Multi-Culturalism, Maya Angelou and the Poles

Thomas A. Gladsky

At President Clinton's inauguration, the poet Maya Angelou, celebrating the nation's diverse heritage, called upon all Americans to stand tall and to accept their place:

Here on the pulse of this fine day,
You may have the courage
To look up and out upon me, the
Rock, the River, the Tree, your country.
Here was a stirring piece and I waited, as she catalogued our various ancestries from Apache to Yorubi, for her to mention the Poles: "Come, you may stand upon my back/ And face your distant destiny."

That Angelou’s poem would take such a direction was no surprise to me nor, I suspect, to most involved in higher education or sensitive to current debate on multiculturalism. Since the 1960s Americans have increasingly challenged historical notions of American identity. In education, particularly at the university level, this challenge has reached a frenzied level. To quote Harold Kolb, Jr., "The question of what books are to be required in our schools is, with the exception of salaries, the chief topic of concern among teachers, administrators, and school boards" (Redefining American Literary History, ed. A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff & Jerry W. Ward, Jr., NY1990, p. 35). In the field of American literature, my own discipline, everyone argues about which books and writers constitute the "American" tradition.

Unfortunately for descendants of eastern European immigrants, this debate does not include us. Multiculturalism actually means federally defined affirmative action: Hispanic, Asian, African, Native American, women. When revisionists, for example, correctly insist upon including minority and ethnic writers in American literature courses, they do not mean writers of Polish descent. When they insist that the teaching of history rightfully extends beyond western Europe, they do not mean to include the history and culture of Poland. Despite their wish to nurture cultural diversity, they do not know that Americans of Polish descent are one of the country's largest ethnic groups (and that their culture is one of America's best kept secrets). Why is this so? Why are Euro-American groups not a part of the multi-cultural movement and why in particular have not Americans of Polish descent figured more prominently in the discussions? The answers are complex, varied, and not necessarily pleasant. From one point of view, it is all rather simple. America's Poles are Euro-Caucasians, descendants of an earlier immigration successfully blended into the mainstream. We have ironically become part of a homogeneity to which multiculturalists object. A second response is that we are ourselves to blame for being too parochial, self-interested, politically naive - too quick to discard our old world heritage, too slow to create a vibrant new world culture. Another explanation is that the Polish ethnic group has already received its share of the American pie, as witnessed by the recognition accorded to thousands for their achievements, and that Americans of Polish descent should not interfere with the acquisition of rights and privileges to which more recent immigrant groups and historically oppressed peoples are entitled

Without a literary culture, acceptance and participation within the multicultural movement will not occur.
Literature offers yet another explanation. Without a literary culture, acceptance and participation within the multicultural movement will not occur since literature is, in important ways, at the center of a nation's cultural traditions. In comparison to African, Jewish and, more lately, Hispanic and Asian groups, American writers of Polish descent have not been as productive in capturing the ethnic experience. For well over a hundred years, as I have shown in Princes, Peasants, and Other Polish Selves, we have been portrayed rather extensively by host-culture writers who have represented Poles in various guises. Until relatively recently, writers of Polish descent have infrequently written about "Polish selves."

The emergence of a body of work and group of writers which together can fashion a literary tradition is a complex cultural matter. Wishing will not make it so. Paul Lauter explains it this way: "The relationship between the arrival of an immigrant group on these shores and the emergence of a literary (i.e. written) culture... is quite irregular" (Redefining America's Literary History, p. 11). Cultural conditions are not the same even for groups which arrive at the same time; nor do they remain so. Historical context, national character, an appreciation of the arts, material support, differences in literacy, developments in the majority culture - all affect the growth of a literary culture. American writers of Jewish descent may serve as an example.

