John F. Kennedy’s short book A Nation of Immigrants was first published in 1958, then reissued to wide acclaim after Kennedy’s assassination. That bestseller’s valorization of the immigrant experience became a staple of academic instruction in the 1960s. But in my elementary school classes in the early ‘70s I couldn’t help noticing that the only immigrants I heard about were white. My sixth and seventh-grade history classes seemed to mostly consist of tracking the routes of European explorers and conquistadores, with not even a passing mention of slavery or the attempted annihilation of Native Americans.
Historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s Not “A Nation of Immigrants”: Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy, and a History of Erasure and Exclusion is here to counter the orthodoxy that has prevailed in the years since the publication of JFK’s essay. Dunbar-Ortiz has written a number of important books, including Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War (2005) and Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment (20018); on the back cover of this latest work, the author Ishmael Reed describes her as “a one-woman wrecking ball against the tower of lies erected by generations of official and television historians — people who make a living glorifying slave traders and exterminators of Native Americans.” She is also a meticulous researcher who consulted an impressive number of primary and secondary sources in putting together Not “A Nation of Immigrants”. Dunbar-Ortiz doesn’t pull any punches but her arguments are always firmly rooted in the historical record.