Ancestry, Identity, and What It Means to Be American, Part 1

How ancestry defines identity and what it means to be American are two inextricably linked and fundamental questions for most Americans. By extension, they have become the focal concerns of many academics across a number of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences.

We think of those issues as especially pressing and complex for immigrants and newly naturalized citizens—those for whom multiculturalism is an especially immediate and visceral reality. The issues would, however, seem just as complicated, if perhaps less immediate, for most of us whose families have been in the U.S. for several generations or more if we actually were knowledgeable about the complexities in our own ancestries. But, for most of us now in the latter stages of our careers, the passing of several generations of our immediate ancestors, along with sparse public records here and in particular in the “old country,” have smoothed away those complexities in our own backgrounds much as the wind and rain have worn smooth the names and dates on the soapstone grave markers in many cemeteries dating from the first half of the nineteenth century.

It may be a preoccupation of the aging and aged to get a clearer sense of their own place in “history” (whether that history has a largely familial, communal, or professional scope) but appreciating the complexities in our personal histories is, I think, a prerequisite to avoiding the simplistic notions of personal and national identity that are part of most extreme cultural and political ideologies.

The whole time that we were growing up, my siblings and I were told that we were of Austrian descent on my father’s side. About ten years ago, a few years before her death, I asked my mother if her mother-in-law had spoken a dialect of German that her own mother would have understood. My son was majoring in German and about to spend a half-year in Germany, and he was thinking about spending some time in Austria. My mother was dismayed by my question and exclaimed, “Why would she speak any German? Your father’s parents were Russian. She spoke broken-English until the day that she died, but as far as I know, she didn’t know any German.”

Sometime later, I related this anecdote to my younger brother who responded in a way that may illustrate most of our family’s idiosyncracies, large and small. This is more or less what he said: “I don’t want to hear it. All my life I was told that I had Austrian, German, and Polish ancestors. Now all of a sudden, some of them are Russians. I don’t want to hear it.” When I asked if it would bother him less if they had been Swiss or Norwegian or Irish instead of Russian, he said, “I don’t have anything against being Russian. But if they wanted me to be Russian, then they shouldn’t have let me go on thinking for forty-plus years that I was Austrian. If you want to be Russian, go ahead and be Russian. It won’t make any difference to anybody if I am still Austrian.”

My grandparents on my father’s side had come from the northeast corner of Austria-Hungary– somewhere, I think, in present-day Slovakia, southeastern Poland, or perhaps Belarus. My grandfather on my mother’s side was born to immigrants from what is now Poland but was then Russia. On both sides, my male ancestors, probably over several generations, had been coal miners, and I like to think of them very slowly tunneling toward each other from opposite sides of the Carpathian Mountains.

In contrast to my brother, I became almost obsessively fascinated by the idea that my paternal grandparents were ethnically Russian. But after the initial giddiness of the realization faded, I began to wonder, more broadly, why so little attention seems to be paid to Russian-Americans as a group.

About three million Russians emigrated to the United States, and a little over three million people now claim Russian ancestry. The first number is small when compared to the total numbers of German, Irish, Mexican, Polish, French, and Dutch immigrants to the United States. In fact, about a dozen and a half ethnic groups emigrated to the United States in greater numbers than the Russians. But many of the ethnic groups then, and still, in Russia have generally been counted separately, as distinct groups. The largest of these groups are the Poles, Ukrainians, and Russian Jews, but a fairly large number of ethnic Germans also emigrated from Russia to the United States. In addition, about two-thirds of the Russian immigration to the U.S. occurred over the two decades from 1890 to 1910. During that period, Russian-Americans were among the largest groups of new arrivals, by most counts second to only the Italians. And those numbers certainly did not include ethnic Russians from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Like many of those immigrants, my own grandparents left Austria-Hungary just ahead of the outbreak of World War I, when tensions between Austria-Hungary and Slavic Serbia—and by extension, Serbia’s protector, Russia—were escalating very clearly towards war.

Interestingly, family folklore has it that my grandfather, whose was married and already had three children, left Austria-Hungary and came to America on his single brother’s passport. The brother, my great uncle, apparently found some other way to get out of Austria-Hungary ahead of the war. But it is all very murky. I remember only fragments of overheard stories, and they do not come together in anything close to a coherent narrative. There was something about a red-haired uncle, who had been something of a giant at six feet five inches tall and had emigrated to Argentina. Most of the family seems to have come to Cleveland and then dispersed to the coal fields in northeastern Pennsylvania and presumably central Illinois. Those are the only three places where people with our surname now live. I think that I probably have relatives in Cleveland and Illinois, but I have never taken the trouble to find out. I wonder how any of those people would know that they are related to me if I don’t know that I am related to them.

The nearness of the second number—the number of people now claiming Russian ancestry—to the first number—the number of Russian immigrants—suggests one of two things: either the Russian-Americans have been remarkably infertile, or they have reservations about declaring their ancestry. Given that my grandparents produced six children who produced sixteen grandchildren (more or less; to be honest, I am not entirely sure that I can provide an accurate count of the children of my two oldest aunts, both born in the “old country” and fifteen to eighteen years older than my father), I am guessing that the second possibility is the more likely one. By the time I was growing up, the Red Scare that started with Nixon and the House Un-American Activities Committee (in hindsight, very aptly named) and had concluded with the public spectacle and debacle of Joseph McCarthy’s Senate hearings was already history. But it has cast such a long shadow that almost everyone has forgotten the earlier but equally virulent Red Scare that had followed the First World War and the American intervention in the Russian Civil War on the side of the anti-Communist White armies.

