Academic journal article MELUS

"Who Is the Nation?"-Or, "Did Cleopatra Have Red Hair?": A Patriotic Discourse on Diversity, Nationality, and Race

Academic journal article MELUS

"Who Is the Nation?"-Or, "Did Cleopatra Have Red Hair?": A Patriotic Discourse on Diversity, Nationality, and Race

Article excerpt

[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. …

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