London – Eleven months and eleven days ago I moved from Kansas City, Missouri, USA to London, England. Eleven months and eleven days ago I left home and went on a great adventure that has forever changed the way I see myself, and the world. In the past I have said that one of the best ways to begin to know oneself is to understand the places from whence one comes. And, while time away has given me a greater appreciation for all the trappings and comfort of home, it has also given me the chance to explore some of the places from whence my own ancestors came: particularly in Ireland, in England, and in Finland.
As a historian, but perhaps more importantly as an American, this was a rare opportunity that very few of my fellow countrymen could ever hope to achieve. On the last Friday of May 2016, I quite possibly became the first descendant of my third great-grandparents, Juho Heikki and Anna Sophia Kuivaniemi, to return to their hometown of Rauma, Finland since 1879. On the other hand, I followed in the footsteps of my grandparents and was able to walk the roads and visit the town of Newport, County Mayo where my grandfather’s parents were born, and visit the nearby cemetery at Burrishoole Friary where the ancestors of so many of my relatives are buried. So many names from America are carved into those tombstones, yet here on the shores of Clew Bay they are in their original setting.
Yet perhaps most importantly over the past year I have had my beliefs, my understandings, my very philosophy of life and nature challenged time and again by friends and colleagues alike. I am eternally grateful to them all for those discussions, for those opportunities to think anew, opportunities which one day will lead me to act anew. Those beliefs, those views of mine which held water remain, while others have been left by the wayside, abandoned after much debate and discussion. I hope I am all the wiser for the people that I have met, and the great friendships that have been forged. We come from such different corners of the world, with different backgrounds, different views, different languages, yet respect abounds amongst us far more than contempt.
Next week I will at long last be returning home, to Kansas City, Missouri, in the heartland of the United States. I will return to the heat and humidity, and the allergies. Yet I will also be returning to my family, to many friends old and young. I am excited to be coming home once again, and looking forward to being surrounded by all those familiar things, sights, sounds, and smells. I did not realise it until I had been away, that even the softest sensory detail can be missed. Whether it be the sound of the wind whirling through the branches of the trees, or the familiar voices on NPR’s All Things Considered set to the backdrop of Kansas City at sunset, its streets filled with cars heading to and fro. In London I found that on winter nights, when the sky was clear and the street lamps glowed in a distinctly mechanical way, I missed hearing the familiar voice of Kai Ryssdal on Marketplace coming over the radio as I’d often hear at a similar time of night back home.
Yet I return to a country on edge, a country that has seen so much anguish, so much anger, and so much fear over the last year. The signs have been about for a while now. Since President Obama was elected in 2008 nearly every racist, closeted or not, has come out of the woodwork and ensured that the rest of us would have to hear their nonsensical cacophony rattling on. We could ignore racism as the rantings of the mad if it were not for the reality that words plant seeds, seeds sprout actions. Once again, around the world bigotry seems to be in fashion like it was in the 1920s and 1930s. There is always someone available for people to hate or fear. As Woody Allen put it in a recent interview with Catherine Shoard of The Guardian,
It’s in the nature of people to have someone to scapegoat. If there were no Jews in the world they would take it out on blacks. If no blacks, they’d move over to Catholics. No Catholics? Something else. Finally, if everyone is exactly the same, the left-handed people would start killing the right-handed people. You just need an other [on whom] to vent your hostility and frustration.
I know that bigotry has been around for a long time, and probably will still be around long after I’m dead, but I honestly did not really experience it until when I was at least around thirteen or fourteen. I remember some of the boys at school using the word Jew as an insult, which didn’t make sense to me, as I had always gotten along well with my Jewish friends and neighbours. I also never really had anything against African Americans, but after years of hearing from my classmates and friends that “Troost was dangerous,” I was less willing to go to the African American neighbourhoods east of Troost Avenue in Kansas City, MO. Subconsciously or not, I was accepting a racist ideology that I consciously abhorred.
Perhaps the best example of my reaction to bigotry comes from a strange experience that I had when I was fourteen, where an individual who I was working with at the time told me to my face, “I don’t like Catholics” knowing very well that I was a Catholic. I was shocked by this, not necessarily because he was saying that he didn’t like me because of my religion, but more so because his dislike for Catholics simply didn’t make any sense. Over the years as I have been exposed to a variety of opinions and ideas, and I have found myself adopting some similar views, whether it be a dislike for one particular nationality, or religion, or political philosophy, or a preference for a particular country over another. Yet each of these blanket opinions have been swiftly overturned as soon as I have met someone who fits into one of those categories.
How can I say that I hate someone or fear someone simply based upon their nationality, religion, politics, or even based upon the colour of their skin? It makes no sense. Bigotry of all kinds makes absolutely no sense!
I am proud of who I am. I am proud to be Seán Thomas Kane, or Seán mac Tómas Ó Catháin as it is in Irish. I am proud to have been born in Chicagoland, and to have lived most of my life in Kansas City. I am proud to be my parents’ son, and my grandparents’ grandchild, a nephew of my aunts and uncles, a cousin of my cousins, godson of my godparents, and a friend to all my friends. I am proud to be of Irish, English, Welsh, Finnish, Swedish, and Flemish descent. I am proud to be an American citizen. I am proud to have been a resident of the City of London for the past eleven months and eleven days. I am proud to be a historian, a writer, a filmmaker, an occasional musician and sketch artist. I am proud to be a Catholic.
But beyond all of these categories and more within which I fit, I am most proud, and most humbled to be human. We are all unique, we are all different, yes, as the crowd shouted up to Brian, “We are all individuals!” But most important of all is that we are all human. If we consider less what separates us and more what we have in common then surely we will be nicer to each other, and have better lives. If those in my country screaming against immigrants, African Americans, Muslims, Latinos, and all others considered what they have in common with the rest of us then surely they would think twice about their words and actions.
I am not proposing any sort of edifiable change, any sort of reform for our prisons, our city planning, our law codes, or our schools, all that will come next. What I am proposing is the essential necessity for any reform to happen. We must have a change of heart. We are all human.