I have never taken any particular pride in being a part of groups into which I was born. Growing up, few things did I find more ridiculous than rooting for a national sports team or emotional celebrations of tragic past events that shaped the history of the country I happened to belong to. I rejected Polish patriotism with its mystical view on ancestry and ethnicity at the core. What, other than my passport, made me entitled to feel pride, grief or shame for something experienced by people to whom my only connection was the language: a set of grammar rules and vocabulary that defined the mental boundaries of our worlds? Why, standing in a classroom and singing Polish national anthem, was I expected to feel an almost spiritual sense of unity with 25 individuals?
I rejected Polish patriotism with its mystical view on ancestry and ethnicity at the core.
Refusal to think of myself in terms of my roots was, then, an act of personal liberation. It meant asserting the freedom to shape my identity, to own responsibility for my actions rather than to hide in the mystic world of “we” – a plural pronoun that brings the comfort of belonging to a lineage of kings, generals, poets, inventors and rock stars.
Our overattachment to the origins was why, 70 years after the end of WW2, we still didn’t have a transnational history book to tell our shared past and its influence on the current shape of Europe.
Pronoun so vague, never explained, yet always understood. Because to say “we” is to imply the existence of “them”, and to draw a circle for those who are a part of it is to draw a line of exclusion. Hungarian writer, Peter Zilahy, wrote: “If the US is a human melting pot, Eastern Europe is a scrap yard”(1). Coming from a region tragically marked by systematic genocide and forced displacement of millions, as well as by bestial, chaotic acts of ethnic violence, I viewed roots as a gateway to nationalism that would inevitably lead to exclusion. The great pride of small countries (a typical feature of Central and Eastern Europe) was grotesque as much as it was dangerous. In my perception, our overattachment to the origins was why, 70 years after the end of WW2, we still didn’t have a transnational history book to tell our shared past and its influence on the current shape of Europe.
For this reason, my approach towards ethnicity was always cautious, and my understanding of an open, inclusive society was based on a notion that while descent and ancestry are interesting facts in a family tree, true patriotism stems from conscious participation in shared values of democratic, civic state.
My stance was coming from a place of privilege
This is why the fellowship, with its emphasis on roots as a part of identity, has been challenging from the first days. The attention given to blood bonds-from Daniel Black’s novel The Coming, through numerous lectures, up to personal conversations about other fellows’ identity, slowly made me realize that my stance was coming from a place of privilege. While my race, both back in Poland and here in America, most of the times goes unnoticed as the dominant (in the meaning to which Derrida refers to in his theory of deconstruction), element of the racial binary, almost as a transparent state of non-race, this invisibility is not some-thing a person of color would usually receive. Their race or ethnicity is met by questions and the desire to categorize and validate: to put a value on their personal abilities and character as well as on their culture. The program made me realize the healing potential of connecting to one’s roots and being immersed into their own culture. I sensed this therapeutic value of honoring individual stories and transforming them into a shared, collective memory of the oppressed community in Radcliffe Bailey’s collage (Date of Arrival), and in the celebratory, strong images of African American women portrayed as icons by Charmaine Minniefield. While I sought liberation in rejection of national myth, for a minority group empowerment can come from listening to the true, overlooked or suppressed, voices of their ethnic and ancestral legacy.
The absence of culture implies no collective memory, no tradition extending beyond here and now, no conscious recognition of one’s place in time.
This suppression plays an important role in maintaining the structure of power in today’s society. First, it allows society not to be confronted with the original sin of America’s founders: the genocide of Native Americans and enslavement of Africans. Historic portrayals of both these groups as noble or ignoble savages (carefully conserved by modern society), together with the outdated yet still popular nature vs. binary, serve as an implicit justification of settlers’ brutality. If one supposedly live in a state of nature, then colonization and enslavement can be seen as elevating them to the state of humanity, and therefore is not only acceptable but also charitable. Nature is supposed to be an ahistorical (prehistoric) condition, as history can be interpreted as a process of constructing and assigning meaning to a continuous, unrestrained flow of life that we recognize as events. The absence of culture, therefore, implies no collective memory, no tradition extending beyond here and now, no conscious recognition of one’s place in time.
The consequences this have extended far beyond historic significance, which brings me to the second point. To deny African and Native Americans their culture, while also ignoring the systematic destruction of social structures, languages, religion, family bonds done by a white man, is to claim that every manifestation of culture in modern America is a deed of European descendants. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences. This notion, which we owe to David Hume (Hume 198-199), is an axiom of the contemporary Western World.
Although not explicitly stated, it runs through our culture, perpetuating the narrative of inferiority, inducing a feeling of shame on marginalized minorities and justifying their underprivileged position in the system. When Ta-Nehisi Coates says “The larger culture’s erasure of black beauty was intimately connected to the destruction of black bodies” (2), I believe he refers as much to physical beauty of black features, hair, and figure, as to the beauty of language, music, customs and other forms of African American cultural universe disregarded by the society.
