Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Tartan Day

Throughout the summer, indeed the entire year, Americans of Scottish descent and their guests, head off for a day or two they will spend watching men in kilts throw over-sized objects made of stone or wood; they will observe sheepdog trials and step-dancing (up & down, up & down--don’t you dare move those hips!), sample whiskeys, and try a Scots, ahem, ‘delicacy’: oats and offal wrapped in sheep’s stomach by the name of ‘haggis.’ Finally, they may stand in awe before massive quantities of tartan wool-blends wrapped around supersized Scots-Irish Americans proudly displaying their heritage.

It was Roots by Alex Haley (the book and movie) that launched a thousand hyphenations of the American identity. Before Roots, we were black, red, yellow, brown, and mostly white: Irish and Jews were white. Asians from anywhere west of the Pacific Ocean were yellow, and blacks, well, blacks were really black then--though still frequently called Negroes--(at least to white Americans whose one-drop rule made any form of miscegenation illegal and its progeny black unless light-skinned enough to fool somebody).

But from our nation's beginnings, America was a melting pot of tribes and clans, ethnicities and nationalities. And, from that start, not discounting what was happening between the thousands of tribes and sub-tribes of natives, whites were as ethnically identified and stratified within their own groups as other populations. Polish-American and Italian-American had as little in common as High Yellow and Ebony. Even within the Jewish tribe, there were Litvaks and Galicianers, new arrivals and the older, German-rooted groups, who discounted one another the way the Scots-Irish separated themselves from Irish-Irish (meaning Catholic) arrivals.

Whether it has been mankind’s self-imposed noose or science’s bad call, ethnicity and race have long separated us, even as it bound subgroups into tighter wedgies. Yet hyphens are meant to become new words and, often, interracial/inter-relegion/inter-ethnic marriages have been desparate attempts to escape ethnic provincialism; besides, opposites and differences do attract to one another. And, eventually, as a Newsweek magazine spread showed us a few years ago, we all do sort of blend together.

To attend the Scottish games, is to dip into my own ancestral weave and lore. Some attend these festivals for the sheer lark; it is a day of fun like no other, especially if one enjoys guessing just what is under those kilts. But, I am afraid, there are those who attend the Highland Games to spend a few precious hours with their "kin," code for white folks. To my shame, it was one of the reasons my mother--who barely kept her racism in check--enjoyed the games so much.

In 1998, Senator Trent Lott saw his Senate Resolution 155 passed unanimously into law. This resolution acknowledged the presence and contribution of Americans of Scottish descent. Thus, Tartan Day came into being, although outside of certain enclaves, most have probably never heard of it. I hadn't. Here is the resolution’s text:

Senate Resolution 155

Whereas April 6 has a special significance for all Americans, and especially
those Americans of Scottish descent, because the Declaration of Arbroath, the
Scottish Declaration of Independence, was signed on April 6, 1320 and the
American Declaration of Independence was modeled on that inspirational document;

Whereas this resolution honors the major role that Scottish Americans played in
the founding of this Nation, such as the fact that almost half of the signers of
the Declaration of Independence were of Scottish descent, the Governors in 9 of
the original 13 States were of Scottish ancestry, Scottish Americans
successfully helped shape this country in its formative years and guide this
Nation through its most troubled times;

Whereas this resolution recognizes the monumental achievements and invaluable
contributions made by Scottish Americans that have led to America's preeminence
in the fields of science, technology, medicine, government, politics, economics,
architecture, literature, media, and visual and performing arts;

Whereas this resolution commends the more than 200 organizations throughout the
United States that honor Scottish heritage, tradition, and culture, representing
the hundreds of thousands of Americans of Scottish descent, residing in every
State, who already have made the observance of Tartan Day on April 6 a success;

Whereas these numerous individuals, clans, societies, clubs, and fraternal
organizations do not let the great contributions of the Scottish people go

Now, therefore, be it Resolved, That the Senate designates April 6 of each year
as "National Tartan Day."

I am all for celebrating heritages but I get more than a little uncomfortable with the enthusiasm some pursue their Anglo-Celtic roots, even as I am myself deeply involved with this very excavation. For too long, we have been taught that America was founded on purely European heritages and as a Christian nation; the pictures we were shown of our founding fathers were all white. As some try to create an “English only” America and hurl horrible epithets about “immigrants,” I cringe in my liberal white skin. But, most importantly, I have the knowledge that these myths are not true and they limit our vision of America.

My mother’s mother was a Brown with ancestry from pioneering stock, from those who crossed the wide prairies of Kansas and Nebraska from Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois and Iowa. They eventually settled in California’s great Central Valley. Across this mostly inhospitable land, they launched Presbyterian churches, fought in wars, and ranched. My research on the Browns shows them coming originally from Scotland, likely the Highlands. They were probably of the Lamont clan; another clan with a tragic history, the Lamonts were torn asunder by rivalries, and religious and imperial wars which outlawed Highland culture, including tartans, bagpipes, the sept system for organizing families around obeisance to a clan chieftain.

When the Lamont clan was finally shattered by assault (there was a great massacre upon them by the Campbells, killing over 200, including women and children) and law, they split into separate groups and emigrated, many to Australia, Canada, and the United States. Some families took the names of colors: Black, White, and Brown (not the Greens, however), in order to identify one another should they meet again in some foreign land. This is the legend I was told by Duncan Brown in Bettyhill, in Scotland at the Crofter Museum; clan representatives of the Lamonts at the Scottish games in Pleasanton, California, echoed the legend as one they also knew.

Brown is one of the most popular surnames in America and one of the most popular taken by African-Americans when they were freed. Some likely chose the name to describe themselves, the very way the name may originally have described the Scots of the outer isles: brown is related to the Gallic word "doon," from which we get "dun." It means dark, or brown. Other newly freed slaves may have chosen the name to honor the abolitionist leader John Brown.

My Scottish Browns were violently forced from their lands between the 18th and 19th centuries to be replaced by sheep and wealthy lairds who co-opted with the conquering chieftains and English soldiers. It’s not such a radically different history from that of my African-American, immigrant, and Native American brethren: most of us were forced off lands we might have once tended and loved.

Plaids come in thousands of colors.