“Who is the Nation?”—or, “Did Cleopatra Have Red Hair?”: A Patriotic Discourse on Diversity, Nationality, and Race

“Who is the Nation?”—or, “Did Cleopatra Have Red Hair?”: A Patriotic Discourse on Diversity, Nationality, and Race – Critical Essay

John J. Bukowczyk

[M]en of the sturdy stocks of the North of Europe had made up the main stream of foreign blood which was every year added to the vital working force of the country…. But now there came multitudes of men of the lowest class from the south of Italy and men of the meaner sort out of Hungary and Poland, men out of the ranks where there was neither skill nor energy nor any initiative or quick intelligence; and they came in numbers which increased from year to year, as if the countries of the south of Europe were disburdening themselves of the more sordid and hapless elements of their population.

–Woodrow Wilson (1901)

Critical and historical works by Werner Sollors, Priscilla Wald, Ronald Takaki, Thomas Gladsky, Matthew Jacobson, Anne Goldman, and other writers have underscored the complicated interplay of symbol, myth, ideology, and politics in the formation and evolution of ethnic and national identities in modern times.(1) In the United States, in particular, the murky, tangled question, “Who is the Nation?” has underlain political and cultural debates since the Revolutionary War era, implicating the nation’s early survival. Paradoxically, even as survival of the nation through a second war with England saw the wedding of a transformative republicanism to American nationality, American patriot-citizens confronted a succession of challenges to national identity during the antebellum period. Later, debate over the question “Who is the Nation?” intensified as America experienced sectional crisis and Civil War, largescale internal migration and foreign immigration, the repercussions of European imperialism and expansionism abroad, and, at home, the rise of political and social movements in the twentieth century that empowered American workers, women, African Americans, and other ethnic and social minorities.

In our own day, such debates about identity and nationality, which have pervaded ethnic literature, continue, coming now to involve the meaning of ethnicity and citizenship, multiculturalism and “belonging” in contemporary American society. But they touch (as perhaps they always and fundamentally have touched) another aspect of “nationhood” that, if one might recall the great work of that great Pole (or was he “English”–by dint of language and cultural “adoption”?), Conrad-Korzeniowski, is the “heart of darkness” of ethnicity and nationality. This “heart of darkness” is the problem of “race.”

Like many other writers, scholars, and critics who have ventured into this thicket, I too approach this subject personally–specifically, as a white man, a social historian, and a political progressive. But I also mean to approach from a perspective largely absent from the intellectual and critical discourse comprising America’s so-called “culture wars.” I do so as an antiracist “white ethnic American” and, specifically, a Polish-American, who recognizes both patriotism and “ethnicity” as contestable cultural and political terrain. As this perspective is avowedly personal, idiosyncratic, and perhaps iconoclastic, it also aims, like many challenging routes to difficult destinations, to approach this “heart of darkness” a bit circuitously, by considering a small vignette that comes from a recent class at a large urban, public university.(2) The topic of the day by now has slipped from memory, but not so this brief episode. After class, one student asked the rather disarming and seemingly disconnected question: “Did Cleopatra have red hair?”

Even without a “factual” answer to this curious question, one can find plausible, even clever responses embedded in various disciplinary discourses and literary traditions. One might pose another question by turn, for example: in the historical and literary sources, what might the word “red” have signified? This question, of course, raises methodological and epistemological issues recognizing the complexity of language and of words. The word “red,” for example, might serve as a metaphor that assigns moral value to its wearer; in contemporary American culture, after all, “red” is the color of lust, of valor, of revolution, and of danger. Thus described, Cleopatra’s hair joins the company of scarlet letters, red badges of courage, Bolshevik banners, “redskins,” red death, and stop signs.

Descriptors, like the adjective red, likewise might not describe the color of a thing itself but the situationally specific and transitory appearance of a thing. Red sails in the sunset, for example, result from the reflection of light emanating from a source other than the object itself and the effect of light passing through (and “combining with”) the native color of a thing. Thus the sails, like a mirror, are not red (though red light might bounce from their surface), nor is light from the setting sun, re&acted through moisture and dust in the “red” sky at night (the sky from which sailors take warning) literally “red” in its native hue. The “red” of Cleopatra’s hair might have been, like the redness of the sails, an epiphenomenon.

Nonetheless, these responses fail to address a more fundamental issue: why did the color of Cleopatra’s hair matter to the student who asked this question? Apparently it did matter in subtle and complicated ways. This student’s real if encoded question all along was this: was Cleopatra a Black African? Without trying, the question evokes a short story with kindred sensibilities, Langston Hughes’s “Red-Headed Baby” (116-128). As Hughes had used red as a race marker, the student questioner also was asking about Cleopatra’s “race.”

The student’s question, which sought an answer that might have rooted Cleopatra in Black Africa, appears as one example of the growing interest, particularly among some African Americans, in proving Africa as the progenitor of “Western” civilization and, withal, emphasizing the value and achievements of African civilization.(3) Of this and other such efforts, I would offer two preliminary observations. Firstly, assertions of African accomplishments, whether accurate, understated, or exaggerated, have served a profound ideological, political, and probably psychological function: they have tried to counter racist Western stereotypes that have depicted Africa as the benighted “darkest continent” and Black Africans as ignorant savages.(4) One should take pains to add that these and other anti-Black stereotypes have remained a feature of American literature, scholarship, and popular culture throughout much, perhaps most, of the twentieth century (Pieterse).