In 2016, students in Poland don’t have a single book on their reading list that has not been authored by a person outside the Western world, throughout 12 years of education.
Coming from a country where 97% of the population identifies as Polish, and 87% as Catholic means the minorities – on top of don receiving the recognition of their culture’s value – often don’t even get the visibility.
How does this apply to my home context and my work? Coming from a country where 97% of the population identifies as Polish, and 87% as Catholic means the minorities – on top of don receiving the recognition of their culture’s value – often don’t even get the visibility. On the other hand, as a seemingly homogenous society, Polish people tend to exclude other viewpoints and perspective, since the number of individuals to hold them accountable for this omission is still relatively low. Yet the eurocentrism is so deeply embedded in our discourse, our institutions, and our curriculum. How can you truly adopt the perspective, widespread in history books across Europe, that the world extended with European descendants discovering its existence? How is it that someone can claim to be well educated, with a university diploma to confirm that, and yet be oblivious of cultural achievements outside Europe and North America? As for 2016, students in Poland don’t have a single book on their reading list that has not been authored by a person outside the Western world, throughout 12 years of education. Nor there is a single book written by a Ukrainian, a Belarusian, a Roma, a Lithuanian and other ethnic minorities living in our country. On the other hand, foreign-written books include Robinson Crusoe, Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Around the World in 80 Days, as well as a large number of Polish literary works containing stereotypical, to say the least – depictions of other ethnicities. A perfect example would be a historical novel With Fire and Sword, penned in a colonial-like fashion and portraying Ukrainians as an uncivilized and violent mob of men. This title, beloved by generations and perceived as a classic work in the Polish literary canon, is often accused of spiking the antagonism between Poles and Ukrainians in the end of the 19th century (Sadaj 162).
If our education is a window to the world, then it is a stained glass window. We need a real window so that we can let the harsh light, at first painfully bright, inside.
Standing in the historic Ebenezer Church, I was looking at the stained glass windows and the subtle play of lights and colors on the floor. A long time ago a similar experience made me realize the deceitful, treacherous beauty of stained glass. While windows are built with the purpose of showing us the outside world, stained glass is not made with the intention to allow the light inside, but rather to control it. If our education is a window to the world, then it is a stained glass window. We need a real window so that we can let the harsh light, at first painfully bright, inside. We need an alternative education that will equip young people with a critical approach towards our “empire of signs”: our history, our art, literature and the political ideas which are imposed on us at schools with a “made in Poland” label.
But we need more than deconstruction. Ta-Nehisi Coates quotes Ralph Wiley’s ingeniously simple answer to famous Bellow’s question („Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?”): Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus (Coates 56). Rather than just explaining our empire of signs, we should recreate it so that the Zulus become its part. As long as we present our biased set of criteria used to estimate the value of cultural works and practices (along with the concept of culture itself) as an objective, transparent standard of quality, we will be living in a small room behind a stained glass. A crack in that window has being made by the emergence of ethnic studies, but so far their work doesn’t seem to be translating into the broader society.
How can I play a role in this change? What is my „medium of transformation”, as Dr. Daniel Black referred to it? I am a graduate in literature and I am passionate about education, I can, therefore, see myself at the intersection between the two. Ideally, the change I am hoping for would include a radical change of national curriculum towards a syllabus that meets 4 criteria:
1) CRITICAL READING
We need a critical approach focused on uncovering the hidden assumptions and power structures of the text (in other words, rather than asking what author wanted to say, we should be asking what he/she said although they didn’t want to).
2) DIVERSE AUTHORS
We need to read a selection of great works representing literature from various backgrounds, with a provision of cultural context, provided by experts or scholars rooted in the community/culture discussed.
3) DIVERSE CHARACTERS
We need literary works that depict characters differing by ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religious identity and other aspects of identity.
4) MEANINGFUL LITERATURE
We need socially engaged texts that can help us understand the pressing problems both in our own communities and in different parts the world, as well as their interconnectedness on a global level.
I am in no doubt that given the current political situation in my country, as well as the mainly conservative society, advocating for this change on a systemic level could not bring any positive outcome. What can be achieved though is forming a basis for a creeping revolution through grassroots activism. This may happen through a movement of local reading clubs in the communities focused on non-scholars, or through similar institutions on an academic level, or it can come from an effort to provide diversified reading lists to teachers willing to challenge the monolithic curriculum in their classrooms. It can also include a pressure on city libraries to purchase and promote texts written by authors of diverse ethnic origin, or by campaign such as We Need Diverse Books, focused on increasing the representation of diverse characters in children books.
- Zilahy, Péter. The Last Window-giraffe: A Picture Dictionary for the over Fives. London: Anthem, 2008. Print.
- Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015. Print.
- Hume, David. “Of National Characters.” Essays Moral, Political and Literary. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1987. Print.
- Sadaj, Ryszard. Kto był kim w Galicji i Lodomerii, czyli najkrótsza historia tej krainy. Kraków: Miniatura, 1993. Print.