In comparison to African, Jewish and, more lately, Hispanic and Asian groups, American writers of Polish descent have not been as productive in capturing the ethnic experience.
By the decade of the l950s, Jewish American literature had become so widely read and appreciated that it entered into the literary mainstream. Salinger, Wouk, Miller, Malamud, Bellow, Singer, Roth, Ginsberg represent a golden literary era occurring only two generations after the great immigration. (Ironically Jewish American literature peaked too soon to be included in contemporary discussions of multiethnic literature.) But as Jane Tompkins, David Reynolds and others have shown, literary success depends on more than aesthetics and intuitive understandings of greatness. The writers that I have mentioned were almost immediately adopted by influential academics, reviewers, and journalists who were often themselves part of the Jewish community. In addition, publishing houses, communication agencies, cultural groups, and a wealthy and influential reading public - all within the ethnic community - promoted, rewarded and encouraged Jewish American writers. In short a literary culture was made not born.
Since World War II the number of works dealing with the Polish experience produced within the community has rocketed upward.
Ethnic literature written by Americans of Polish descent is another matter, however. Because of a combination of factors not possible to review here, the ethnic Polish community was not by the 1950s ready or able to create a literary culture. This is not news. What is news is that such a culture seems to be in the making. What are the signs? Whereas for a hundred years prior to World War II, the ethnic Polish community was by and large described and analyzed by host culture writers, since World War II the number of works dealing with the Polish experience produced within the community has rocketed upward. Were one to publish a complete bibliography of this literature (in this case I mean belles lettres, history, sociology, general studies, monographs, etc.), the length would be staggering. Without any claim to completeness, I discussed in Princes, Peasants and Other Polish Selves approximately eighty individual titles of relatively recent poems, novels, and short fiction by writers of Polish descent. Were one to include the scholarly writings of members of the Polish American Historical Association, the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences of America and others, and the wealth of material published by cultural groups over the last fifty years, we would see ample evidence of the formation of a literary culture.
Literary cultures are made not born.
It seems almost impossible today not to encounter "literary Polishness" in bookstores, newspapers and journals: W. S. Kuniczak's novels and translation of Sienkiewicz; the poems of Stanislaw Baranczak; the writings of Nobel Prize winners Czeslaw Milosz and Isaac Singer; Eva Hoffman's biography; poems essays and stories in The New Yorker and notable academic books published by university presses. In terms of what we traditionally call literature, American Polonia may indeed be on the edge of a renaissance. In the immediate post-war period, Monica Krawczyk and Victoria Janda wrote stories and poems about cultural transition. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Richard Bankowsky produced a remarkable tetralogy about the arrival and dispersal of a turn of the century immigrant family. Bankowsky's A Glass Rose is perhaps the best novel about Slavic immigration in all of American literature. At the same time Wanda Kubiak (Polonaise Nevermore) and Matt Babinski (By Raz 1937) were writing about Poles in Wisconsin and Connecticut. In a series of 1970s novels, Darryl Poniscan followed the fortunes of the Buddusky family in Eastern Pennsylvania and elsewhere. Two notable anthologies of poems and stories of descent have recently appeared: Blood of My Blood edited by Victor Contoski and Concert at Chopin's House edited by John Minczewski. In four books published in the early 1980s, Anne Pollowski lovingly describes growing up ethnic in the Latsch Valley of Wisconsin.

Gary Gildner, Anthony Bukoski and Stuart Dybek are among the best of those currently chronicling the Polish experience. In numerous poems, The Warsaw Sparks (1990) and his soon to be published memoir, Szostak, Gary Gildner explores old and new world selves in sensitive ways. Anthony Bukoski looks back to a rapidly vanishing Duluth community in Twelve Below Zero and in Children of Strangers, soon to be published by SMU Press. The Chicago writer Stuart Dybek has received critical acclaim for Childhood and Other Neighborhoods (1986) and The Coast of Chicago (1990), collections of stories about the children of immigrants.

In short, the depth and breadth of contemporary accounts of the Polish experience are demonstrable and exceptional. There is a difference, however, between a literary culture and individual writers, despite their number and talent. Without the kind of network that I alluded to earlier in regard to Jewish American literature, a literature cannot flourish.

In order to cultivate a literary culture, we must acquaint ourselves with the writers I have mentioned and others, buy and read their books, teach and discuss them in our classrooms and in our organizations, invite them to lecture at our meetings, support (monetarily) the publication of their books, honor their achievements, develop a careful, thorough, and well-financed plan to promote a literary culture. Mark Pawlak in one of his poems from "The Buffalo Sequence" reminds the Polish American community that it is "3 o'clock in our experience." If we regard this experience only in terms of the great immigration, then 3 o'clock is late indeed. if we regard our culture as dynamic, dramatic, and refreshing, then 3 o'clock is very near to dawn and you and I, in the words of Maya Angelou,

... May have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister's eyes and into
Your brother's face, your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope
Good morning.

Thomas A Gladsky is a Professor of English at Central Missouri State University and a Visiting Professor of English at the Budapest University of Economic Sciences in Budapest, Hungary.

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