Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Franco-Americans Need To Tell their Own Stories

I was sitting in a bar chewing the fat with a friend. He noted that my book connected the story of the descendants of French-Canadians in the U.S. with the broader themes of the country’s history. He considered this a good approach because, said he, “no offense, but no one gives a sh*t about these French-Americans.”

No offense taken. He is right. I’m well aware that not only do few people care, but few people know anything about the Franco-Americans. And when I say Franco-Americans, I mean chiefly the descendants of the industrial workers and other manual laborers who came from Québec and the former Acadia to the industrial areas of New England between 1840 and 1930.

Their story has been largely forgotten even among the narratives where it should appear, e.g., in the story of the Cotton Kingdom; in the histories of industrialization; or in the annals of the Catholic Church in the U.S. Franco-Americans should have a chapter in each of these stories, but they are frequently overlooked or their contribution is minimized.

But the story was not forgotten because it’s unimportant; it’s considered unimportant because it’s been forgotten.

Why was it largely forgotten even by many of the descendants themselves? When I wrote an article to address that question called “Why Are Franco-Americans So Invisible?” a gentlemen responded online in the lovely, charitable manner characteristic of social media: “BECAUSE THEY NEVER WANTED THE SPOTLIGHT, YOU MORON !!” There’s some truth there. 

The Franco-Americans tend to dislike standing out or calling attention to themselves. As one of our number said to me, “we were taught that you don’t speak well of yourself, you let others speak well of you.” Since we didn’t speak of ourselves, few others spoke about us. Thus, the story was never woven into the national fabric.

But in its day, especially from 1880 through the early 20th c., French-Canadian immigration was a medium-sized deal. It was never the biggest issue facing the U.S., but it was in the national consciousness. Newspapers around the country, including the New York Times, covered it; national news magazines like Harper’s and The Nation published pieces; authors penned books in French and English; our ancestors were discussed in U.S. Senate hearings on labor; H.P. Lovecraft
vilified them, while writers like Jack Kerouac and Grace Metalious gave them literary life from an insider perspective. 

The French-Canadian textile operative was a known stereotype like the Chinese railroad laborer, the Slavic coal miner, the Jewish toiler in the garment industry, or the Mexican farm worker. But unlike these latter figures, the French-Canadian of the Northeast faded from the collective memory.

It seems to me that the Franco-Americans themselves, in their humility, never appreciated how important they were. Not wanting to call attention to themselves, they allowed the story to lapse. They shared few details with their children or grandchildren, who increasingly began to speak English and blend in with the majority, identifying with its values and history.

Since I’m not willing to let the story of my ancestors fade into obscurity, I think it's high time to reverse this process. And that means that it is up to Franco-Americans to tell their own stories. And where there are blogs, books of essays, conferences, presentations, plays, etc. about us, we should be leading the charge. We should at least be consulted and represented. 

When I’ve said this – and I have done so publicly and not without passion – some people leap to the conclusion that I mean that no one who is not Franco-American can or should tell the Franco-American stories. I mean nothing of the kind. 

We have been blessed to have a few non-Franco-Americans take an interest in us and tell our stories. But I do insist that these “outsiders” tell the story in an informed, responsible, and respectful way and I plan to hold them accountable. I ask that they at least talk to us, question us, and test their assumptions before telling us about our own historical experience. And, without mentioning names, I’ve seen this outsider perspective done both well and poorly.

People who come to the story from an outside perspective may offer a fresh and critical view. They are valuable. But the insider view is equally necessary. This insider view is important because it’s possible for an outsider to marshal all the facts but miss the truth. What one can make out of a set of facts does not always amount to the truth. Those who have the lived experience of growing up with Franco-Americans who worked in those mills hold this deeper truth, what I would call the emotional truth, of what it is to be Franco-American.

I grew up outside of the Franco-American enclaves and knew few facts about the history. But I knew all four of my grandparents, three of whom grew up in the mill towns and worked in those factories (the fourth grandparent grew up in Canada). They went to the bilingual schools, attended the French language church, and had French as a first language. 

When I researched and started marshalling facts about their history, I put ample flesh on the bones. But the structure, the spine of my narrative was there, literally in my DNA. And when I learned about the history, I could see how very Franco-American my family was, even while living in a suburb.  

When I’ve insisted that Franco-Americans should represent themselves, I’ve received a heated, negative reaction. There’s something threatening about this idea. Some people think I’m being divisive and exclusive. I’ve been de-platformed from speaking at a university because of this; I’ve been bawled out in the parking lot coming out of an event; I’ve been called “rude,” “hateful,” and “pathetic.”

I’m not complaining. I can take it. But I wonder about the heat of this rejection. And I also think that, were it any other ethnic, racial, or religious group in this country my notion that the insiders should lead and represent themselves in telling their own story would be entirely uncontroversial. Elsewhere, the principle “nothing about us, without us” is commonplace, as ordinary as a morning cup of coffee.

We must also acknowledge that there’s more than one Franco-American story. They are legion. There are the stories of men and of women. The stories of the workers and that of the miniscule Franco-American elite. The story of the typical industrial worker and the stories that don’t fit that mold. And there are the New England stories, and the Franco-American stories in other regions from New York state to the upper Midwest, to the Pacific Northwest. 

There are many stories, and some of them are bound to be contrasting and even contradictory. But it’s up to us to tell them. It’s up to us to redefine and represent this story that has faded from the national consciousness.

The alternatives are that this tale is mistold or that it vanishes forever. And I’m not willing to let my ancestors disappear without a fight.

I discussed these issues in an episode of the French-Canadian Legacy Podcast. I invite you to listen here.