In his 1916 essay, “Trans-National America,” critical thinker extraordinaire Randolph Bourne argued against the forced assimilation of immigrants into an “Anglo” culture while suggesting the need for things like dual citizenship.
The question, as Yen Le Espiritu so aptly frames in her book Home Bound, is “why the concept of transnationalism never really did enter the lexicon of political and scholarly debates on immigration.” Instead, for most of the century, both politicians and academics used “terms that presumed (and prescribed) unidirectional migration flows” (like assimilation, melting pot, pluralism, multiculturalism). Espiritu’s answer is that transnationalism remained under-used and largely ignored because it “poses too much of a challenge to the “mythistory” of the United States–one that valorizes the linear narratives of immigration, assimilation, and nationhood.”
She’s right, to be sure, and any thoughtful glance and the record and the literature of the past century testifies to that fact. But I can’t help thinking…
If I were an intellectual in 1924, and knew what I know now about immigration, the historical forces undergirding it and the adaptive and survival strategies of the people involved in it, I’m not sure I’d be throwing the concept of “transnationalism” into the public debate. In a time of casting the immigrant as a threat to the culture of a white America, I’m not sure biculturalism would have provided much relief.