Hyphens; The Central Seed of American Division

By Crosley Jones | USA

More and more often today, Americans tend to categorize, idealize, and describe themselves using a hyphen. We hear terms such as “African-American”, “Latino-American”, or even “Liberal-American.” These terms seem to make us individually unique and set us apart from everyone else in this massive melting pot that is the United States of America. But what we don’t realize is that these terms, which we praise as our ‘heritage’ or our political identity, divide us more than they unite us. In these uncertain times, with civil and political unrest occurring constantly around America, we seem to seek unity, solidarity, and peace among our vast population, conservatives and liberals, whites, and blacks alike. Everyone seeks the same goal of unity. But that goal seems to be getting pushed further and further away from our reach, and in my mind, it’s for one simple reason. That reason is the usage of the hyphen when describing who we are. And what we are Americans.

This argument is not new, in fact, it spans over 100 years. Beginning in the 1890’s, the argument against the use of the hyphen in the description of a person has existed in many forms. The most prominent form, started by the most prominent advocate in the fight against the “hyphenated American,” was by then former President Theodore Roosevelt. In a speech given on Columbus Day 1915, he said, “The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin, of preventing all possibility of its continuing to be a nation at all, would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities, an intricate knot of German-Americans, Irish-Americans, English-Americans, French-Americans, Scandinavian-Americans or Italian-Americans, each preserving its separate nationality, each at heart feeling more sympathy with Europeans of that nationality than with the other citizens of the American Republic… There is no such thing as a hyphenated American who is a good American. The only man who is a good American is the man who is an American and nothing else.” Former President Roosevelt spoke out immensely during the period of World War I about his suspicion of those who seemed to identify with another nationality and not solely as an American.

Other prominent opponents of the hyphen in American nationality were then US President Woodrow Wilson, saying of the hyphen “Any man who carries a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic whenever he gets ready,” and the large American media machine during that period. An example of this such media was the popular magazine Puck, which on August 9, 1899, ran a cartoon depicting Uncle Sam overseeing a ballot box with a long line of men with clothes split in half. One side of their clothes were of American cultural standards while the other half was of another country’s cultural standards. Below the cartoon were the lines “Why should I let these freaks cast whole ballots when they are only half Americans?” This portrayal of the skepticism of the hyphenated Americans was a real fear in the time of mass immigration. But in today’s society, that fear that permeates the population doesn’t exist as it did then.

The unfortunate thing about it is that this fear should still be one that is upfront in the American psyche. We shouldn’t look at this danger from an immigration standpoint but from an American standpoint. We, as Americans, should not classify ourselves as anything other than that, Americans. We should be proud of our heritage, but we should also be proud of our country. We should not be “Black-Americans” or “White-Americans” or “Mexican-Americans” or “German-Americans.” We should, forever, all just be “Americans.” This simple fix to our society and our mindsets would fix many problems, such as the police brutality cases. Without the extra labels that we put on young black men, the police would have a different mindset, seeing themselves and the black men as equals, as Americans. And that is one example of many I can make that would be a benefit of eliminating the hyphen. The hyphen’s purpose in language is to separate two nouns. We need to end its divisive purpose in the American psyche once and for all.


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