Secondly, like the African American authors of these expressions, Polish-American writers, particularly the makers of antiquarian and popular historical literature, for similar reasons also have expended considerable energy in touting the achievements of Poles in, as immigrant oldtimers used to say, the “old country.”(5) Among many other reasons, they have done so because, like African Americans, Polish immigrants and their descendants–as well, other immigrant peoples from Eastern, Southern, and Central Europe and from other parts of the world–also have encountered racist stereotypes that have depicted them, too, as inferior beings (Horsman).

Leaving the African Americans aside for the moment and considering the claims of the Polish-Americans, with which I am personally and professionally more familiar, one can identify two strands of what we might call Polonian filiopietism, for it is the word “filiopietism”–the uncritical and often exaggerated pride in one’s ethnicity–that aptly characterizes both African American and Polish-American preoccupation with the achievements of their respective ancestors in their respective native lands.

Presaging the African American theme of Africa as cradle of Western civilization, the first strand emphasizes Polish contributions to and participation in the Western Christian (and, more specifically, Roman Catholic) tradition, prominent themes in the “great” Polish novels by Henryk Sienkiewicz and Wladyslaw Reymont but also especially the writings of Poland’s nineteenth-century messianists, Adam Mickiewicz, Julius Slowacki, and Zygmunt Krasinski. This strand of what might be called “religious” ethnic filiopietism identifies medieval Poland’s birth as a nation with its conversion to Christianity (966 A.D.) and emphasizes the country’s historic role as the “knight among nations” (Van Norman), the bulwark of Western Christianity against its Tartar, Turk, or Muscovite foes from a barbaric East. The apotheosis of this strand of religious filiopietism accordingly was Sobieski’s famous relief of Vienna in 1683 which lifted the Turkish siege and turned back Ottoman expansion in southeastern Europe; and the commemoration of this exploit has loomed large in Polonian filiopietist iconography. In this genre, too, of course, one also should mention the defeat of the Bolshevik army on the outskirts of Warsaw in 1920–the famed “Miracle on the Wistula” (Cud Wisly); and, by extension, one probably now also should include in this category the rise of the Solidarity movement (Solidarnosc)–personified in the form of Solidarity leader Lech Walesa who characteristically wore an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary on a lapel pin–which transformed Poland into a great Trojan horse that, it might be argued, can take credit (or blame), more than any other single political cause, for toppling the Soviet system. It is true that both of these last two examples, strictly speaking, are less “religious” than “ideological” in nature; but it might be argued that, as Communism itself sometimes has been portrayed as a type of (Godless) religion, anti-Communism too has evinced the character of a religious crusade and, therefore, that both examples are not badly out of place in this category.(6)

Such ethnic filiopietism of this religious/ideological nature advances claims to a oneness with a normative universal. In this constellation, Sobieski, Hailer, and Walesa signify Polish and American oneness in a transnational common cause; and invoking them, in literary venues and otherwise, seeks to raise Polish-American social standing by turn. All the more so in the case of Byron and Mickiewicz, whose lives embodied their art and politics and whose martyrdom in Liberty’s cause in foreign climes recalled the romantic and universalistic ideals of Europe’s so-called “Springtime of Nations” when the “rights of man” echoed from Philadelphia to St. Petersburg and when Paine, Garibaldi, Kosciuszko, Kossuth, and Bolivar, metaphorically speaking, fought side by side as comrades in arms. In this mode, filiopietism of the religious/ideological genre can be seen to have commingled transatlantic patriotic, democratic, and evangelical themes which, at first glance, may seem to have transcended the confines of “nation” and “race.” Did not Paine, after all, remark: “My country is the world”?

Paradoxically, the deployment of such universalist themes also underscores the salience of religion and ideology in historically defining the social boundaries of nations and thereby conferring or denying social status to persons living within the physical boundaries of nation-states. Though putatively universalist, the romantic nationalism of the “age of revolution,” so trenchantly explored by historian Eric Hobsbawm, also celebrated the particularistic cultural but also racial core of aspirant peoples. The universals embedded in the age’s revolutionary ideology, which their respective nationalisms embraced, were not extended to all persons or all peoples. In France, the progenitor of the “rights of man,” revolutionary officials clapped Paine himself in jail; while Napoleonic soldiers tried to crush Toussaint L’Ouverture’s Haitian revolution. For post-Revolutionary Americans, the conquest and triumph of “Manifest Destiny” became the practical articulation of their own “universalist” nation which, in fact, most of them and their descendants defined as white and Christian (specifically, Protestant), through the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and, in the country’s more recent past, as anti-Communist as well.

“Universalistic” religion and ideology have been stern gatekeepers over membership in the American nation, and terrible outrages have been committed in their name throughout the history of this land, from the Salem witchcraft trials in seventeenth-century Massachusetts to the Red Scare and blacklists of the twentieth century. And if some contemporary demagogues could have their way, still greater outrages, in the name of religion and ideology, may yet anneal the American nation’s body-politic.(7) Even so, by themselves, religion and ideology remained porous barriers to “the nation,” a point aptly perceived by the religious/ideological filiopietists in Polonia and other immigrant communities as they sought a place for themselves in the United States. If they did not already have points of ideological concourse with America, their attitudes and beliefs could change or be changed. Some nativists seemed to concur. James Russell Lowell, while strolling through the Boston Public Garden in the late 1880s, for example, may have felt dismay when he overheard two Irish immigrants who failed to recognize a prominent public monument as a statue of George Washington; but the Irish eventually learned the civic import of Washington as, in turn, so would the Italians, Jews, Greeks, and Poles (Solomon 53). Thus developed an Americanization movement in the 1910s and 1920s, one which many immigrants themselves enthusiastically embraced.

