America: The Melting Pot
...Is It Still?

by Kathy Coogan

We call America The Melting Pot, one of those familiar phrases that has been around so long that its specific meaning has become fuzzy with repetition.

Is it possible that if this charmingly misunderstood phrase were coined today, that it would be considered politically incorrect? After generations of casual use has this cozy cliché evolved into a misnomer, become obsolete?

Melting Pot. Where did it come from? What exactly was melting in the pot? Who peeked under the lid and was drawn to make the comparison? A butcher, a baker or perhaps a candlestick maker?

The phrase was coined in the eighteenth century in the book Letters From an American Farmer. The author, a Frenchman named Crevecoeur, living in America, married to an American woman, believed that Americans constituted a new race of people. His conviction is demonstrated by his reference to himself as an American farmer, not French.

Melting Pot. The phrase is not Stew Pot, which suggests lots of goodies simmered together, while remaining whole, though flavored by the rest. The carrot is still a carrot, the potato a potato and that hunk of protein is still identifiable as meat.

The phrase is Melting Pot, in which the contents of the pot undergo a fundamental change when heat is applied. The contents dissolve, disperse or even disappear. Solid becomes liquid. Liquid becomes gas.

Why have we Americans grasped this phrase and made it so uniquely ours? It’s not particularly complimentary. It implies a loss of structure and order.

High school chemistry taught us that melting from solid to liquid to gas requires a loosening of what holds matter together. We see a shift from an orderly mass, like a perfectly square ice cube, to a liquid that requires a container to hold its shape, to the free-floating chaos of a gas which has no visible form at all.

The cozy adoption of this simple phrase over any other to describe our nation may signify some subconscious knowledge. In their deepest souls where love of country lies, the generations which preceded us must have known that melting in this pot changed them from one thing to something else entirely.

Without a conscious realization, they defined what America is. It is not just the sum of a pool, a pot, of separate people absorbing the accents, quirks and traditions of one another: a shamrock here, a bagel there, a dashiki over there.

Maintaining cultural identity is honored and expected but this place, this Melting Pot, this America, makes a people vastly different than those who never enter it. Like solid is different from liquid. The Irish of Dublin are not the Irish of New York City. The Arabs of Riyadh are not the Arabs of L.A. The Africans of Nairobi are not the Africans of Chicago.

The interaction of all of these foreign individuals within the tumult of this beloved pot creates a fundamental change in those individuals. The change occurs not by tightening the connections that hold us together but by loosening the bonds by which we are held.

Like the shift from solid to liquid under the influence of heat, the freedom encouraged within our borders encourages the Irish-or-Arab-or-African-Americans to become simply Americans. Contrary to the belief of some, the removal of the hyphenated prefix-of-origin enlarges both the individual and the group. It does not diminish them.

For most, immersion into this pot creates unavoidable changes. Freedom, like heat, is the non-selective catalyst for the conversion. Even when our differences wreak havoc on our peace of mind and our peaceful coexistence, Americans rarely choose to leave America. In contrast, immigration to this land from sea to shining sea is constantly sought, legally and illegally.

Occasionally an event occurs which reinforces the correctness of the phrase Melting Pot. A circumstance occurs that is so defining that no other cliché seems more appropriate to define our country. A horrible event it usually is which removes our daily petty differences and reinforces our singular identity.

Bombs at Pearl Harbor fell on Americans with roots in Limerick or London. Americans from Berlin to Botswana lost a youthful President in November, 1963. On September 11, 2001, American families with origins from Sydney to Sao Paolo joined hands, folded hands or raised hands in prayerful supplication.

Just as heat is needed to change solid to liquid, we individuals often need some cosmic chemistry to light the fire of unity under us. Under external stress our differences are minimized and our common essence is defined. Over time we have proven Mr. (no longer Monsieur) Crevecoeur’s compelling thesis that we are all Americans, a unique race of people forged in this singular Melting Pot.

What about our economy?

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