Notes on Assimilation

There is a passage in Democracy in America in which Tocqueville observes that in a mass of land spanning the width of the continent and extending from “the edge of the tropics” in the south to the “regions of ice” in the north, “the men scattered over this area do not constitute, as in Europe, shoots of the same stock.” On the contrary, “they reveal, from the first viewing, three naturally distinct, I might almost say hostile, races.” It was not simply the seeming incompatibility of the customs, origins, habits, memories, and laws — to say nothing of class positions — that separated the whites, blacks and Native Americans from one another: “even their external features had raised an almost insurmountable barrier between them.” This blunt observation prompts one of the book’s more striking asides, in which Tocqueville recounts pausing during his travels at the log cabin of a pioneer in Alabama, on the edge of Creek territory. Beside a spring he encounters a microcosm of American society in the nineteenth century: an Indian woman holding the hand of one whom he assumes to be the pioneer’s young daughter, followed by a black woman. The visual descriptions contain within them the two-pronged tragedy of the American experiment: “The Indian woman’s dress had a sort of wild luxury” that preserved and advertised what we would now call her totalizing alterity; “the Negro woman was dressed in tattered European clothes,” a simulacrum of the people who would never consent to accept her. Both women lavish attention on the five- or six-year-old white “Creole” girl, who already “displayed, in the slightest of her movements, a sense of superiority.” The Indian woman, in Tocqueville’s words, remained “free,” “proud,” and “almost fierce”; the black woman was “equally divided between an almost motherly tenderness and a slavish fear.”

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