On the failure of roots and the strength of weak ties

Regine O. Jackson, Assistant Professor,
Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts

Vol. 9 No. 4
February/March 2007

Return to Contents

Drugs and Money
Pharmaceutical companies, academic medicine, and the flow of funds and favors

Reviewing conflict-of-interest policies

Funds flowing in

"We accept money because we need to do clinical trials, and that's where the rubber meets the road in this conflict-of-interest business."

"I'm not under any illusion that [drug companies] give money for the sake of neuroscience. They won't do a study if the potential is there for the outcome to have a negative impact on marketing."


Bringing the Big Questions to the Community
Re-imagining the Gustafson Seminar

Multiversity or University?
Pursuing competing goods simultaneously

On the failure of roots and the strength of weak ties



On Sunday, 25 June 2006, heavy rain and wind brought down an American elm that has flanked the right side of the White House since Theodore Roosevelt’s administration. The 102-year-old tree was only about forty-five in human years; the species, when healthy, can live close to two hundred years. Despite the centrality of the elm in the American cultural landscape, there was not much media coverage. A 577-word Washington Post story (“Downpour Uproots History” 27 June 2006) highlighted the yellow tape that marked the site as if it were a crime scene but focused on the question of whether the tree that fell was the one depicted on the back of the twenty dollar bill. The president’s critics were quick to point to the arboreal tragedy as symbolic of Mother Nature’s disapproval of Bush’s poor environmental consciousness and his doubts about global warming. But from a specialist’s perspective, the roots of a downed sixty-one-foot-tall tree are apparently not that deep. The soil was waterlogged and therefore could no longer support the tree; so when the wind pushed the tree, the roots slipped downwards on one side, upwards on the other, and the whole tree toppled over across the driveway. End of story. Or as one MSNBC blogger, “Leslie” of East Texas, explained in economical Haiku style: “Too much rain soil moves tree falls” (The Daily Nightly, 27 June 2006).

The simplicity of it all was no relief. That same day the Medlock Area Neighborhood Association picnic and pool party was rained out, and I was reminded of the tree that fell on my own house the previous year. In the wake of Hurricane Cindy, our backyard sylvan retreat suddenly turned hazardous. Our loss was minor relative to both the size of the historic tree at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and the devastation that took place in the Gulf Coast a few months later. Still, driving around the neighborhood that summer I was astounded by the sight of the mature trees—the same ones that had lured us away from newer housing developments—upended, roots exposed. Wind gusts still send me underground.

I was preparing to teach an American studies Freshman Seminar on immigration and American culture, so I could not help associating these uprootings to the work that I do on Haitian immigrants in Boston and the communities of the Haitian diaspora, more generally. Arboricultural concepts like “soil failure” and “wind throw” became metaphors for the failure of the Haitian state and the torrent of mass migration; references to weakening root systems and the top-heavy upper bodies of trees inspired pages of notes on the deterioration of Haiti’s national sovereignty and the danger of concentrating resources and power at the top. With green tea-induced conviction, I scribbled on a napkin, “diasporic communities are like the ‘reaction wood’ that grows in places on trees as a support in perilous environmental conditions.” None of this made it into the manuscript I am drafting, and the eight first-year students enrolled in my class were similarly spared.

Although the depiction of migrants as “uprooted” is central in the field of American immigration, the origins and context of contemporary migration are good reasons to rethink the nature of displacement and adjustment. Recent scholarship suggests that perhaps the metaphor/title of Oscar Handlin’s classic immigration history captured what analysts of his day thought should happen, rather than what actually did happen. Cultural roots, national identities were actually quite strong then and are even stronger among contemporary migrants because of new transportation and communication technologies. Where Handlin argued that the institutions immigrants held most dear—religion, family, and tradition—were destroyed or rendered irrelevant, John Bodnar (1985) countered that many traditions were, in fact, transplanted and marshaled when American influences seemed threatening. Similarly, the work of Alex Haley called into the question the irredeemable uprootedness of the descendants of enslaved African-Americans. The publication and subsequent television serialization of Roots made narratives of origin and descent, for the first time, available to all Americans. Even the concept of diaspora, which claims to be a way to rethink national community, an alternative to the essentialization of belonging, relies on notions of home and rootedness. In this context, the image of deracinated Haitian émigrés seems too uncomplicated.

What the White House elm falling helped me better understand was the nature of roots, their potential for failure and their strength. Following Mark Granovetter’s thesis about the “strength of weak ties”—that acquaintances with people who control valuable resources are powerful associations—my research shows that race is also a weak tie. In terms of representational strategies, being an immigrant Catholic or a “Boston Haitian” may be more important than the strong ties of nationality and racial sameness. It is not that roots don’t matter at all, but race and nationality as essential binds in terms of relationships and affinities are not what they appear to be.