Saturday, July 5, 2008

Who are the Flemish-Americans?

The national anthem of the Flemish is "De Vlaamse Leeuw". The "Vlaamse Leeuw" stanza and refrain that hung in the Belgian Hall in Chicago from 1971 until its closing in the 1980s. This was created by Julian Baeckelandt (1904-1975), a Flemish immigrant from Koekelare, West Vlaanderen. We sang this anthem at the start of meetings.

Growing up Flemish-American in Chicago in the 1960s and 1970s was like growing up as some part of a soon-to-be extinct tribe. In Chicago's Catholic milieu of neighborhoods and ethnicities the defining questions when making a new aquaintance were "What [Catholic] parish are you from?" and "What nationality [=ethnicity/national heritage] are you?" Most Chicagoans slipped easily into the well-known categories: Irish, Italian, German, and Polish. Others fell into smaller groups that had ethnic cohesion and strong cultural identity as well: English, French, Croatians, etc. Few people in Chicago, however, knew then who the Flemish were or are.

My answers to those two above questions were easy for the first (since I was and am Catholic) but difficult for the second. Telling another grade school kid I was Flemish was akin to telling them I spoke Swahili: it existed outside the normative range of responses that another Chicagoan could anticipate and was the prelude either for a short history lesson or (as I got older) quick quips about Flemish painters or Trappist beer.

Provinces of Belgium

Flanders did not have its own state - it was and is the most populous region of a country more than 50 years younger than the U.S., Belgium. There was barely a Belgian history, and certainly no such thing as a Belgian language (the vast majority of Belgian citizens speak as their mother tongue the softer version of Dutch called Flemish). There was and are two distinct cultures and nationalities; Flemish and Walloons cobbled together in an artficial state. Like the Soviet Union, or other states where a determined minority imposed their will on the majority without their consent, Belgium was born in 1830 of a revolt by a French-speaking minority imposing their will over the majority Flemings.

My need to answer the second question more thoroughly has been part of a 40 year quest. In a tribal society like the late twentieth-century urban United States, knowing who you are is as important as knowing where you wish to go. It is critical not only for one’s self-development but as an aid to others in the tribal society to fit you into a construct that their universe can identify and classify. So who are the Flemish?

The Flemish - approximately 60% of the 10,584,534 inhabitants of the Kingdom of Belgium in 2007 as per Belgian government statistics - are in effect a nation without a country. Although recognized as a distinct "people" since at least the time of the establishment of the Count of Flanders (862 AD) and moreover, predating "France" by at least 100 years - the Capetian kings of the late 900s transferred their fief name of the Ile de France to the broader domain that expanded under their dominion - Flanders’ political sovereignity has only sporadically stood free . Flanders has been occupied by not only the French (1794-1815 - and throughout the pre-Burgundian period before 1477), but of course the Germans (1914-18; 1940-44), Spanish (1516-1712) and Austrians (1712-1794). An excellent timeline that reduces this complexity to a graphic timeline can be found here. The Kingdom of Belgium itself is an artificial construct that only dates to 1830 and was established primarily by a Francophone elite who imposed their will, apartheid-like, on the Flemish majority.

Today Flanders' sovereignity remains impeded, primarily by the artificial political dominance of the minority Walloons. That said, conditions for the oppressed Flemish majority have improved since the establishment of the Belgian state in 1830. No longer do Flemings have to worry that they can be charged, tried, and executed without recourse to their native language (such as 2 Flemish peasants charged, tried and executed in French without recourse), nor are Flemish soldiers given military orders in a foreign language (Flemish soldiers were still being jailed for this as late as 1930) nor have they been forbidden to attend higher education in their native language (again, this was not legally permitted until the middle of the 20th century). Flemish citizens could not even - in their own streets - see street signs in Flemish. Everything official was conducted in the language of the minority - French.

The 2000 US Census listed 348,531 people claiming "Belgian" ancestry (down from more than 380,000 in 1990). Less than 15,000 specifically listed "Flemish" as their ethnicity. A superficial reading of these numbers would lead the uninformed to believe that the number of Flemish-Americans is so small as to be meaningless. The reality is that Flemish-Americans - as defined by their origins in the Dutch-speaking regions of today's Belgium and France - are the majority. The vast majority of emmigrants as tracked by the Belgian government when debriefed before embarkation during the largest decade of Belgian emigration to America were from the Flemish provinces of East and West Flanders and Brabant.

As these late 19th and early 20th century Flemish immigrants established clubs and associations in the U.S. they chose names like "Familiekring" and the "Flemish American Club". Some Flemish immigrant clusters, such as the one in Chicago that was an important part of my family’s social life, glossed over the discrimination remaining in their homeland and called themselves a "Belgian-American Club".

But even then the inequalities of the past were not entirely forgotten. When the cornerstone of the Belgian-American Club of Chicago was laid in 1921 it carried the inscription that "All Belgians are Equal". (See the picture here
Historical citizenship - in this case the Belgian citizenship of Flemish ancestors - has in the minds of many of these immigrants' descendants become the proxy for ethnicity. Perhaps this is an unintended consequence of choosing club and association names that stressed the connection with Belgium – like the Belgian-American Club of Chicago . Likewise, within one or two generations outmarriage (to non-Flemish ethnicities) was the rule. Dilution of ethnicity was multiplied by a decision to choose which “nationality” one chooses to emphasize. Despite the fact that most Americans are mongrels (yours truly included) only 29% of all Americans claimed "multiple" ancestries in the last census (2000). Since very few Americans are truly of only one ethnicity, these figures represent self-perceptions more than they represent true genetic origins.

My point here then is that the census-takers’ official designation of “Flemish-American” is not accurately reflected in the statistics officially tallied. More to the point, self-descriptions may not mesh with ethnicities. In a later blog I will attempt to show that the number of Flemish-Americans is far, far greater than even the upper tally of Belgian-Americans recorded by census takers.

The picture to the left was a reception for King Albert in 1930 hosted by the Flemish Belgian-American community in Chicago.

In the interim, I can reccommend Herman Boel's comprehensive website of all things Flemish as a superb starting point to understand more about not only the origins of the Flemish but also the various facets of modern Flemish culture.