However great a toll such “Americanization” might have exacted on freedom of conscience, it did offer an avenue to membership in “the nation”–via assimilation or, as one might say metaphorically, “conversion” experience. By contrast, immigrants discovered that other, less porous barriers were more considerable roadblocks which, in the manner of predestination, seemed to separate the damned from “the elect.” The universalist potential of ideology (or religion) ultimately was defeated precisely because of the latter’s presumptive racial content all along, as well, the tacit racial content of “the nation”–from the nineteenth-century Manifest Destiny policies of expansion and oversees empire-building to the anti-Communism of the 1950s and early 1960s (wherein now Chinese Communists were racially demonized in such popular evocations as the novel-cum-films, The Manchurian Candidate and Pork Chop Hill). The omnipresence of race as social category, I would argue, yields up a rationale for what earlier I termed a second strand of Polonian filiopietism, one which, for want of a better word, might be called “secular” but which perhaps should be termed “essential,” “genetic,” or even “racial.”

The secular (essential/genetic/racial) strand of Polonian filiopietism shares most in common with those attempts by African Americans to celebrate the glories of African civilization. Both respond to racism in American society, but they do so in a way which differs from the religious/ideological filiopietistic strand. In response to racist stereotypes that impugned, for example, the intelligence of members of the Polish “race,” Polonia’s secular filiopietists now catalogued examples of Polish accomplishments in the various scientific and learned disciplines. The apotheosis of this genre were references to the work of the Polish astronomer Copernicus, whom they took pains to call, in Polish, Kopernik. But they also recalled the time when the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was the largest state in Europe and cited more recent Polish scientific achievements, like the discovery of radium by Marie Sklodowska-Curie. Together, these examples aimed to demonstrate the talent and glory of the Polish “race” and thereby to loft the social standing of individual Americans of Polish “racial” (or, as most Americans now would say, “ethnic”) background vis-a-vis self-styled “higher” races here.

Such racial filiopietism recognized the racial content of anti-immigrant nativism and the salience of race to hegemonic conceptions of American nationhood, conceptions which saw an America divided between “white men and foreigners” (Bukowczyk, “Transformation” 69). This formulation, it might be noted in passing, omits (among others) both African Americans and women (except insofar as the term “men” included women) from “the nation.” The racial content of these conceptions of the American nation one could say invoked but certainly at least invited racial filiopietism on the part of white ethnic Americans like the Poles. That such expressions of racial filiopietism among the latter have continued to this day–as in the surge of “ethnic” pride in the election of a Polish pope–may suggest that such racial content (privileging certain Northwestern European “races”) still pervades conceptions of who is the American nation, or that Polish Americans at least have perceived this to be the case. Such ethnic filiopietism–and the attendant formulation of “ethnicity” as having an essential, defining “racial” content (an element it acquired at least since the Romantic era)–arguably have offered Polish-Americans and other members of various ethnic diasporas a sense of group cohesiveness and membership that has operated, as it were, like family ties “of blood”–primordial, non-rational, and indissoluble.(8)

Yet, while racial filiopietism recognized the racial content of anti-immigrant nativism and appreciated that immigrants could advance their individual social standing by raising the social standing of their respective “races,” it failed to recognize the salience of “race” to exclusionary, hegemonic conceptions of American nationhood and nationality, which is to say, that America was white, Christian, northwestern European by definition. In short, it failed to recognize that the United States was a “racial nation”; in the same manner, it has been argued, that “nation” as a concept has been a racial formulation in other national contexts (Balibar 37-67; Gilroy 43-71; Manzo 1-69). If, when, and to whatever extent this has been the case, while racial filiopietisms thus might enhance the social standing of ethnic groups like the Poles, they could not afford them entree to the “racial nation” because of the immutability and indissolubility of “race” as conceived of in genetic or biological terms, that is to say, as a matter of “blood.” Here, as well, certain old saws, rendered in the popular vernacular, come to mind: “A rose is a rose …,” “What’s bred in the bone …,” “A leopard cannot change its spots,” etc.

When ethnic Americans, Poles among them, did indeed confront the racial nature of the American nation (which privileged Anglo and later some other northwestern European “racial” ancestries), they embarked upon what amounted to a tacit campaign to change the concept of “nation” in America, to “de-racialize” that concept. Here one might discount the metaphor of America as “melting pot,” taken from the title of the 1908 play by the English Jewish writer Israel Zangwill, since the largely endogamous marriage patterns of the time indicated no such amalgamation of America’s “races” had taken or was taking place.(9) It is hard, from the perspective of hindsight, to imagine that many Poles or most other “ethnic” Americans gave much credence to the melting pot image, although a few more probably held it out as a possibility if defined in cultural terms. Moreover, given the persistent interest in ethnic group “survival” (with its racial overtones), it is not so likely that most ethnic group members would have sought intermarriage (and, by turn, amalgamation) as the longterm solution to the problem of the racial nation.

