A St. Louis novelist reflects on ancestry, race, DNA testing and hyphenation
When I was a child, we lived on a lake in rural Illinois outside Granite City, where my father worked at a steel mill. But on weekends he was outdoors. In winter, ice skating on the frozen lake or walking off across the shorn cornfields with his shotgun and hunting dog, searching for rabbit. In summer, working in the garden, repairing the rustic house or fishing shirtless from our boat dock or from his homemade rowboat, gliding over the still lake.
My mother, a blue-eyed, blonde granddaughter of northern German immigrants, would then caution him: “Put a shirt on, Ed. You’re getting too dark.”
Jim Crow in St. Louis
Although my father’s parents came from Poland, he was not a round-faced, fair-haired Slav, but rather dark and wolfish, with olive skin that turned deep brown in the sun. My mother feared that when they visited friends or family across the Mississippi in segregated, 1950s
St. Louis, people would think she was with a “colored man” and abuse them for the transgression — “colored” then being the common public term for African-Americans, with St. Louis Post-Dispatch classified ad headings for apartments reading, “For Rent — Colored.”
While my parents — and Jim Crow laws — have long since passed, my personal questions about race have persisted, for I inherited my father’s strong facial features, dark skin and surname, in addition to his mercurial Slavic soul. This led me always to identify with my Polish heritage over my Germanic side and consider myself a Polish-American. Now, thanks to DNA testing, I’ve had to revise that designation — and my perceptions about race, ethnicity and culture.
My curiosity about my father’s dark heritage was whetted by my parents’ refusal even to entertain the question. “You don’t need to know” was their usual response whenever I asked inappropriate questions about procreation and such, and they employed the phrase to end any debate or inquisition into our pre-American past as well. But in this case it was not out of embarrassment or delicacy, but likely out of ignorance and indifference.
Cass Avenue Poles
My father knew and cared little about his family’s European past. To him it was a stigma best ignored, hidden or denied. Born in 1914 in the North St. Louis Polish community, centered on Cass Avenue, he viewed his ethnicity as the social handicap it surely was in Anglo-centric St. Louis society, and for a while had anglicized our surname to “Scott.” Although Polish was his first language (he learned grammatically correct, slang-free English in the St. Louis Public Schools), he refused to teach me any of it: “Speak American,” he’d say.
However, I frequently heard Polish spoken, as his mother, Mary, who had come to the States in 1910, spoke virtually no English, even until the day she died, 60 years later. As a result, she also was little able to quench my curiosity about family history. Though I do recall a story she once told me — likely with my father translating — about Cossacks (she had claimed) raiding her village when she was a girl. They came on horseback as she was sitting outside with a neighbor who clutched an infant son to her breast — that is, until a horseman lifted the child from her arms on the end of his saber.
My Polish grandfather, Joseph, whom I never knew, had come to the United States in 1892 and worked in steel mills in Scranton and Chicago before finally settling in
St. Louis. From genealogical research that I once conducted in a vain attempt to unearth my “dark” past, I learned that he came from the same small Polish town, Zawady, as my grandmother. However, he left Poland two decades before she did, when she was but 2 years old. When she did finally come to St. Louis, alone, they were married within a few months. I suspect it was an arranged marriage of some sort, with him paying her passage over. Such was immigrant courtship and romance circa 1910.
So despite my genealogical research and thanks to my parents’ lack of knowledge and/or interest in such issues, I still didn’t have an answer to my question: What was I racially? Though nominally Polish-American and German-American, I knew that a large measure of other genetic material — seemingly not northern European — tinted the mix. I conjectured in my childhood memoir Christmas at Long Lake that we were “perhaps descendants of raiders from the east. Or of Gypsies … Or perhaps of the Neuri, militant Iranian nomads who inhabited eastern Poland in the fifth century B.C. and who, according to Herodotus, turned into wolves at certain times of the year.”
What I didn’t realize until I finally submitted to DNA testing was how significant my non-European genetic makeup was, how genetically insignificant my Polish heritage was and how wrong I had been my whole life thinking myself a Polish-American.
DNA and Bloody History
DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) is a coiled molecule composed of chromosome cells that transmit genetic information from generation to generation in all living organisms — like a set of blueprints. Segments along the length of a human DNA molecule form sets of genes that we all share, though individuals can inherit different forms of a given gene, making everyone genetically unique.
After making arrangements with a testing lab called AncestryByDNA, I was sent a test kit, which contained two plastic swabs that I used to scrape DNA samples from the inside of my cheek — this is painless — and then mailed back to the lab in Sarasota, Fla. The lab then analyzed my DNA markers and compared my genetic composition to major population groups around the globe.
The test results indicated that only some two-thirds of my DNA came from northern European sources, with the rest coming predominantly from south Asia — that is, India and the Middle East, with a couple of percentage points from southeastern Europe — Turkey, Greece or Italy.
