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Hyphen Nation

A brief history of a short punctuation mark

Unknown Author
July 16, 2009

When Sonia Sotomayor suggested that she was a “wise Latina,” she sparked a controversy about the meaning of being a member of a minority community in American culture. Is having a “hyphenated identity” an asset or a liability? The question resonates far beyond the walls of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Marco Greenberg, a blogger for Haaretz, has titled his blog “This Hyphenated Life” and explained its raison d’etre to be a celebration of hyphenated identity. “My posts will be a vessel to share ideas, insights, experiences and the sheer fun of leading multiple lives,” he wrote. “It’s for fellow hyphenates who want to examine their dual existence/s—to celebrate them, not just to dwell in the existential and neurotic angst. After all, in this assimilated world, aren’t we all hybrids to one degree or another?” The recent PBS series The Jewish Americans wondered, “Are we American Jews, Americans without a hyphenated identity, or simply Jewish?” Dozens of other cultural commentators refer to the state of being both American and Jewish as having a “hyphenated identity.” Despite its unmistakable postmodern ring, the idea of a hyphenated existence first became popular in a much earlier historical era. And in contrast to its current celebratory application to ethnic and religious difference, the hyphen has not always had a positive connotation.

The hyphen began to function as both a marker and a metonym for a person with two cultures in the late 19th century. In a period of mass immigration of both Jews and non-Jews, some Americans valued the assimilation of newcomers and wanted to accomplish it as quickly and completely as possible. Groups and individuals who were slow to shed old identities and values in favor of new American ones began to experience the judgmental gaze of those who considered themselves true Americans. In 1899, The Washington Post declared, “Hyphenated Hybrids Impossible,” which, it went on to explain, meant that those with two cultures were undesirable. During the 1904 elections, some politicians and voters wished for the day when hyphenated “factions” and “contingents” would no longer rear their ugly heads.

By the turn of the 20th century the term had become common parlance, and as World War I captured the nation’s interest, concern about “the hyphenated” grew. In 1915, Theodore Roosevelt said, “There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism.… A hyphenated American is not an American at all.” After a 1915 speech in which Woodrow Wilson announced, “You can’t be an American if you think of yourselves in groups,” the Los Angeles Times wrote: “No vigorous American should hesitate to rebuke any busybody of the hyphenated type who opens his lips to voice any spirit but the American spirit.” Both Wilson and the newspaper extended the criticism of “hyphenates” to become an appeal to all “real” Americans to put those hyphenates in their place. In some cases, a general plea to make sure one’s own community’s loyalties were sufficiently American became a call to police others.

Even American Jews actively denounced the term and those who embodied it. “Hyphenated Americans are among my pet aversions as Americans,” one Boston rabbi declared in 1910. He asserted that if Jews in America insisted on calling themselves something, their first choice should be simply “Americans,” and as a second choice “Jewish Americans,” but not “American Jews.” The emphasis, he explained, should always be the term “American.” In making a similar point at the dedication of a New York synagogue, a local official made a similar point using exactly the opposite terms: Jews were not hyphens, he explained, because they supported the United States. Therefore, “there is the American Jew, but not the Jewish American.” In 1915, a Washington, D.C. rabbi declared from the pulpit: “[T]his hyphen, whether it be in print or implied in thought, is a political and moral contradiction. It throws out a danger signal.” He went on to emphasize that the hyphen he objected to indicated a divided national allegiance, and that the differing “bloods, traditions, and habits of thought”—what we might call cultures—were no hindrance to American loyalty. In the same year, The New York Times ran an article under the headline, “Jews Shun the Hyphen.” B’nai B’rith had voted to support a national Jewish congress only if it could “be created along lines that will not render its members subject to stigma as hyphenated citizens.” Jewish communities, vigilant in a time of conspicuous anti-Semitism—Leo Frank was convicted and then lynched in 1915 for a crime he did not commit—went to significant lengths to make sure that other Americans thought of Jews as unhyphenated and loyal.

Although sentiment against “hyphenates” was rarely directed primarily at Jews, they remained on their guard for several reasons. All along, the term “hyphen” had carried with it not only the insinuation of two incompatible cultures or sets of values, but also the idea of “dual loyalty” to two different nations. Especially in the years leading up to and during World War I, this latter valence of the term loomed large. Many Jews were concerned about being portrayed as “hyphenated” not only because they were Jewish but also if they voiced any support for an independent Jewish nation. The B’nai B’rith members who “shunned the hyphen” were primarily concerned with others identifying them with Zionism, an ideology seen by many to be at odds with patriotism in America. Furthermore, the group that was probably the most frequent target of “hyphenate” diatribes were Americans of German heritage—even though many of them were the second or third generation of their families to live in the United States. Large portions of most Jewish communities in America could trace their lineage back to Germany, and although groups of German Jews were not specifically targeted for “hyphenism,” they remained vigilant about maintaining a public image that actively distanced them from anything that could be seen as dual loyalty.

After the war ended and the federal legislation severely curtailed immigration, the hyphen fell from its place in popular and political lingo. During World War II, the term did not make a resurgence; in fact, the few who did mention the term declared that it was no longer applicable. When Louis Adamic, a famous immigrant writer and World War I veteran, praised “foreign groups” for helping the war effort, he exclaimed: “No Hyphens This Time!” Nor did the label gain any traction during the McCarthy era. Despite accusations of disloyalty directed at Japanese Americans during World War II and both real and imagined communists in the McCarthy era, critics did not make use of the hyphen as a symbol.

The word resurfaced only during the various movements to embrace ethnicity and ethnic cultures that gained momentum in the late 1960s and 1970s. In these contexts, however, the minority groups themselves, rather than mainstream detractors, were the main users of the term. Members of these groups, especially African Americans, used the hyphen not as a sign of dual national loyalty but as a sign of participation in two cultures. Since then, American Jews have been able think of themselves using the hyphen as a metaphor for embracing both Judaism and America.

Sotomayor’s hearings, on the other hand, suggest that although the hyphen has acquired new life as a positive metonym, its earlier meaning hasn’t disappeared entirely.

Sarah Imhoff is a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago, where she works on gender and American Jewish history.

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