catholicism.
“The Catholic Church ... has this one thing, Confession, in which you could go, confess to a priest and obtain absolution of your sins. And there was a routine and a ritual and I think, I think that it did help him.”
Look. It’s easy to focus on the gloom and doom. God knows the Republicans won’t stop trying to scare the bejeezus out of us.
And yet, consider Trump, Cruz and Rubio for a moment: The three leading candidates of the unabashedly nativist wing of the Republican party are all the children of immigrants!
Only in America. What a great country.