According to historians, the most common way that such Indian DNA mixed into European populations came via the migration of the Roma (often referred to as Gypsies). Some believe they came into existence as a people a thousand years ago when Middle Eastern Muslim invaders conquered northern India and marched the Roma back to present-day Afghanistan and Iran as slaves. Other historians think they were low-caste Hindus recruited and sent west to battle encroaching Islamic armies.
In either case, the Roma remained in the Middle East until the 14th century, when they began moving into Europe. Their migration — from India to the Middle East, then through Turkey and Greece to eastern Europe — suggests a genetic road map paralleled by my DNA results.
Ever since their arrival in Europe some 700 years ago, the Roma have found little warm welcome. They have been alternately shunned, enslaved or slaughtered. In the years after my Polish grandparents landed in America, the Nazis attempted a Gypsy genocide that may have cost half a million lives, some eastern European Communist regimes tried to eradicate the Gypsies through sterilization — as did Norway, until 1977 — and in the 1990s, Germany deported tens of thousands of Gypsies.
Similarly, descendants of my Middle Eastern ancestors have not fared well since my grandparents came to the States. Foreign intervention, war and oppressive Islamic fundamentalism have beset Persia/Iran and Afghanistan, with somber results for many inhabitants. And we know what the 20th century meant to whatever Polish and German kin I may have had in those homelands: totalitarian oppression, saturation bombing, bloody battles, death camps, invasion and hunger.
A Fortunate Migration
There is no way for me to know or gauge the suffering of my ancestors — whether Hindu, Arab, Slav, Turk or Teuton — or to assess what impact, if any, it has on my character or essence. But I do know one highly pertinent and pivotal fact of my ancestral history: On April 5, 1892, my grandfather Joseph Skwiot disembarked the SS Bremen in Baltimore and after some two decades working in American steel mills managed to afford to have a bride sent him from his hometown in Poland. As a result, I was born an American.
Whatever genetic connection I might have with Gypsies, Germans, Slavs or Persians plays little role in who I am compared to that one central fact of family history. Anyway, scientists say that we all share 99.9 percent of our DNA, regardless of our ethnicity, and can all be traced back to a common ancestor in Africa 200,000 years ago — which suggests that race is nothing more than a social construct.
What matters profoundly is that I have had the good fortune to be born and raised in a functional society, one that has done a rather good job of sustaining me — feeding me, educating me and protecting me from foreign invaders, oppressive rule or theocracy. Conversely, my ancestors — either by force or flight — left communities that were significantly dysfunctional for them: low-caste Hindus in India, likely heretical Roma in Islamic lands and lower-class Poles and Germans in rigid European aristocracies where their rights and opportunities were severely circumscribed.
And I am glad they did. However sorry I am for their suffering, it has miniscule effect on me in relation to the safe and nurturing environment in which I find myself. The social mobility, material opportunity and safety offered in the United States compare favorably to most of the remaining world — a fact obvious to disadvantaged people everywhere. Which is why folks like my grandfather continue to flock here — legally or illegally and often at great expense and risk — from societies far less functional for them and their families.
I am also glad for the $670 worth of DNA testing I got. Not for its opening up new avenues of genealogical investigation and knowledge for me or for the possibility of finding famous or infamous kin, but for alerting me to how truly unimportant my genealogy is and how preposterous my lifelong self-perception as a Polish-American has been.
Assuming that my light-complexioned mother transmitted to me only northern European blood and accounted for roughly half my genetic makeup, then the darker portions came solely from my father. Which suggests that, genetically, he was likely more Roma and Arab than Pole. Thus my Polish-American designation was correct only in a minor cultural way — in that I descended in part from people who came here from Poland speaking Polish — and little more. Speaking no Polish and having never been to Poland, I am now forced to reconsider my ethnicity and its meaning, and find it fairly meaningless.
Whether I am descended from Europeans or not, from whores and horse thieves or popes and princesses, matters not. What does matter, I see, is that I have been granted a culture that nurtures all ranks of people rather than oppressing or enslaving them on dubious grounds of race, religion or class. I witness socially disadvantaged and/or politically oppressed people from Asia, the Middle East, Europe, Africa and the Western Hemisphere coming here and actuating themselves materially, intellectually and spiritually. The prostitute’s granddaughter becomes a professor or priest; the steelworker’s grandson writes books and magazine articles instead of performing mean physical labor for a bare subsistence.
So I am abandoning forever my hyphenated existence — my Polish-Americanism — and suggest for accuracy’s sake that we all should. By jettisoning the Polish-, Irish-, African- or Mexican- prefixes, we indicate that we are a new race — not genetically speaking, but culturally, which is ultimately what counts.