What is the cost of rejecting inherited identities?
When I was applying to colleges in the mid-1980s, applications offered boxes to tick for access to specific scholarships. Among them was a line recognizing applicants whose relatives had fought in the First World War. I was seeking any advantage I could find. My application was nothing spectacular, just good grades. I dreamed a future of Ivy League classes and credentials. Really, I just wanted Harvard to like me. I asked my mother if we had any relatives who fought in the war. She said, sure: for the Austro-Hungarian empire.
That my college application process provoked only a little dissonance between being both descended from Hungarian conscripts and the thing implied by checking the “White/Caucasian” race category may be counted as privilege. My general unawareness of race and my fit into its categories registers as privilege too. Even in an upstate New York town proud of proximity to Underground Railroad sites and important enough to earn a stop in Jesse Jackson’s 1984 presidential campaign, I did not grow up aware of the wages of whiteness.
I was pretty unaware of my grandparents’ ethnic experience too, though on that count I actually had to put some effort into keeping my ignorance intact. In familiar patterns, my grandmother and grandfather—my Baba and Dzedo—kept lively the language and customs of Slovakia, the place they came from and where dear branches of family were left behind. The emigrated ones moved to Ohio and Pennsylvania near others from the old country. They worked where other Slovaks worked, in mines, factories, or railroads. Some of their children went to college, reaped the rewards of social mobility, and became professionals. Some kept up interest in the Slovak ways, but others didn’t. The majority of the next generation grew up far away from Slovak heritage, mostly on purpose, even the ones who remained near Pittsburgh. Unlike some cousins whose families stayed near my grandparents, I grew up in a northeastern college town where my father put us when he was getting a degree. Where I grew up it was not normal to have polka parties or find pierogies sold as street food. When we went to family reunions or grandparent visits in Pittsburgh, the dances and strange words for strange foods seemed embarrassing at best. I did not want that. My Slovak heritage, of which my mother kept abreast with newspapers that arrived by mail in a language I could not read, felt irrelevant to me. I did not wish to know more about my people. My ancestry was Slovak, what then was merely half of a hard-to-spell country, and not even the cool half. When other kids asked me what I “was,” a question my schoolmates could answer as “Italian” or “Irish,” sometimes I probably said I was Czech. Dzedo, forgive me.
Even though we visited family in Pittsburgh all the time, I had no idea that Pittsburgh played a key role in the formation of that country with the hard-to-spell name. Early in the twentieth century, thousands of immigrants from that part of Austria-Hungary dreamed of independence from that empire. During the First World War, with national self-determination a goal boosted by the United States, those immigrants organized themselves into the “Czecho-Slovak National Council of America” and proposed the shape for what they hoped would be their new self-determined country. Meeting in a Moose Lodge hall in downtown Pittsburgh in May 1918, the council outlined the new republic and hosted its future first president, Tomas Masaryk. The immigrants around Pittsburgh, the ones whose day jobs were in mines or railroads or factories, dreamed of a better country and tried to do something about it. These events never registered to me as one reason for Pittsburgh’s significance. I thought Pittsburgh’s importance lay with the Steelers and the Pirates and the Penguins and some stinking steel mills on the last part of the road trip to my grandmother’s house. Insufficient awareness might have been one of the privileges of being a kid in the 1970s—at least the kind of kid I was. All the Slavs seemed pretty similar to me, and I did not understand why my grandparents did not like Hungarians.
The identity assigned at birth to both of my mother’s parents was Hungarian. My grandmother’s Ohio birth certificate lists her nationality as “Ungar-Austria.” My grandfather’s Pennsylvania birth certificate describes the “nativity” of his parents as “Hungarian” and notes their occupations as “miner” and “housewife.” Obviously in their neighborhoods, thickly settled with different kinds of Slavs, they could be distinguished from others who spoke languages with slightly different inflections, seasoned their cabbage and potatoes a bit otherwise, and knew each other by whose different boots had been on their people’s backs in the old world. The Slovak was different from the Czech, the Ukrainian, the Lithuanian, the Moravian, and the Pole. My grandfather’s identity was obvious to people living in cities in Ohio and Pennsylvania. To the state, it sufficed to name Hungary.
My grandparents were not Hungarian. Their misattribution tells something about the clumsiness of labels, the way labels obscure even when aiming for accuracy, how they flatten texture and nuance. Assigning these labels, the state either confused my grandparents with those who had ruled over them or inscribed into New World records the subjection these men and women tried to escape by migrating. Presumably early 1900s state registrars knew what thing they were trying to describe by calling my grandparents Hungarian.
At points in life we might try to craft for ourselves an identity to express what we want others to see of us. Boxes to tick give shape to the raw stuff otherwise tricky to assemble. Young people now trying to figure out who they are might use contemporary categories to place themselves. The categories available when they were born might seem not to fit them or anyone else any more. Austria-Hungary and Czechoslovakia are categories that no longer name things to which one might belong. If catching people up in a clumsy broad label is one kind of error, though, another is behaving as though only labels of our own creation apply. Thank God that we are not only the composite of all the past matters involved in making our lives. But we are some of that and not altogether something else. Identities might better be shaped by conscientious selection of what we have inherited rather than immature opting out or pretending to start from scratch and obligating others to accede.
Agnes R. Howard teaches in Christ College, the honors college at Valparaiso University, and is author of Showing: What Pregnancy Tells Us about Being Human. She is a Contributing Editor for Current.