Clearly, the “problem” of race has been hydra-headed, and America’s ethnic hydra wished a solution wherein it might “have its cake and eat it too.” This solution came in the form of “cultural pluralism,” a formula for incorporating ethnic groups into an America that would receive them as groups, rather like tiles in a mosaic, stressing not race, but ethnic cultures. Horace Kallen, the Harvard philosopher (himself Jewish), coined this term in the 1920s and, with it, launched cultural pluralism as a movement (Kallen); but cultural pluralism had other prominent proponents including Louis Adamic, the Slovenian-American writer, and in more recent times social scientists like Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. No specialized study of the subject yet exists, but there is no reason to think that Polish-Americans did not embrace this conception of the American nation as warmly as other ethnic groups. Yet, even while doing so, neither Poles nor other white ethnic Americans (with a few exceptions),(10) seem to have evinced very much interest in each other’s groups and their respective claims for a place in American society. Nor, arguably, did they evince virtually any interest in African American claims for such a place. As a consequence, these white ethnic groups, Poles among them, accepted, even as they helped to re-delineate, the American nation’s irreducible racial divide: the color line.

In hindsight, both were the truly tragic flaws in the practice of cultural pluralism; but the latter, in particular, made easier, probably even prepared the ground for, another change in the concept of the American nation, one that aimed this time not to de-racialize it, but to re-racialize it, that is to say, not to reject but to redefine the racial core of the racial nation. Race, it should be noted, has never been a static concept and it, like other social categories or labels emerging from or imposed upon social relationships, has been socially constructed. Sometime between the early twentieth century, the era of the so-called Great Migration that brought the first large wave of Black Southerners to the urban North and urban West, and the era of the Black Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, the black-and-white American racial color line subsumed and largely submerged all other American racial schema. One might argue that this occurred in response to the great mobilization of African Americans, Native Americans, and Chicanos during the 1960s and 1970s, but to do so arguably confuses causes and effects. Whereas Woodrow Wilson once intoned that “America does not consist of groups” (Gordon 101), the re-racialization of America reified a “twoness”–a racial polarity–of American society: one “real,” normative America that was “white,” and a marginal, sometimes oppositional, (after Ralph Ellison) sometimes “invisible” population in America that was not. This population became known by the hegemonic locution, “non-white” (Omi and Winant, Roediger). In the East, South, and Midwest (although probably not in the West), the twoness in effect ran along black and white lines.

The American working class, which Poles and other immigrants had tried to enter at the turn of the century, already had developed an ideology, as historian David Roediger has shown, in which “whiteness” and class were intertwined, one which excluded them (Wages 8). In the mid-twentieth century, white ethnic Americans decidedly did not strategize nor initiate the hardening of a simpler “white”-and-black racial division. But as it occurred, they surely partook of it and some may even have saluted it, for this racial polarization did help raise their social standing to the new, common (“white”) level and, more critically, allowed them a place within the “white American nation.” The meaning of white changed, expanded to include “foreigners” like themselves (Bukowczyk, And My Children 137; Roediger, Towards 181-198; Ignatiev).(11) Incidentally, this re-racialization also afforded white ethnic groups an ingenious and rather comprehensive solution to the problem of the dissolution of ethnic ties “of blood” through the practice of white ethnic intermarriage which, by the 1940s and 1950s, had become common (although endogamy still obtained along broad religious lines) (Herberg). As the American nation was re-racialized, arguably so too were America’s white ethnic groups.

The incipient (black/white) racial formation (and the nineteenth-century one, privileging persons of some northwestern European “racial” ancestries, which it had replaced) did not go without challenge, and indeed it was challenged by an alternative concept of American society and polity, one (though still quite gendered) based upon de-racialized constructions of class. Thus, in the late nineteenth century, labor leader John Mitchell told the United Mine Workers male members, “The coal you dig is not Slavish coal, or Polish coal or Irish coal. It is coal.”–and, by implication, there are no Slavish, Polish, or Irish workers, just workers (Bernstein 126). The sweeping class mobilization during the Great Depression of the 1930s institutionalized the various white ethnic groups, including the Poles, (and, by the early 1940s, African Americans) as constituent elements of the Democratic Party and, by extension, one might argue, helped legitimize their place in American society. Mobilization of this Roosevelt or New Deal electoral coalition also produced considerable social gains for working-class white ethnics through, for example, the passage of the National Labor Relations (or Wagner) Act (1935) and, in the 1960s, addressed the increasingly vocal demands of the African American “junior partner” of that coalition with the passage of a Civil Rights Act (1964) and the implementation of various Great Society programs (and later the introduction of what would become the very controversial program of “affirmative action”) (Glazer, Ethnic Dilemmas 159-229). President Johnson himself believed that signing the Civil Rights Act “delivered the South to the Republican Party” and thus shattered the electoral coalition that had carried him into office (Woodward 10). But this may be a bit of an oversimplification. Suffice it to say that social and political developments too complicated for review here combined with white (and white ethnic) opposition to some of these programs, further sharpened the lines of the “racial” nation’s racial divide, and resulted in what fairly might be called a racial politics that, perhaps to this day, has dominated the American political arena.

As black-and-white racial lines hardened, “non-white” Americans (and their political sympathizers and allies) renegotiated an antithetical, and one might say necessary, alternative concept of the “nation” that might include themselves; and they now offered up the concept of “multiculturalism.” In attempting to renegotiate (or “abolish”) power relationships among dominant and subaltern groups, the “multiculturalism” advanced by this mobilization of “non-white” Americans sought to incorporate those “non-white” races into an American nation that was not de-racialized but multi-racialized; and, therefore, it may be argued, multiculturalism itself has been a racial concept (Carby 9). Metaphorically, it might be said, the concept “people of color” thus transformed the notion of “color”–from a pollution of purity to a sign of moral and spiritual value–as pigment became substance. (By implication, it also transformed “white” people into people “without color” and, by extension, without moral and spiritual worth.) Multiculturalism as a racial concept thus aims less at the incorporation into the American “nation” than the valuation and “empowerment” (however variously defined) of these “non-white” races vis-a-vis that racial nation.

