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'Why We Left' Explores Reasons Behind Early English Immigration

November 18, 2013 1:34 p.m.

Guest

Joanna Brooks, Author, Why We Left: Untold Stories and Songs of America's First Immigrants

Related Story: 'Why We Left' Explores Reasons Behind Early English Immigration

Transcript:

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Next week we celebrate Thanksgiving and the arrival of the first European immigrants to America. The trip to the new world was very difficult. Many of the colonists died during early settlement. So the question arises, why did they come to America in the first place? The challenges and the answers it proposes a whole range of reasons for making the dangerous voyage including environmental damage and social injustice in Europe. I'd like to welcome my guest, Joanna Brooks is chair of Language and comparative literature at San Diego State University. Her book is called why we left, untold songs and stories of America's first immigrants. Joanna, welcome to the program.

JOANNA BROOKS: Thank you for having me.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It's pretty well documented that the pilgrims came to Massachusetts for religious freedom, to preserve the English cultural identity. Do you agree with that version of events?

JOANNA BROOKS: The vast majority of early English immigrants to America were not Britons, they were not motivated by religious purposes. They were peasants who had been displaced basically pushed everything when England was undergoing a massive economic transformation and my ancestors, we were the disposable people. We came unfree so stories we tell ourselves about America being {inaudible] really do not glimpse full the picture of why we left.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: As you mention this is in part a personal historical quest for you, right? Because your ancestors arrived as colonists way back then.

JOANNA BROOKS: My Brooks family ancestors came really pretty early probably 17th-century to Virginia and the Carolinas. They were peasants, they never got land never held onto and like many people simply sort of move from place to place until we found ourselves in California but yes my roots go back that they've been trying to square these very sunny stories about how immigrants were soaked forward thinking and saw great opportunity in America with the turkey tinges of my family history let me to the research question why did we leave.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Does the Brooks family have its own story?

JOANNA BROOKS: My uncle (Morton) used to say the Brooks came to America we were on the debtor's boat bound for Alabama but we need need and we drove it to come out of that is actually true. That is the story we tell ourselves but there's something in the spirit of the story that is true the Brooks actually came to Virginia and the Carolinas and did move across mainly overland migration from place to place never had planned moved hundreds of miles every generation not educated, very poor people these are the kind of people the great first-generation you like to tell ourselves that settled America and yet, they were not, they were very common in their lives are very difficult in the sense of progress and darkness stays with us and working American culture to this day.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering if the stories that your family tells teach you get any sense of how difficult it was and what kind of hardships they had to go through?

JOANNA BROOKS: So very few of us whose ancestors came that early have any kind of family memory that's one of the the fascinating things economic transformations and cultural changes happening in England that they should bust out district connection to the outlays, district connections to our families. We lost a lot of memory. We learned how to forget in order to survive in the New World in the tradition of forgetting of moving from place to place, of abandoning, that is the culture that called position created.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering what is the recent history is telling us about the early colonists?

JOANNA BROOKS: One of the big pieces of the story that I found digging into the archives track to find the story the early colonists were telling themselves there is massive environmental destruction in England in the 16th century and 17th century. If you report in England in the centuries your life wasted tore down the forest for housing, food, medicines, for everything. Two thirds of the land's old-growth oak forests were destroyed in the 17th and 18th centuries. For many reasons, part of it industrial but also partly to build these great Oaken warships that built the British Empire. Each of those ships required 100 acres of old-growth forests. That supported peasants. Forests were destroyed and where did we have to go why did we have to build we've been subsisting on as peasants for thousands of years we've been displaced. Our story is similar to that of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Environmental destruction displaces poor people and we became this landless unemployed mass roving this country and England was brutal, that the (inaudible) were branded, you could be beheaded for clipping coins, you can save customary practices poor people used to try to get by were criminalized so England would basically dispose of a vast underclass that they tried to criminalized by sending us here. So our stories are stories that are (inaudible) stories about betrayal their stories about inequality, they are not the sunny stories that we like to think of America as a place of hope and opportunity.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You found a lot of those stories, a lot of those clues in history through folksongs. Tell us a little bit about that.

JOANNA BROOKS: I'm a literary historian by training and one of the problems we have had to construct this era in American history is that so few poor people wrote. There are a handful of letters. The letters are quick, two days a week rather be back I'd rather lose my legs, I'd rather have my legs cut off and be back in England than stay here in America that's what some of them really estimate immigrants were saying such a slim body of writing we understand the stories the for migrants are telling themselves in the music. I found it now but not English folk ballads and these were songs that originated in England in the 17th century cross the ocean and became a part of the American folk cannon and I was astonished that so many of them actually reference the ocean crossing. The same with American history we have so few written documents about is preserved in the songs and songs are grim and the songs are about people making the ocean crossing to escape having murdered a brother, you know, losing their whole family, they are grim, they are dark tales.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We have a clip from a very early folk song that is performed by Pete Seeger and the name of the folk song is the Golden Vanity.

