No Hyphens Necessary: Things We Take for Granted
December 1, 1997
Recently, in one of my classes here at Ashland University, a professor asked his students what ethnicity they were. Apparently, the answer the professor of this Race and Ethnic Relations course was seeking was the name of a country. Everyone in front of me had answered with a European country. I, however, replied, “I am an American.” In response, my professor told me that I was not only an American, but I was also something else. He asked what ethnicity my parents were; I told him American. He asked where my grandparents were born; I said America. He had to go back to quite a few generations, but he discovered that I had relatives from Sweden, Germany and Prussia. I was thus declared a Swede-German-Prussian-American. However, I am an American, no hyphens, solely an American. In fact, I know not what it means to be a Swede, a German or a Prussian.
My grandmother, Marion Abramson, has spent the last twenty years studying genealogy. She has photos of the ship upon which her great-grandparents, the Schleuseners, sailed to America. Grandma’s studies have taken her overseas and all over the United States. This summer, her book on our family’s history was completed. She tells stories of why the Schleuseners came to America and of their hopes for a new life.
From Grandma’s writings, I discovered that from the time they learned of the possibility, the Schleuseners desperately wanted to become United States citizens. They wanted to create a new life — and live the American dream. When contemplating this, my grandmother raised the question, “Even with the best plans, did Friederich August Schleusener know when he left Germany what might be in store for his family?” (The Schleusener Chronicle, Page 6) Apparently, he knew exactly what he wanted. Records from the SS Hansa, a cargo ship, show that the family of Friederich August Schleusener arrived at Castle Gardens, New York, on the 12th of June, 1873. Within two weeks, on the 23rd of June, they began the process of becoming Americans. One of the first things the Schleuseners wanted to do when they entered their new homeland was renounce their German citizenship. This process included not only stating an intent to become a citizen of the United States, but also signing pape
rs formally denouncing the ruler of Germany. Mr. Schleusener was now working toward becoming a citizen of the United States of America.
Coming to America often meant new hope for families that previously had none. Given the desolate conditions of their former homeland, many immigrants eagerly desired a chance at the American dream. One of the first things they did when they came to America was learn the English language. With English as the unifying agent, they could have a common bond and pursue a common dream with other Americans. Immigrants did this because they were Americans now, not Germans. These families came to America to begin a new life and become Americans. The Schleusener family renounced its German citizenship, indeed its German heritage. Can any one of us today honestly imagine renouncing our citizenship, much less our own heritage? I would think this task impossible.
No longer did they want to be Germans; the Schleuseners wanted to become Americans. Essentially, this desire led to perseverance beyond our imagination. Selling every possession except a few heirlooms, the Schleuseners boarded a boat on a quest. For people today, the thought of living on a boat for weeks is incomprehensible, but when one imagines this hardship combined with the complete severing of all ties but family, it becomes even more dramatic.
The Schleusener’s family story differs little from stories of hundreds of others. When pondering these stories, one needs to think of how these travelers would feel today. If I were to respond to my professor’s question as he expected, I would effectively be saying that I do not respect the burdens my ancestors bore. As they boarded the cargo section of the SS Hansa and departed Germany, they no longer wanted to be Germans, they no longer wanted their children to endure living without hope as they had. America offered a new hope, that someday their children, and their children’s children would embrace true freedom and live the American dream. How would they feel had they heard me reply that I was a German-American? I suspect I would have been scolded. From the moment the ship left the port, they were no longer Germans, only Americans.
President Wilson once said, “…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.” These travelers to America never referred to themselves as German-Americans. Instead they were simply Americans. President Wilson warned us of using these hyphenated names, as they were detrimental to the character of the United States. We are all full Americans, indeed native Americans!
Of course, respect should be shown for our families, and I thank my grandmother for writing this history. All families should know of the hardship their ancestors endured. Future generations should know why they adopted America as their new homeland. Grandmother had a special insight in this when she wrote:
“This history was not written with my generation in mind… I want my children and their children’s children to know about the lives of their ancestors and more specifically of their faith in God’s love and forgiveness as it sustained them through troubles and hardships.” (The Schleusener Chronicle, Page 207)
We should all respect our ancestry and remember their hardships and sacrifices. One last story from Grandma’s book: With everything left in Germany, Friederich August Schleusener’s wife Betta would often miss all that she had left behind in Germany. It was said that one of the few things she brought with her was a hand-woven gray shawl with a white border. It hung over her wooden rocker. Whenever she would feel homesick, she would wrap herself in that shawl and go away by herself. No one knows what happened to it, but the shawl seemed to be the last Schleusener tie to Germany.
However, this does not mean that we should hyphenate ourselves. Hyphenation implies a split or a division, such a hyphenation would not respect the sacrifices our families have made for us. Thus, when asked about my heritage I felt obligated to answer, “I am an American.” I thank the Schleusener family for thinking of me as they sold their last piece of furniture, as they said their last auf wiedersehen, and as they watched their homeland disappear beneath the horizon. They did this for their children, for me, and for every succeeding generation. This is why it is with great pride that I call myself an American.
John Abramson is a senior from Elkhorn, Nebraska majoring in Economics and Political Science.
Abramson, Marion (Schleusener). The Schleusener Chronicle. Copyright March 1997.
Wilson, President Woodrow. Speech at Pueblo, Colorado, September 25, 1919.