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Ernest Hebert

Most of us are 'mutts' in one way or another

By Ernest Hebert
December 8, 2008
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WHEN President-elect Barack Obama talked about what kind of dog to get for his daughters, one of the possibilities was, "A mutt like me."

Obama's words threw me into the past. I was thinking about something my mother smacked me with on her death bed. I'll get to that in a minute.

I grew up in Keene, N.H., with a French-Canadian background. I didn't even speak English until I was 5, after I started kindergarten.

In the summer of 1958 when I turned 17, I worked at my father's factory. For fun, my dad learned from his co-workers to count to 10 in German, Lithuanian, Polish, Greek, and Italian. He taught them to count to 10 in French. It wasn't France French exactly, more like New England Franco-American patois - uh, duh, twah, caht, saynk, siss, set, wit, nuf, dziss.

If your people were not recent immigrants, you were a Yankee. Nobody identified themselves strictly as American. In print one might be referred to as, say, a Polish-American. In vernacular conversation, you were Polish. And, of course, there were ethnic and racial slurs best not repeated here. In polite company, black people were negroes. I remember only one negro man in Keene - George Miller, manager of the Latchis Theatre. In those days, young boys addressed men as Mister, but we called George Miller George. He's long since departed, and I hope wherever he wound up they're calling him Mr. Miller.

Hebert is one of the oldest North American names from Old Europe. My ancestors arrived from France in Acadia, what is now Nova Scotia, in 1632. Though the Heberts have been in North America ever since, I grew up believing I was French. It was the same with my friends. My pal Billy Sullivan was Irish, though neither he nor his immediate relatives had been to Ireland. Your last name gave you your identity.

I thought of myself as 100 percent French until my teens when I learned that my great-grandfather on my mother's side had landed in Canada via Italy. Then my father told me that one of his grandparents was English. OK, so now I was French, English, and Italian.

Years later, my distant cousin Connie Hamel Hebert did a genealogy of the Heberts. Among the French names I came across a Cormac MacDonald, a Scotsman. My mother dropped the big bomb on her death bed. Her grandmother was a Native American.

She was ashamed of her mixed heritage, but in the end she felt the need to purge herself by confessing to me, her eldest son. So here I am Mom - French, Italian, Scottish, English, Native and who knows what else. In my heart I'm American as apple pie, pizza, tacos, Big Macs, Fenway Franks, and Habitant pea soup.

For a while I thought the old prejudices had disappeared, that the succeeding generations could call themselves Americans without hesitation. I was wrong.

When I directed a Dartmouth College foreign studies program at a university in Scotland, some students referred to themselves by their ancestral roots, sometimes with "American" tagged onto the end of a hyphen, sometimes not. I also taught Scottish students. They had no identity problems. They were always Scots.

Recently, one of my students at Dartmouth, a spectacularly beautiful young woman with a Jewish father and a Chinese mother, wrote about going to a Chinese restaurant with the Chinese side of her family. The server brought her a knife and fork and everyone else chopsticks.

The experience was a punch to her solar plexus. Like many young people, she felt she had to choose which part of herself to identify with.

I want to tell my student to get over it. Most of us in America, like our elected president, are mutts of one kind or another, but I doubt we're ready to accept a mutt president and a mutt identity for ourselves. Barack Obama will always be known as the first black president, not black-white president. In my own mind and in the minds of my acquaintances, I'll always be French. Que Dieu benisse l'Amerique.

Ernest Hebert is a professor of English at Dartmouth College and the author of 10 books.

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