Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Presidential Inauguration

Below is an article I wrote for The Finnish American Reporter about the election of a black president. I write a monthly column in that newspaper dealing with aspects of heritage and there is generally plenty of historical fodder for articles, but with the election of a President who some folks have been disparaging of because of his ethnicity, I dedicated one article to this contemporary issue.

Generally, I'm not a big supporter of established politics (i.e. "The Man"), but I supported and will support Mr. Obama, retaining the option to be critical of his stand and action on organized labor...its been a long time since labor has had a true advocate in the White House, hopefully this will change today...Inauguration Day, January 20, 2009.

The article:

Ask the Archivist…Having a Black President with Muslim Heritage isn’t so Strange

As this year’s Presidential election has come and gone, I am reminded of some of the truly awful comments that were made in the media and that I personally heard regarding the race and heritage of our new President-elect Barack Obama. Some folks took special disliking to the fact that Obama’s father was an African Muslim.

Regardless of political affiliation, I think we all can agree that this election was a very important watershed event in our nation’s history; perceivably for the first time in American presidential history, the color of a person’s skin mattered less than the measure of the individual.

In thinking about the historic nature of the election and some peoples’ behaviors towards race, culture and heritage, I began to wonder how these things have affected the perception of Finns in America. I looked to the archive for answers and found that not so long ago, Finns were on the bad side of some truly stupid thinking regarding race issues and unfamiliar cultural practices.

Not so long ago, the Finns as a race were often characterized as less than honorable people lacking intelligence, responsibility and stimulus control. In fact, often in casual conversation or media jottings Finnish immigrants and their families were referred to as a race of “Jack-pine Savages.” As it was then, race today is a socially constructed entity that typically is built by prevailing power structures intending to divide and compartmentalize.

In 1983, Finnish American sociologist Peter Kivisto wrote in the International Migration Review, “Finns occupied the status of a definite ‘out-group’ even though they are White Protestant. They were depicted as ‘Jack-pine Savages,’ Mongolians (in 1907, an attempt was made to deny them citizenship by invoking existing anti-Oriental legislation), and violence prone revolutionaries.”

The seemingly strange socio-cultural practices of Finnish immigrants further added to others’ misconceptions about their neighbors from Suomi. Strange practices, such as nights when entire families went naked into super-heated buildings to sweat made Finns a rather strange looking lot to those who had never met someone from Vaasa or Oulu.

While sauna was strange and the nakedness of the ritual spit in the face of everything proper and Victorian of that era, borrowing from a feasible, but fictionalized account of Ashtabula Harbor, Ohio’s Finnish immigrant population in the late 19th Century we see another practice could stir the deepest fears of others’ regarding Finns.

A book that I am currently reading in the Archive by author Kalle Potti, Iloinen Harbori (Happy Harbor), addresses the strange way in which others saw the Finnish immigrant practice of cupping, which in theory relieved pain through the process of bloodletting. (In cupping, a healer would make small slits in a person’s back, suck on the leather-covered small end of a hollowed out cow horn while attaching it to the victim’s…I mean patient’s back and then blood would drain into the horn until the horn with the “bad” blood dropped off the back.)

“Soon the word spread around the whole city that four men had been murdered by sucking the blood out of their bodies…People and police gathered around the building, but no one dared go in to inspect. The next day the sheriff and his deputies arrived and (made) an inquiry about the whole affair. Not until all the men showed their backs to the sheriff and Kreeta demonstrated and explained the Finnish method of bloodletting, did the sheriff accept the fact that no murders were committed…The Irish, however, believed for a long time that the Finns had actually murdered four of their own men by sucking the blood through tubes made of cows’ horns.”

Having a bi-racial president with Muslim heritage doesn’t seem so strange does it?

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