One outcome of this new white/black re-racialization and of this particular antithesis of it, namely, multiculturalism, has been the largescale submergence of traditional left-oriented class politics in America and the rise of a politics based upon race and religion.(12) This submergence of class politics has been helped along by, as it has been hegemonically presented, the collapse of Marxism as an ideology with the resounding fall of the Soviet system but, of course, also by the failures of left-oriented analyses to deal adequately with racism (colonialism, patriarchy, etc.)(13) To the extent class politics was based upon an analysis of American society that posited intractable economic divisions and oppositions, it never offered a blueprint for the perfect integration of all of the segments of American society, but it did suggest the possibility for a rather broad cohesion among the racially and ethnically disparate elements of the latter and thus held out the possibility of a de-racialized nation.(14)

A second outcome of the new re-racialization concerns another redefinition of American racial categories as accomplished both by the law and, concurrently and subsequently, by the racial mobilization of “non-white” Americans. Embracing the logic of American racial politics, they together have recast the various white ethnic groups as “white Europeans,” sometimes rendered as “Euro-Americans.”(15) This, of course, distorts those groups’ respective long pre-(and post-) migration histories (often histories of conflict pitting one against the other)–witness the “former Yugoslavia”–and ignores the still very powerful strand of American racial nationhood that continues to privilege persons of certain Northwestern European “racial” ancestries. But it is a kind of ironic, poetic revenge for both the lumping together of diverse cultures into the category “non-white,” as well, for the ready (if perhaps understandable) embrace of “whiteness”–once the option was offered them–by many of America’s Central Southern, and Eastern European “ethnics.” By turn, in the past few years, the term “ethnic” has taken on a new meaning in the American vernacular: it has come to mean “non-white,” legally “protected,” “minority” group.(16) (As a hypothetical example of how unfortunate it is that “class” seemingly has withered and perhaps even expired as a term of social analysis, “ethnic” thus arguably would subsume naturalized African–or African American–business leaders or generals and their American-born sons and daughters together with the sons and daughters of African American waiters, domestic servants, factory workers, and sharecroppers in the same social category. Such cross-class racial groupings are not always salient.)(17)

On what may be a more positive note, the multi-racialization of America perhaps posits an America consisting not in a single polity, but an America that replicates, in microcosm, the racial diversity and attendant political dynamics of the world. Perhaps one therefore is bearing witness to the death of the American nation as a possibly outmoded concept and (with largescale migrations, the impact of ease of travel and communications on development and maintenance of transnational identities, the globalization of capital, and the expansion of free trade) also the demise of such older nation-states in general as they give way to presentday multi-racial and multi-ethnic social realities. Now, those old nation-states arose as the product of a particular temporal and spatial conjuncture of historical circumstances; and nothing argues that, once having formed, they would or should have remained a permanent political structure, one that would last for all time. Indeed, considering the crimes perpetrated by individual nation-states, including the enslavement of a large portion of the population of the African continent, the subjugation of indigenous peoples around the globe and the carving up of their homelands into colonies, two world wars, and, of course, the Holocaust, perhaps some good might be expected from their demise.

Yet in the short run, at least, the fracturing of a unitary (or hegemonic) concept of an American “nation” leaves a social vacuum, a society whose elements seemingly do not cohere in any way–neither to each other nor to a concept of the “nation.”(18) America thus becomes a mere civil jurisdiction, little more than a kind of geographical container, whose disparate racial, ethnic, linguistic, cultural, religious and other elements are made to function of a fashion by the workings of the economic marketplace but not to cohere, are held together by the hegemonic inertia of law, institutions, and such devices, or, one might even say, “at gunpoint” by the overwhelming coercive power of the State. The outcome is a throw-back to a Hobbesian world wherein life is “nasty, cruel, brutish” and the “nation” has descended into deep social crisis.(19) At another moment of deep social division, concerning the issue of slavery, Abraham Lincoln once opined that “a house divided against itself could not long stand.” Thomas Jefferson likened that issue to “a fire-bell in the night … the [death] knell of the Union.” Years later, historian Oscar Handlin said that firebell was America’s “crisis in civil rights” (Handlin epigraph). All along, however, the fire-bell–the “heart of darkness”–was the problem of race.

Having now come full circle, one perhaps should return to Cleopatra, the putatively “Black” African empress, and to the question: was Cleopatra’s hair red? And once again, to this question one might rejoin with another, now different question, that forms the title of this essay: “Who is the Nation?” But like the little Russian “nesting dolls”–where each lacquered figure contains a smaller, finer one–this question too contains another question which must be taken apart. One cannot say who the nation is without asking what it is, for the answer to this question will tell who belongs in the nation.

In order to approach this difficult question, one must now leave aside examples of racial filiopietism, like Cleopatra and Kopernik, and recall that, in the history of America, there has been yet another type of ethnic filiopietism besides its racial and ideological/religious variants. One might call this third type “historical” filiopietism. Historical filiopietism cares nothing about “race” and not so much about ideology or religion per se and instead focuses upon action; it looks at how groups and their members have “contributed” to a common project, the making of America.(20) Thus Polish-Americans, for example, have taken pride in the “strike” by Jamestown’s Polish glassmakers who demanded equal political rights (or at least so it has been claimed), in Kosciuszko’s fortifications that made West Point “The Gibraltar of America” (Wilson 8), and in the military “contributions” of Pulaski and Civil War General Krzyzanowski.(21) African Americans, too, have celebrated the “contributions” that members of their group have made to the course of American history. Thus one learns about Crispus Attucks, a Black man killed at the Boston Massacre, about Black Civil War regiments, about A. Philip Randolph and other Black union organizers, about Rosa Parks and other Civil Rights organizers, and even now Black cowboys. Other ethnic groups also have marked their respective “contributions.” Together, these groups boldly asserted that America was something still in the making, a progressive, steadily improving, diverse “nation.” In doing so, they seemed to endorse the proposition (made in another context) of that most “American” of American poets, Walt Whitman: “I am large, I contain multitudes” (96).

