Last Saturday, I went to a Franco-American gathering that included artists, editors, archivists, and professors. (I’m sure I’ve left out a category or two.) Most of us were of Franco-American descent, but a few were non-Francos who are involved in the culture in one way or another. In Maine, around 30 percent of the population are descended from emigrants from France who made their way to Maine via Québec or the Maritimes.
A brief history of Franco-Americans for readers unfamiliar with Maine’s history: In the mid-1800s, when the Industrial Revolution was gearing up, factory workers were desperately needed in Maine. At the same time, Franco-Canadians needed work. Big Catholic families combined with a finite amount of arable land led to poverty and deprivation. Indeed, as I heard over the weekend, some families were so poor they could hardly afford to buy shoes for their children.
So down the Franco-Canadians came, to work in Maine mills. And they came and they came and they came. (Not only to Maine, but to other New England mill towns as well.) These emigrants brought their language—French—as well as their religion and other customs, including a preternatural urge for cleaning their houses, garages, and barns. Settling in mill towns and cities, the emigrants formed French quarters where French was the main language, and there were French newspapers and radio shows. Masses were said in French, and most of the children went to Catholic schools.
Sometime around the early 1900s, the dominant culture—the Anglo-Americans, the Yankees—began to get alarmed. Yes, they wanted workers, but there were so many of “the French,” who insisted on speaking their language and carrying on as though they were still in Québec, not in Maine. The Yankees embarked on an assimilation campaign, and like all such plans, it relied on intimidation, repression, and, at times, outright terror. The Ku Klux Klan was huge in Maine, and they marched against the Franco-Americans. French was not allowed to be spoken in schools unless it was in French class, where “good French” was taught. Unfortunately, the Yankees succeeded with their plans, and by the time my generation came along, few of us spoke French, and too many of us were only vaguely aware of our rich, cultural heritage. We knew we were the underdogs, but we weren’t exactly sure why this was the case.
Others—writers and scholars—were more aware of what happened, and as the past was examined, there came an overwhelming need to tell the Franco-American story, which had been suppressed for so long. This movement started sometime around the 1970s and is continuing into the 21st century. Writers and performers are examining what it means to be Franco-American. Courses are offered at the University of Maine at Orono that explore the history. And some writers, like me, use the Franco-American culture as a springing board in fiction. It is not the destination, it is who I am, and all things flow from this.
I will admit that as I came to terms with my own heritage—French for as far back as I can trace it—I went through an “angry Franco” period and was quite bitter about the whole Yankee repression thing. But one day, when I was sounding off to David Surrette, a very fine Franco-American poet from Massachusetts, he looked at me and said calmly, “It’s the way of the world, Laurie.”
This brought me up short, but I instantly knew he was right. This sort of thing is the way of the world, and Franco-Americans are hardly the only ethnic group to suffer repression. This acknowledgement doesn’t make it right—of course it doesn’t—but repression happens all around the world with various ethnic groups. Unfortunately, it’s part of the human condition. Humans form groups, and there is always a dominant group. This can happen in different ways, and right now in this country the 1 percent are doing their best to be in charge and to hoard resources.
I would also learn that France—the mother country, so to speak—hardly has a spotless record when it comes to exploitation, and countries in Africa are still dealing with their own legacy of French repression and colonization.
So on we go. We learn, we remember, and we make art. And, I hope, we forgive, although that is not always easy.
In the next post, I will describe some of that art and also the beautiful place—Darling Marine Center—where the gathering was held.