2016 will not be the year that the population of the United States of America tilts from white—the year when adding up all the browns and blacks and anyone the U.S. Census counts as not-white becomes a bigger number than the number of those who check a box or are in one way or another counted as “white.” In fact, a quick Google search tells me that this cataclysmic change in demographics is about 30 years away, and if you count Hispanics as white, more than that!
You wouldn’t know it by the talk of it. It permeates, is everywhere in politics and the media. The talk sets up the fear of it on the one side, and the reasoning of it on the other. Donald Trump stands and harps about Mexicans and Moslems and anyone else not white and (at least in a recent Iowa talk) not evangelical. More broadly, fear of it seems to fuel speeches and votes advocating bigger walls and tighter immigration procedures in state and national legislatures, and even city halls.
On the other side of it, academics, novelists, filmmakers, and people of more liberal persuasion (one has to be careful, as lines are not always clear and congruent on this and other liberal-conservative issues) are producing analyses. How did we come to this turn? If we had handled things—slavery, Indian treaty making, exclusionary laws—differently earlier in our history, would things be different now? And of course, how are things now?
The Warmth of Other Suns tells the story of the Great Migration of African Americans north and west, out of the South from 1910-1970. The “movement” Black Lives Matter focuses on police-black citizen relations today, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ award winning Between the World and Me examines American history and the black of it.
It seems that Indian immigrants—east Indians—are the new kids on the American literary block. The Inscrutable Americans by Anurag Mathur is a “must read” on a list of books by Indian authors, many of whom, with great wit and candor, describe the cultural gaps between two very different worlds. And there are of course Iranian-American, Vietnamese-American, Nigerian-American, Latino-American and other hyphenated American writers seeking to do the same. Luis Urrea, my favorite author of the southern border, follows history and families from the heart of Mexico into the American heartland in non-fiction (The Devil’s Highway) and fiction (Hummingbird’s Daughter; Into the Beautiful North).
And then there are the Indians, the indigenous people who had lived in the Americas for 30,000 or maybe 50,000 years, and were suddenly invaded by Europeans a little over 500 years ago, and then watched and watch still later invasions by other Europeans, and Africans and Asians—many not of their own free will—over the course of that 500 years and continuing to this day.
Booksellers’ shelves teem with books on the subject. The most ambitious might be William T. Vollman’s “Seven Dreams” series of novels about the “collisions between Native Americans and European colonizers.” The Dying Grass: A Novel of the Nez Perce War, is the Fifth Dream in the series, which is not being written sequentially. It is over 1350 pages with footnotes! It stares at me unread from my desk—I will read it this year.
And if I make it through that tome, I might try another in the series—Maybe Fathers and Crows, about the Jesuits in Canada. And then I’ll read more of Peter Bowen’s Gabriel Du Pré Montana mystery novels featuring Du Pre the Metis—the mixed bloods melded of several Indian tribes, French fur traders and a few Scotsmen into a distinct people and culture. Or maybe I will go south and read The Son, Philipp Meyer’s acclaimed novel about a multigenerational—and sometimes mixed blood—family that weaves in and out of Commanche lands.
I will actually read Warmth of Other Sons, and if I have the stomach for it, I’ll watch “The Revenant,” the fictional movie account of mountain man Hugh Glass and his experiences in Plains Indian Country in the early 1800s.
And I’ll keep on poking away at Alvin Josephy, who gets smarter every day as I think about his descriptions of the displacement and marginalization of, and on occasion the genocidal movements against, American Indians. Much of it was written and thought over a half-century ago, but Alvin was always out front. I can hear him now, lambasting the historians who thought and wrote into the 1980s that the Americas were “empty of civilization” before the Europeans arrived. He’d have something pithy to say about this tilt from white–like what about the tilts and jolts that reduced the percentage of Indians, among the 2 percent of “others” in 2010, from 100 percent in 1491!
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