In describing America as a nation in the making composed of many colors, cultures, races, and creeds, ethnic Americans also defined who they singly and together were: “We who built America.”(22) Academic “professionals” may feel some embarrassment at such expressions of historical filiopietism because, as graduate schools teach, they are not examples of rigorous social scientific analysis or synthesis but myth, celebration, commemoration, that is to say, they are not “real” history. But Americans (and Polish-Americans), professional scholars among them, might well lament of this reaction, because such expressions of pride in ethnic contributions to the making of America touch a most important theme and nerve. They involves citizenship, civility, society, and the theme of belonging. In short, if “we” helped to build America, America is built of us. In light of this, one might well understand the rancorous debate over competing versions of American history which have rattled even in the halls of Congress.(23) The question, “whose history?” is so important and so intensely argued because history confers legitimacy. By turn, the possibility of belonging to the nation can evaporate if only the contributions of some dominant (or aspirant) group or groups are recognized or if those contributions, instead of receiving recognition for their respective uniqueness, are somehow quantitatively ranked.

The historical filiopietism of belonging, which posited integration, civic education, commitment, participation, and equality (though decidedly not the rather wholesale cultural effacement of “assimilation”), reached its most compelling expression in the somewhat nostalgic, somewhat romanticized, somewhat sentimental white ethnic “movement” (if it may be called that) of the late 1960s and 1970s which has come to be known as the “new ethnicity.” Analyzed–and promulgated–by such figures as Monsignor Geno Baroni, author Michael Novak, political scientist Otto Feinstein, Rev. Andrew Greeley, Rev. Leonard Chrobot, and a host of ethnic journalists and creative writers, the “new ethnicity” perhaps seems an artificial copy of more “genuine” (or “authentic”) ideological expressions then current in the African American community, the so-called “Roots phenomenon” (named after author Alex Haley’s best-selling book–and television “mini-series”). But the new ethnicity perhaps had greater potential significance–however unrealized–in advancing another new version of the American nation and, with it, renegotiating the relationship between white “ethnic” Americans and African Americans. Such opportunities to renegotiate white/black relations have been squandered in past times, as when the state of Virginia failed to abolish slavery during post-Revolutionary days; when compensation (forty acres and a mule) did not accompany emancipation in 1865; when American working-class ideology married class and race and the American labor market willfully was segmented along racial lines during the nineteenth century; and, before “white flight” carried much of the white population out of America’s cities, post-WWII federal urban policy opted not to try to preserve white urban ethnic enclaves (“urban villages,” as sociologist Herbert J. Gans called them) as a possible “last best hope for a viable … racial integration” (Bukowczyk, And My Children 101). Likewise, the “new ethnicity” which, while it was (and became) many things (some quite racialist and essentialist in content), promoted tolerance and equality as American ideals at a time when increasing racial polarization between black and white ethnic Americans was rendering these goals increasingly unpopular.

For this reason, from both a public policy and a cultural standpoint, one might especially lament the fabrication of the “white European” ethnic category. Absent a viable (de-racialized) working-class politics (or alternatively, for example, the full substitution of interracial mating for the still currently predominant pattern of racial endogamy, which might have rendered moot the question of “race”), recognizing and preserving a multiplicity of white ethnic groups and identities at least might have meliorated the particular articulation of white/black racial polarization that characterizes the current day. Even conservative Michael Novak, during his former liberal, Democratic incarnation, appreciated this greatest of all white ethnic “contributions,” that America was “greater than the sum of its parts” but whose parts made America “one from many.”

One thus might be led to recall what has been perhaps the most famous evocation of the immigrant’s dream of–and for–America, Mary Antin’s The Promised Land (1911-12). Like Antin, this essay also has looked for America and asked what is that nation to which white and Black ethnic Americans have sought to belong (Lind). America used to mean something; “it wasn’t where you were born or how you spelled your name or where your father had come from,” Slovak-American novelist Thomas Bell wrote:

It was the way you thought and felt about certain things. About freedom of

speech and the equality of men and the importance of having one law–the

same law–for rich and poor, for the people you liked and the people you

didn’t like. About the right of every man to live his life as he thought

best, his right to defend it if anyone tried to change it and his right to

change it himself if he decided he liked some other way of living better.

About the uses to which wealth and power could honorably be put, and about

honor itself, honor, integrity, self-respect, the

whatever-you-wanted-to-call-it that determined for a man which things he

couldn’t say or do under any circumstances, not for all the money there

was, not even to help his side win. About human dignity, which helped a man

live proudly and distinguish his death from an animal’s; and finally, about

the value to be put on human life, one’s enemy’s no less than one’s own.


