This pencil sketch is copied from a photo of my great-great grandparents on my dad’s side of the family. I don’t know much about them or the picture. It seems to have been taken in a farmyard, so maybe it was done by an itinerant photographer. Great-great grandpap (GGP) appears to be quite a character with his elaborate mutton chops, dapper outfit and cigar. Great-great grandma (GGM) on the other hand has a more homespun look with a skirt made of a sturdy fabric and a scarf on her head.
What we don’t know about their life we can infer from history and tradition. I’m not sure exactly when they came to America but it would have been during the wave of immigration from eastern Europe. Given the clothing and the setting we can conclude that they weren’t among the rich or privileged. I don’t know if the farm was their main source of income or if GGP worked in a coal mine like so many other immigrants.
GGM and GGP were undoubtedly Catholic, given that their offspring for generations to come were devout members of the local parishes. GGM would have worn her babushka to church in keeping with the requirements for female head covering in the Catholic Church at that time.
In the 1800’s Catholic immigrants were held in contempt by the Protestant majority. They were suspected of trying to undermine the government with their loyalty to the Vatican. It wasn’t until after World War II and the election of John F. Kennedy as president in 1960 that the prejudice and violence began to diminish.
As I sketched I began to think about a photo I had taken of a Somali immigrant in a scarf shop at the Global Mall in Columbus as I was working on a project for the Columbus Council of World Affairs. There was a young immigrant girl in, not a babushka, but a hijab. How different was her situation? Not much. Getting by, not prospering. Enduring prejudice for her religion from those who don’t know very much about it.
I wanted to make that point so I created this pastel painting juxtaposing GGM with the Somali girl to enter into a show about peace at the Martin de Porres Center. I realize I won’t win a debate with anyone who has already decided that Muslims are a threat but I would at least like them to think about their own immigrant roots and the prejudice that our ancestors endured.