Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Brexit, Queen and Indy's immigrant communities

What is "Britishness" anyway?

Posted By on Tue, Jun 28, 2016 at 8:00 AM

  • Photo by Carl Lender via Wikimedia Commons
  • Freddie Mercury in New Haven, CT at a WPLR Show.

Last week the citizens of Great Britain voted to leave the European Union. I'll leave it to the pundits to debate the economic and political merits of this decision, but there is a cultural aspect of this split I feel compelled to address.

As I absorbed the reams of press coverage devoted to Brexit, there was one particular point of concern I heard repeatedly in interviews with numerous British citizens: A shared concern that the immigration policies of the EU were contributing to an erosion of the "Britishness" of British culture.

It's a concern I've heard echoed in here in Indiana, too. Over the last couple decades the state has experienced a surge in Latin-American immigration, and there's a deep fear among some Hoosiers that the newly arrived immigrant's inability or refusal to immediately assimilate to our local culture will somehow lead to the destruction of traditional American values.

This is an argument that I personally find ridiculous. And it's an argument that's been proven wrong many times over successive periods of migration occurring throughout the history of the United States.

And we only need to look back 100 years or so in our own city's history for proof. 

During the early 1900s, Indianapolis received a wave of immigrants from Central European countries like Slovenia, Hungary and Poland. They established themselves in large numbers within the Westside neighborhood of Haughville. They were able to create a livable atmosphere for themselves inside the confines of Haughville, but life outside the neighborhood could be hostile.

According to eye-witness stories collected by Shari Finnell for a May 9, 1999 Indianapolis Star article titled "The Way We Lived" European immigrants during the 1920s were taunted and even experienced violence for speaking in their native tongues outside of Haughville.

We might be tempted to look back and laugh at the ignorance of our Hoosier antecedents if we weren't seeing the similar xenophobic hostilities being applied to a new generation of immigrants as they work to build peaceful lives here in Indianapolis.

But I want to return to Great Britain, and Brexit supporters' concerns over the preservation of "Britishness.”

When I was a kid, there was no band bigger than Queen. Though I grew up long after the group's heyday, Queen were so enormously popular they cast an enormous shadow over music that continues to this day. In fact, according to a 2014 BBC report Queen's Greatest Hits album is the best selling record in UK history, topping even the Beatles, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.

While growing up, nothing on Earth seemed more British to me than the music of Queen. So I was a bit surprised when as an adult I learned that Queen's frontman Freddie Mercury was actually named Farrokh Bulsara. Mercury was born in the East African territory of Zanzibar in 1946. Mercury's family were Parsees, followers of the ancient Iranian prophet Zoroaster. Mercury was raised largely in Mumbai, India where he attended boarding school. And after graduating Mercury returned to Zanzibar, but political instability in the region prompted the family's migration to London in 1964. 

Six years later Mercury would form Queen, and the rest, of course, is history. 
I've covered Indiana's extraordinary immigrant music scene at length during my time at NUVO, and I can say without a doubt my life has been incalculably enriched by the experiences and friendships I've received within Indy's immigrant community.

Brexit has given citizens of the United States a chance to pause and reflect on the potential ramifications of the choices facing us this November. We can obsess over unfounded fears of immigrant culture corrupting our values, or we can focus on the immediate and tangible good immigrants bring to our community. 

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