Despite lapses from (and sometimes the distortion of) principles, America meant the classical “republican” civic virtues of equality and justice, rights and community shared by an expanding circle of “We, the People….” Indeed, that membership in the circle progressively has widened to include previously excluded groups itself has become an essential aspect of the meaning of America. But America’s broader crisis as a nation has been a crisis not of “cohesion,” but a more fundamental one of values and of meaning, as white–and white “ethnic”–Americans confront a question that the “misplaced generation” (as Claude Brown called “the first Northern urban generation of Negroes”) had confronted: “[W]here does one run to when he’s already in the promised land?” (viii). In this country’s racialized polity, it might be argued, the promised land, the nation, already may be lost.

Americans now live in a fractured society and, encouraged by the practice of more critical historical, literary, and cultural studies, have come to recognize the historic nature of those fractures. The George Washington of the Boston monument thus becomes not the “father of his country,” but slaveholder, philanderer, and, more trivially, a man who wore wooden false teeth. In American society and to the world, one has come, then, to ask: what does America stand for? Too often the fair reply of late has been: America stands for nothing. Or, alas, for nothing good. Can Americans be proud of this America today?

For groups to belong to “it,” the American nation must be something, must stand for something. One final question therefore is the hardest but by far the most elemental and significant: not what is the nation, for to that we have some troubling answers, but rather what should America be? The responsibility may fall to avowedly “ethnic” writers–white and Black–whose forebears (or who they themselves) chose to come to the promised land of America or to follow the Northern Star, as voluntary Black “immigrants” (Painter). They can be proud of Kosciuszko, of Sojourner Truth, of Margaret Sanger, of Cesar Chavez, of Louis Brandeis, proud to call them all, all “fellow Americans.” But, while not overlooking or excusing their faults (and crimes), one also need recover pride in the timeless accomplishments, the acts of justice, charity, and humanity, performed by the exercise of moral choices, however frequent or infrequent or circumscribed by their times, of history’s now debunked “great white men,” for these also represented part of the promise of the promised land.

Herein one might find–and I find–a salient meaning of America, a place which for Jewish-American novelist Anzia Yezierska was “a land of living hope, woven of dreams, aflame with longing and desire” (Open Cage 20).(24) In gathering the bright strands of America’s sometimes less than courageous, often venal, yet often compassionate, just, and honorable past, white and Black ethnic writers need to nurture the social glue on which a non-oppressive social cohesion has depended, whenever it has existed–the rule of law, peaceful prosperity, a modicum of civility, a broad tolerance of difference, a fluidity and porousness of social categories and conditions, and broad opportunity for individuals to change their social location or improve their social status. It is these meanings white and Black “immigrants” have associated with “Ameryka.” This is their, this can be our, nation. For those immigrants and migrants–We, the Peoples–had a prescription for “multiculturalism” from which we well might learn today: hyphens can connect as well as divide. To be sure, the nature of those connections needs to be perennially re-negotiated; as Jefferson, the democrat (and not Jefferson the slaveholder), wrote (in another context): “The earth belongs to the living.” But, no less, as Yezierska wrote (or, rather, prayed), “The Americans of tomorrow … will be too open-hearted, too friendly-handed, to let the least lastcomer at their gates knock in vain with his gifts unwanted” (Open Cage 33).

Versions of this essay were presented in The Skalny Lecture and Artists Series at St. John Fisher College, Rochester, New York, under the sponsorship of that institution’s Institute for Polish Studies, and before a James Madison College audience at Michigan State University. I wish to thank then institute director Andrzej Siwkiewicz; the Louis Skalny Foundation and the Skalny family, whose support made this presentation possible; and, especially, Nora Faires, Thomas Gladsky, Joseph Skerrett, Kenneth Waltzer, and the anonymous MELUS referees, for their careful, astute, and insightful comments. The opinions expressed herein nonetheless are my own.


(1.) Among these are Bonnie Winsbro, Amritjit Singh, Joseph Skerrett, and Robert Hogan.

(2.) The vignette comes from an American history class taught by the author during fall semester, 1994, at Wayne State University in Detroit.

(3.) Here I distinguish this from “Afro-centric” approaches which usefully provide an African perspective on events and themes previously viewed largely from a European angle. The student’s query postdated the debate sparked by Martin Bernal’s Black Athena (1987), but considerably predated the 1996 publication of Mary Lefkowitz, Not Out of Africa.

(4.) Toni Morrison called this strand an “invented Africa” (7-9).

(5.) Of course, they referred to Poland; and, of course, Poland’s boundaries changed–or were changed–again and again during the past several centuries; but this complicated matter falls beyond the scope of this essay.

(6.) That filiopietists have adduced Polonian “contributions” to the western Christian-cum-anti-Communist tradition as a means of enhancing the social standing of the Polish ethnic group perhaps should cause no great surprise, in light of the campaign for Polish equality in the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy (rownouprawnienie) which Rev. Waclaw Kruszka, Rev. Francis Hodur, and many other immigrant clergy and laity waged during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. These tactics might have aimed at raising the Poles’ standing not so much in American society as within the church itself.

(7.) Nonetheless, these pale when compared to other, national “cleansings” perpetrated abroad in modern times, like Stalin’s infamous purge trials or what seems now to have become the perennial genocide, great and small, often prosecuted in the name of ideology or religion.