Little wonder then that Russian-Americans decided that it was better to be “Austrians” or simply “Americans” when being Russian might mean that one was immediately under suspicion as a Soviet mole. There are parallels, of course, in the experiences of other immigrant groups in the U.S. During the two World Wars, many German-American communities de-Germanized themselves as thoroughly as any German communities de-Nazified at the end of the Second World War. To cite one small example, the area in which I now live was once named “German Township” but was renamed “American Township” during the Second World War. Interestingly, about twenty miles south of the campus at which I teach, there is a small town called Russia—but it is now pronounced “Rooshi.”

So, I was for a time very excited to discover that a prominent American is actually—if inconspicuously, almost clandestinely—Russian-American. For a while, I suffered under the erroneous belief that George Voinovich, the former Republican governor of Ohio and U.S. Senator, was Russian. When I came across a biographical profile that described him as “Slovenian,” I was certain that it, not I, was mistaken. I did eventually confirm that he was Slovenian only on his mother’s side and Croatian-Serbian on his father’s side. That makes him Yugoslavian in my book. But, given the history of bitter conflicts among those three groups, the combination of these ethnicities in his immediate ancestry is, on a certain level, a little preposterous–but perhaps all too predictably so. My own ancestry certainly seemed no less so. When I became convinced that I was Russian-American on my father’s side, I enjoyed pointing out that I was half Russian, a quarter German, and a quarter Polish—and then adding, “So if I seem sometimes that I am at war with myself, you can understand why.”

Imagine, then, my satisfaction when I discovered that Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren were born to a Russian immigrant couple who had settled in Iowa. One is tempted to think that the rolling prairie reminded them of the steppes. But they were Jewish, and they settled in a state in which barely 6,000 out of the current population of more than 3,000,000, or somewhere around .02% of the total population, is Jewish. So perhaps it was not the greatest choice of a place to build a new life. Still, they seem to have made the best of it. Their twin daughters developed Americanized alter-egos that were not only very profitable over their long careers, but that also made them two of the most admired women in America for most of their adult lives.

I got an ironic inkling of what they must have felt as they assumed and then gradually absorbed—as they gradually became–the personas that developed, almost inevitably, out of their assumption of their pseudonyms. Early in my academic career, I had the opportunity to contribute several bio-critical essays to a collection on Asian-American novelists. I had initially asked to be assigned only the essay on the Korean-American novelist, Chang-rae Lee. At that point, he had written only his first novel Native Speaker, about a Korean-American whose identity issues are further complicated by his profession as a corporate and then a political mole. Because I had just recently read the novel and had become completely absorbed in reading it, I finished the essay in fairly short order. I was very pleased when the editor of the collection not only indicated that he was very satisfied with my contribution but also inquired whether I would be willing to take on a second essay that he was having difficulty assigning. I agreed, but with some trepidation. The author was SKY Lee, and a cursory reading of some sources revealed that she was not just a Chinese-Canadian author but a “lesbian Maoist.” To be honest, I was not sure what that meant, any more than I was ever able to figure out why her first name was completely capitalized, but I was quite certain that it would be difficult to find an author whose background was less like my own.

I ordered SKY Lee’s two books, a novel and a collection of short stories, as interlibrary loans through the Ohiolink network of university libraries because my own university’s library had neither in its holdings. It turned out that she is, in fact, a very gifted writer, and the novel, Disappearing Moon Café, was so affecting that I read it in a single sitting and then re-read it the next day, again in a single sitting. Shortly thereafter, I sent off the essay, and I moved on to other projects. The proof pages eventually came in the mail, and I returned them after finding no errors. Then, months later, my contributor’s copy came. When I opened it and scanned the table of contents, I noticed—even before I found my own essays—that all of the contributors had very Asian names, except for me. There were names that I recognized as Indian, Malaysian, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Indonesian. There was a Wendi Lee Powell, but the only other European surname was my Anglicized Slavic name.

The incongruity stayed with me until one afternoon when I was surfing the Web and discovered very much by accident that my Anglicized Slavic surname is also one of the most popular surnames in Cambodia. A colleague happened to stop by my office, and I excitedly shared what I had found. He has a very wry sense of humor and asked, “So you suspect that the editor thought you were Cambodian?” I nodded yes and said, “Imagine if he were to go to my website and see my photo.” His eyebrows rose as he considered the possibility: “Maybe he would convince himself that you were one of those ‘mountain’ Cambodians.” I had no idea what that observation might mean to a Cambodian, but to someone from the anthracite coal region of Pennsylvania (part of that large part of Pennsylvania that lies outside of greater Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and that has been described as being politically and culturally “just north of Alabama”), it was very funny.

Before I had a photo of myself on my website, I once received a brief e-mail in Portuguese. On our campus, we do not have a faculty member who teaches Portuguese; so I asked a Spanish instructor if she might be able to translate the message. The sender was apparently inquiring about whether we might be related—since we had the same surname. I was very excited. Here perhaps was a descendant of my gigantic, red-haired uncle–and there must be a great story in how at least one of his descendants got from Argentina to Brazil! I wrote a concise reply that the Spanish instructor translated into Spanish, and I attached a photo to the e-mail. Weeks passed, and I was increasingly disappointed that I had not received a reply to that e-mail. When a reply finally did appear in my inbox, it was only two short words long. When I asked the Spanish instructor to translate it, she smiled and said, “It means ‘Oh, well.’”

”’Oh, well’? ‘Oh, well’—that’s it?”

Even more dismaying, however, was my subsequent realization that my paternal grandparents were probably not Russian after all. (You may have noticed that I have been very careful with some verb tenses and have avoided actually referring to them as Russians.)

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