Robert A. Teegarden's Blog

July 20, 2012

Hyphenated-America

Americans see hyphens every day.  The most common use of the hyphen is in the art of orthology or correct spelling, especially when a word breaks at the end of a sentence. Hyphens can either separate or unify.  Hyphens can be used to divide or connect syllables, names or word elements; they can also be used to link jobs or function such as singer-dancers, actor-models, mendacious-politician (Oops, I’m sorry. That’s redundant).  But hyphens are especially needed for clarity. While one might be contained in the other, there is a difference between re-creation and recreation.  And as a parent, I surely would like to distinguish for my children the difference between a dirty-movie theater and a dirty movie-theater.  So, hyphens can help; but they can also hurt.  It all depends on how their used.

Take the term Irish-American or Black-American. To be clear at the outset, it really should be Afro-American, for the modifier is not color but source. Color, like height or weight, is not substantive. Imagine folks being referred to as short-Americans or sinister-Americans (those who write with their left hand).  I suppose, though, one could call herself/himself anything they wish.  But in common parlance and public exchange, things can get confusing. What if your mother were white, your father was from Kenya?  Would you be a white-Afro-American? Or an Afro-White –American?  We seek clarity.

If one is Irish-American it denotes that one has immigrated recently from Ireland and you still have a leg in both countries and cultures. For those who were born here of that particular pedigree, the term is often used to connote origins, not the present reality.  If “Irish-American” denotes a recent arrival, then all others are “Americans of Irish decent”.  After all, the common denominator for us all is “American,” not “Irish.”

Likewise for the Afro-American. A recent immigrant from Monrovia, Liberia, to Azusa, California, could be considered an Afro-American for a while. But with time, naturalization, and assimilation in the new culture, she/he would be known as an American, who happens to be from Africa.  Again, what we all have in common is in being an American.

How we use the language says a lot about us.  Maintaining a hyphenation maintains a duality.  If asked for your nationality ten years after moving into the USA and you said, “Irish American,” that would indicate to me that you’re not here yet.  You’re living in two worlds.  Don’t get me wrong. One’s origins, nationality and culture are fundamental. They are important and need to be nurtured.  I would be proud to be Irish.  But when you move to a different land, you necessarily need to absorb the principles and mores of that land; otherwise, you live a life divided upon itself.  What happens is your own culture fails to develop and your new allegiances cease to grow.  You’re kind of in a Twilight Zone.  I’ve often wondered about hyphenated-married names.  That burden is placed on the bride in the American parlance.  But what a gift to give? Does having a hyphenated name after marriage mean that you have a foot in each camp, one single and the other married? I wonder.  What does that same about commitment?

Who are we really?  We’re Americans who came from Africa. We’re Americans who came from Ireland.  We’re Americans who came from Colombia.  Rich with a cultural heritage and even language, we can be proud to be an American…. first.

But hyphens that hurt can also heal.  Usually the last thing they do to you is hyphenate your life. You know:  1925 2008.  That little hyphen (actually it’s more like a dash) captures time (in this case, about 83 years), history, experience, family, off-spring, roots and love.  All that can make up a person’s life is captured by that little hyphen-now-dash.  Between these two days lived this person. Between these two marks in time, we hyphenate eternity and honor a life.

So be careful out there in the military-industrial complex. Be careful not to fall prey to political-correctness and instead judge for yourself based on facts and truth.  Avoid cancer-causing substances and conditions.  Try to choose the most cost-effective means of living in these difficult times. Avoid separating yourself off from others. If you’re here legally, you’re an American first and foremost.  Welcome. Best wishes.  If not, sign up.

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