(8.) Admission to membership in a religion via conversion or baptism attempts to create what might be called ties “of the spirit” comparable to these ties “of blood”; but, it should be noted, sometimes these are not so indissoluble. Unlike such ethnic ties, in some denominations these religious ties can be dissolved, for example, through rituals like excommunication. In fact, for white European ethnic groups, those ethnic ties “of blood” also can be destroyed intergenerationally thorough intermarriage, which practice group members sometimes have spoken about in terms evocative of a kind of genocide. Ethnic groups accordingly have employed various strategies for defeating the dissipative effects of ethnic intermarriage, by, for example, using matrilineal or patrilineal descent as a means of automatically conferring ethnic group membership to the offspring of intermarriages. Here one might recall varying practices among, for example, Jews (who privilege matrilineal descent), various Native American groups (who variously follow matrilineal or patrilineal clan lines), and some Belgian Americans (who, privileging patrilineal descent, in one Detroit organization offered membership to persons with Belgian surnames). Contrast the last with Polish notions, as remarked by Polish novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz, that mothers are the bearers of culture (qtd. in Bukowczyk, And My Children 105). Recent scholarship by Mary Waters and Richard Alba has shown that individuals of “mixed” ethnic backgrounds have improvised ethnic ties in complicated, situationally specific ways.

(9.) Although Crevecoeur had noted a mixing of old-stock white population, ethnic and religious exogamy among “new” European immigrants remained negligible during the period. By the 1930s and 1940s, still “only 25 to 30 percent … married outside their nationality group” (Gabaccia 71).

(10.) Here one might think, in particular, of the International Institutes and other such activities and institutions in which ethnic Americans participated, such as the intercultural educational movement (Montalto).

(11.) Specific case studies of immigrant “inbetweenness” include Orsi and also Conklin and Faires.

(12.) But this statement deserves some qualification. On the one hand, that the labor force in some sectors of the economy–as well as other social groupings–are largely “non-white,” it is difficult to differentiate the politics of “race” and from the politics of “class.” So-called “mainstream” politics, while it has campaigned on several religious/cultural/social issues–viz., abortion, homosexuality, drugs–also controverts crime, taxes, transfer payments to the poor, affirmative action while lending support to pro-business–and especially probig business–political positions. In doing so, the latter arguably also may be a “class politics” in its own right, albeit one of “middle-” or “upper-class” orientation. Multicultural curricular initiatives, in turn, have tended to ignore class and class issues per se (Faires and Bukowczyk), except in their “critical” articulations, for example, the “revolutionary multiculturalism” and “critical pedagogy” as developed by Peter McLaren, Henry A. Giroux, and others.

(13.) The insights in Paul Gilroy’s exploration of has explored these dynamics in the British context, particularly with regard to race, have broad comparative applicability in the American context (Gilroy).

(14.) It might be remarked in passing that one by-product of the fall of Soviet Communism-as system of social control but also as social ideology–has been the multiplication of intense–one might fairly say “genocidal”–racial, ethnic, and religious conflicts throughout the lands of the so-called “former Soviet Union” and its former “satellites.” In this respect, one need only call to mind the long war in Bosnia and, more recently, the war in Chechnya or Chechen. With the decline of European colonial and European, American, and Asian neo-colonial and imperialistic influence abroad, we also observe a similar train of events in many portions of the world where former colonial boundaries artificially bundled competing ethnic or religious groups in a single polity (Crossette A5).

(15.) It also has grouped together “black” people without regard for their ethnic diversity and, as Carby writes, their “cultural, political, and social complexity” (Carby 12). The same can be said of “Asian Americans,” “Native Americans,” and, where the term has been used, “Hispanic Americans.” On “black” socially constructed understandings of “whiteness,” also see the work of bell hooks, Toni Morrison, and Ruth Frankenberg.

(16.) Graduate students who read job ads for specialists in “ethnic” literature or history readily can attest to this.

(17.) In the same manner, African Americans of West Indian descent for many years ethnically distinguished themselves from the general African American population, although current vernacular usage would lump them together, not necessarily appropriately.

(18.) Thus, mid 1990s television commercials for U.S. army recruitment urge prospective enlistees to excel for their families, their friends, their communities, themselves, but pointedly not for their country, while period advertisements for the U.S. Marine Corps featured a futuristic warrior motif evocative of such role-playing games as Dungeons-and-Dragons or perhaps a computer game.

(19.) Although what perhaps can be summed up as declension crises have been a constant trope in American history, it might be argued that the current one is perhaps objectively more acute, situated as it is in a society racked by unprecedented economic and social dislocation including a sweeping restructuring of the economy and the labor market, a new global economic context, a technological revolution, and what is emerging as the AIDS pandemic.

(20.) I would distinguish “historical filiopietism” from the “melting pot,” insofar as it neither implies nor requires homogenization or effacement of ethnic distinctiveness, cultures, or loyalties.

(21.) One probably should distinguish these examples from the citation of Polish-American “celebrities,” which seem yet another case of filiopietism of the racial variety demonstrating Polish “racial” talents.

(22.) This answer is the title of an early ethnic history of America written by Oberlin College professor Carl Wittke; see also Brier.

(23.) Controversy has arisen over the revised National History Standards, the Smithsonian Institution’s Hiroshima exhibit, and granting policies of the National Endowment for the Humanities, for example.

(24.) Reprinted from Yezierska, Children of Loneliness.

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John J. Bukowczyk is Professor of History and Director of Canadian Studies at Wayne State University. His books include And My Children Did Not Know Me: A History of the Polish-Americans, Detroit Images: Photographs of the Renaissance City, and Polish Americans and Their History: Community, Culture, and Politics. His 1994 Prospects article, “The American Family and the Little Red Schoolhouse: Historians, Class, and the Problem of Curricular Diversity,” won the American Historical Association’s William Gilbert Award for Best Article on Teaching History (1996).

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