How My Family Became White
I am white. My dad, however, who was the grandson of Polish immigrants, was something else. Something in between.
I found my grandpa’s birth certificate from 1909 on Ancestry.com. In beautiful handwriting, crossed and scribbled out in a few spots, it tells a story. He was born in Dupont, PA where his dad’s occupation was “miner” and his mom’s was “housework.” Their places of birth were both listed as Russia Poland. “Cieslak” was how they spelled what would become my last name, a spelling the army would later anglicize to “Cheslock.”
They came from Warsaw which, at this time, was part of Russia and the Poles there lived in terrible conditions, mass hunger and ethnic persecution. When they arrived, Poles were not considered white (even though it says “white” next to the word “color” on my grandpa’s birth certificate). Poles were paid terribly and discriminated against because of their religion, language and culture. In 1903 the New England Magazine disparaged Poles for their “expressionless slavic faces” and “stunted figures,” for their “ignorance” and “propensity to violence.” President McKinley had been assassinated by a Polish anarchist and all Poles were blamed in a reaction similar to the treatment of Muslims after 9/11.(Kenzior)
I got the goosebumps when I realized that my grandpa was 9 years old in 1918, at the start of the Spanish Flu pandemic, just like my son, his great grandson, would be 101 years later at the start of COVID 19. During and after the Spanish Flu pandemic, was a period of intense racial riots, similar to but very different from the riots in 2020.
Whites saw blacks, both returning from fighting in WWI, and moving North in the great migration, as a “threat” to their jobs and homes. During this time, white people killed hundreds of black men,women, and children and burned thousands of their buildings, homes, businesses and churches to the ground.(Holland)
Originally Poles did not think the riots concerned them. In Chicago, however, where some of the worst riots occurred, Irish gangs attacked Polish neighborhoods in black face trying to convince them that they were white, too and should join them in the fight against blacks. Whiteness came to mean “anti-blackness.” During this time, Poles eventually both saw themselves as and, more importantly, were accepted as white. (Kenzior)
My dad grew up in Warsawa, a poor Polish neighborhood in Cleveland in the 40s and 50s when Poles were considered “white but not quite white enough.” (Kenzior) His house was so close to the steel mills that one side would turn black from the soot.
His family went to St. Stanislaus church, where the services were in Latin and Polish, neither of which he knew. He told me about not understanding the services, but he never told me how majestic the building was. St Stanislaus is a beautiful Gothic Revival church that was built on a former potato farm, a church that was visited by both Pope John Paul and Lech Walesa, Former President of Poland and leader of the Solidarity movement.
As soon as the Polish newspaper, Wiadomosci Codzienne, was in stock each day, my dad’s job was to buy it and deliver it to his grandma. His father worked for US steel and on Saturdays worked at a butcher shop making kielbasa which my grandma simmered over the stove with sauerkraut all day long. His parents both spoke Polish, but only when they didn’t want the kids to understand. I always thought my grandma’s name was Jean, but on the marriage certificate I found on Ancestry, her name was Jennie, so many names changed.
My dad worked in the steel mills to get money to go to college. His boss straight out told him that he was paying him more since he was white and going to college. When my dad told me that, his voice was full of gratitude. He knew he was lucky.
He used that money to pay for his college registration. When he was drafted for Vietnam, he had already paid the registration so the draft board awarded him deferment. In 1968, after he finished his degree in Elementary Education, he wrote another letter to the draft board and enclosed a letter from Akron Public Schools saying they needed male elementary school teachers. He never had to go to Vietnam.
He met my mom at Kent State University in 1965. She was white in a way that he wasn’t and he wanted to protect her from his world. He never would take her to the neighborhood bar, Vince’s. Finally, one time, she went. He was in the bathtub and my dad’s brother and father said they’d take her. So, she knocked on the bathroom door to tell my dad she was going to Vince’s. He popped out of the bathtub and was there before my mom sat down.
I only met my great grandma, the one whose name was on the birth certificate, once. Her name was Stanislawa, but she went by Stella and we called her busha. She had five girls and one boy and, one day, her husband said he was going out for a pack of cigarettes and never came back. She had white hair and only spoke Polish, but I sat next to her on a couch and we smiled and laughed and loved each other. When I overheard my dad say she died one day, I lied down on my Holly Hobbie canopy bed and cried uncontrollably.
My dad wanted me to be different from him. He wanted me to be protestant, like my mom, and go to the wealthiest high school in Akron. He loved to brag about my accomplishments, my grades, my experiences. When I was in high school though, I wanted him to be different. I wanted him to be upper middle class and wear button down shirts instead of being shirtless with bright yellow polyester shorts when my friends came over.
The year after I graduated from college, I lived in Prague. My dad visited me and we travelled in a sleeping car to Krakow, Poland. When we arrived, the day was new and all the shopkeepers were outside sweeping their steps. My dad lit up, remembering his neighbors in Warsawa sweeping their steps each morning. Then, he ordered baked goods from a little bakery using a Polish phrase book. The woman behind the counter giggled in delight at the large obviously Polish man with the thick American accent. We went inside a church and his body automatically knelt and made the sign of the cross, something I had never seen him do before.
That year I traveled throughout Poland. I went to Warsaw, Gdansk, and the Zakopane mountains. I went inside so many churches and gazed at the statues and columns, but never once have I seen St. Stanislaus, the church in Cleveland where my great grandmothers prayed.
My family has assimilated. We have melted into the pot. We are white. My brother and I both have graduate degrees and no one would know we were Polish unless they asked. The weight of this white world we have become a part of, however, is so heavy and thick. George Floyd was murdered 20 minutes from my house and I sat up night after night watching my city burn down.
I want to take refuge in what is deep in my bones. I want to say Polish words out loud. I want to simmer kielbasa with sauerkraut on the stove and sweep my own step in the fresh morning air. And when this pandemic is over, I want to travel to Cleveland and light a candle at St. Stanislaus. A candle for all that I have lost in becoming white and for all things more beautiful than button down shirts. Maybe, only then, a new pot can be made, a pot in which nothing melts and everyone feels safe and respected just as they are.
Kendzior, Sarah. “How Do You Become ‘White’ in America?” TheCorrespondent, 1 Sept. 2016, thecorrespondent.com/5185/how-do-you-become-white-in-america/1466577856645–8260d4a7.
Holland, Jesse J. “Hundreds of Black Deaths in 1919 Are Being Remembered.” The Columbus Dispatch, The Columbus Dispatch, 23 July 2019, http://www.dispatch.com/ZZ/news/20190723/hundreds-of-black-deaths-in-1919-are-being-remembered.