Beyond the Grave: The more they come, the worse it is.

I started this blog to share the origins of a particular Brunswick cemetery or an interesting personal story of someone buried there. When I search beyond the graveyard to provide historical context to these stories, I sometimes gain new insight into my own biases and past experiences.

I’m taking a break from preparing my next installment on early Brunswick to share one of these ruminations in a new blog category called Beyond the Grave.

 

barb-c-1961

~ Each day my younger brother and I walked “home” from Longfellow School to our grandmother’s house to wait for our parents to pick us up after work. I remember sitting at her green formica kitchen table, drawing smiling teapots on the backside of pages from discarded Bowdoin College ledgers. Mémère always rocked in her padded chair, hooking cotton thread into a doily or lace, as she listened to The Edge of Night on the television.

As afternoon approached evening, we’d hear the door latch rattle, then feet scraping on hollow wooden steps, and finally the squeak of the kitchen door as one of my parents or aunts or uncles pushed their way in.

“The more they come, the worse it is,” Mémère would say to greet whichever grown child had come to pick us up, or deliver clean laundry for her to iron, or drop off a bunch of overripe bananas perfect for sweet sandwiches on buttered Wonder bread.

“The more they come, the worse it is.” Mémère’s standard greeting may have been a somewhat backhanded take on “the more the merrier” — that the more family members gathered in one place, the rowdier they got.

As I’ve learned more about America’s past, I’ve found a new meaning to my grandmother’s favorite saying, one that would have been familiar to her as the daughter of French Canadian Catholic immigrants living in Yankee Brunswick. To me today, “the more they come, the worse it is” represents Americans’ mistrust and fear of immigrants and migrants, that began in colonial times when the Protestant British and Catholic French brought their centuries-long enmity to the New World.

It took more than a century, but in their disparate ways the immigrant British and French eventually overwhelmed the original inhabitants. The British killed untold numbers of Natives through war and disease; the French subsumed the Native people and their culture through marriage. Those few Natives who remained were legally marginalized by the new order.

Each new wave of foreigners to our shores renewed our mistrust and fear. In the 1840s, Germans moved into the Midwest, then a decade later nearly one million mostly Catholic Irish fled famine in their homeland for the Eastern United States. In reaction to this influx, nativist Americans formed the Know-Nothing Party. They strove to legislate immigration restrictions, delay citizenship, and exclude foreigners from voting or public office.

Over the years, the German and Irish immigrants learned English, married Americans, and melted into American culture, adding pretzels and St. Patrick’s Day to the mix.

Meanwhile, since the early 1700s, the economic success of plantations in the New World had been earned through the forced labor of Native and African slaves in every part of the American colonies. As the country argued about slavery, the Know-Nothings fell apart. Anti-slavery members joined the Republicans and Southern members joined the pro-slavery Democratic Party.

In Maine, the small African American population had been easy to contain. In the tradition of ethnic minorities all over the U.S., most area African Americans settled near one another, in the farming community that stretched from East Brunswick into North Bath. By the 1840s, Brunswick whites distanced themselves from their black neighbors by segregating school attendance: whites in the summer and winter, blacks in the spring and fall.

After the Civil War, as industrialization replaced farming in the American economy, newly freed African Americans in the South made the most of their new citizenship. Some ran for public office, others migrated north to work in factories or for the railroads. Here in Maine, several African American families followed those jobs, migrating to other states. Some who remained changed their ethnic identities from black to white as intermarriage lightened the skin of each successive generation.

Immigrants from Portugal, China, and myriad other countries continued to arrive, bringing with them new languages, customs, and complexions. Enough was enough. In 1882 the American government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act to limit immigration. Then the 1903 Immigration Act legislated deportation of non-citizens from government-run facilities such as asylums and poor farms, leaving behind newly “orphaned” American-born children to be raised by “real” Americans.

From the middle of the nineteenth century, well into the twentieth, more than 900,000 French Canadians abandoned failing Quebec farms for Northeast factories. Some of the families clung to their culture and language, planning to return to Quebec when their finances improved. Others learned English, became citizens, and married into earlier Maine families. The French culture eroded partly from these marriages and partly when English-speaking factory bosses forbade workers from speaking French in the mill.

Then, in the 1920s, nativist Protestant whites in Maine joined the Ku Klux Klan. They held talks, picnics, and marched in parades to promote anti-Catholic, anti-African American, and anti-foreigner views. Their overt intimidation was brief, but the attitudes linger still.

Of course, as a white woman whose family has been here since the Mayflower, none of this really concerns me.

Does it?

Except, my own Native ancestors were subsumed by my French forefathers in Canada or killed by my British line in Maine. And one of my earliest Brunswick ancestors owned a slave. When her Portuguese mother was deported, my maternal grandmother was “orphaned”  and then raised by “real” Americans who, only a generation or two earlier, had fled famine in Ireland. In the 1800s, my mother’s Baptist ancestors on her father’s side marginalized Brunswick’s African American community, then broadened their prejudices to Mom’s Catholic family members, French, Portuguese, and Irish alike.

The cycle continues today here in Maine, with mistrust and fear of blacks from Somalia, Muslims from Africa or the Middle East, and Hispanics from beyond our southern border. Once again, some of my fellow citizens propose exclusion, as well as denial of rights and citizenship.

These latest immigrants, though, are from Africa, the Middle East, or Mexico and Central America so, really, none of this concerns me.

Except the weave of my DNA still holds African, Middle Eastern, and Spanish threads. I am the product of generations of migration, war, conquest, love and hate. I cannot deny others the opportunity to be here, now.

“The more they come, the worse it is?” I say, “the more, the merrier.”

~Barbara A. Desmarais, Nov.12, 2016

 

Next Blog: When Church Was State

Further reading:

 

© Barbara A. Desmarais 2016

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About Barbara Desmarais

Writer and amateur historian
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8 Responses to Beyond the Grave: The more they come, the worse it is.

  1. Thank you for this timely post;well said!! I enjoy reading your local studies of our past residents,some of whom are mine,at least in there residence if not in your writings.maybe you should gather them into a book? It’s always interesting when you can help to bring our ancestors experiences alive.it makes for good reading as well as the added benefit of learning something new about our history. Thanks for sharing:)

    • I really appreciate your support. I’m writing this blog, in part, to figure out how to write a book about Brunswick history, but from my particular perspective. Your comments make me feel I’m on the right track.

  2. As always, you impress and inspire me. Such a clear, cogent story–please keep writing like this.

  3. MF Sterling-Golden says:

    Brilliant! Love this, “Except, my own Native ancestors were subsumed by my French forefathers in Canada or killed by my British line in Maine. And one of my earliest Brunswick ancestors owned a slave.”

  4. If I can be any help in your writing a book about Brunswick just let me know what I can do.

  5. Oh, my, what an honor and a generous offer, Randy. Just this morning I reread your article “Slavery in Colonial Maine” from the Fall 1987 “Maine Historical Society Quarterly” which confirmed a couple of things I want to work on over the next several weeks. I gladly accept your offer and will be in touch. Thank you.

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