[Pete Seeger singing: “There was a lofty ship and she put out to sea and the name of this ship was the Golden vanity. As she sailed upon the low and lonesome low. As she sailed upon the low and lonesome see. She had not been out but two weeks or three. When she was overtaken by a Turkish reveille as she sailed upon the low and lonesome low as she sailed upon the low and lonesome.”]

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That is Pete Seeger performing the folks on Golden vanity these people got hijacked by pirates.

JOANNA BROOKS: This is an especially grim story actually the earliest versions it's about Walter Raleigh we think of him as the courtier who put his cape over the puddle for Queen Elizabeth. Actually poor people saw Walter Raleigh as a big jerk. The song relates a story of Walter Raleigh being on the open seas on a battle between Imperial pattern powers and telling the poor cabin boy to dive overboard and go on across to the rival craft and drill holes and the hull of the ship in sink and the little cabin boy does it and is very brave and Walter Raleigh says if you do this important work and sink the ship I'm going to give you land. The boy swims back and Walter Raleigh says I'm not letting you back on board, die in the ocean come at the end. Grim story. Chilling.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm interested, Joanna, you make the case that some of the hardships, some of these great reasons that people had to leave their homeland and the fact that they struggled and struggled when they got here in the New World come down to today in the way that a lot of families a lot of, of working-class people see their lives.

JOANNA BROOKS: You know the promised that were made only 7% of the 7% of people the promise land actually got it in the sense of broken promises the sense for getting of having to move from place to place of having to abandon your family because this is so cool way the modern world works, that has shaped American working class, white working class experience more than any of the lofty stories we have been told and told ourselves that America as a land of opportunity and realizing patties. Humbling American exceptionalism this idea that our nation is different from all others certainly this nation is special and distinct in many ways but when it comes down to it the note those ancestors can really team for the same reasons that people are coming today because we've been pushed out of places that are uninhabitable. Not because we had foresight or lock but because they were poor people driven about a place of history.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And as you say the standard idea is that people came to America in search of freedom. They came for economic opportunity they came for religious tolerance. All of these things must have played some factor immigration to America.

JOANNA BROOKS: For a small fraction of the earliest English immigrants these ideals blazed the way. But for my ancestors and by the vast majority of us who have last names like Brooks and Smith we came because we were poor and we had no options, we were pushed out.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You started to make the point and it is part of the way that your book is titled it refers to the early settlers as America's first immigrants. So what is that connection you think we should draw between the first immigrants and today's immigrants?

JOANNA BROOKS: First of all, stories about what happens when the economy changes and impacts human life are the same whether you come from Europe, Asia whether you are indigenous person in the Americas or indigenous person in Africa a lot of what is sold to us as economic progress actually entails a lot of personal catastrophes and it is humbling to look at that you know what seems like progress leaves a lot of discussion, destruction in its wake. You know we've done pretty well in America all of us who are lucky to come here but there is profound brokenness in her connection to original cultures, to the idea of a homeland, where we are from there is a sense of loss and the callousness in modernization in our culture that remains with us today.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: When you were researching this book did you expect to find some of these things or did you expect to find a validation of life the standard historical reasons that people say that people decided to come to America?

JOANNA BROOKS: I think most of us have a that sense that sometimes the stories were told about history are rosier than they deserve to be. But even after having studied early American culture for decades as a professional scholar I was stunned with a picture came into such clearly for how much environmental destruction there was, how much does the patient was in English, England have the entire class of disposable people that English created in an attempt to get ahead to become a modern economic power. So I was disturbed by what I found even having made a living of study.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This probably holds true for a lot of the waves of immigration that America has welcomed over the years.

JOANNA BROOKS: Oh sure and that is one of the important stories of why they left is if you are descended from some of the earliest colonists you enjoyed a bit of privilege you thought of yourself my ancestors they were so smart, they got here early.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: The daughters of the American Revolution, for heaven sake.

JOANNA BROOKS: The truth is our ancestors came here because they were poor people and like anyone else they had limited information they came un-free they sold themselves to come the promises made to them more often not delivered on, a quarter and half died the first year here in the Americas and you know we should be humbled by that realizing that their history is also one of broken promises.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right, and if you didn't have to leave you probably didn't leave.

JOANNA BROOKS: That's right.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me tell everyone, Joanna Brooks will be speaking about her book why we left untold songs and stories of America's first immigrants that is tonight at 630 at the downtown San Diego central library. And Joanna I want to thank you so much for coming in and speaking with us.

JOANNA BROOKS: Thank you for having me.


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