From Poland to America – A Family History

map of poland

Family History Essay

Although I think of myself as a full-blooded all-American college student, the reality is that I am the descendent of immigrants.  At one point my ancestors made a leap of faith to come to America and start a new life for their families. A major influence in the immigration to America both today and hundreds of years ago is the opportunity for jobs and money.  (““) A Mexican immigrant to America today is not so different than an Irish immigrant who came on a boat in 1900.  In this essay, I will focus on the migration of ancestors on my mother’s side from Poland to America as well as detail the often-unaddressed fact that the European states were, at one point in history, formed by immigrants.

According to Zbigniew Celka, the first people to civilize the region that is now called Poland were a tribe of people known as the West Slavs.  During the 6th century, the Slavic peoples began to split into three distinct groups: South Slavs, East Slavs and West Slavs, and dispersed from their homeland between the Vistula and Oder Rivers.  The West Slavs expanded into mostly abandoned land forming a region that is roughly the dimensions of modern day Poland.  The many tribes that inhabited the land were eventually united by a tribe called the Western Polans sometime during the 10th century and formed the state that would one day be modern day Poland.  (Celka 4-5)  This source from Celka is a very detailed research paper done by a student so I can be sure that the information is accurate because of the wealth of sources that the author has cited.  When thinking of European states such as Poland, many people assume that the native people have been there for an indefinite amount of time.  They fail to realize that there was a process that brought the Polish people to Poland hundreds of years ago.  Just as the Slavic peoples expanded into new land, my ancestors traveled to a new land because of a combination of push and pull factors.

Although my family does not have exact records that detail when my great grandparents came to America, my mother is relatively certain that they made the voyage between 1910 and 1913.  Since my mother’s mother died when she was at a young age, my mother could only tell me about her father’s ancestors from Poland.  In analyzing the history of Polish migration to the United States, there are three distinct waves of immigrants with each group leaving for different reasons.  My ancestors would have fallen into the first wave, which took place from the late 19th century up to the start of WWI.  (Urban-Klaehn)

During this first wave of migration, Poland was not a sovereign state.  By the end of the 18th century, the weakened Poland had been split up into partitions between Russia, Prussia and Austria.  (Jones)  I find it amazing that even though my ancestors did not technically have their own state, they held their Polish identity close to heart.  Because of the partitions, Poland was not stable economically or politically and many people were struggling to survive.  My grandfather’s parents were called “za chlebem” immigrants, which literally translates to “for bread.”  (Urban-Klaehn)  My ancestors were pushed from Poland because of political instability as well as mass poverty and famine.  They knew that somewhere, they could find a better life.

For my grandfather’s parents, Mary and Joseph, America was the place to start a new chapter in the family history.  For them as well as millions of other immigrants of the time, America was a land of “streets paved with gold.” (““)While European economies became stagnant, the American economy was booming and looking for large quantities of cheap labor.  According to my mother, Mary and faced hard times economically in Poland.  It was not the place that they wanted to raise a family; they needed economic security.  They chose to travel to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania because of the steel mill industry that was established there as well as availability of plentiful and cheap housing. Joseph easily found and unskilled job in the steel mill and Mary was able to find work in a cigar factory.  The jobs were dangerous and low paying by our standards, but they were a blessing to my ancestors.  The money allowed Joseph and Mary to raise a family and give opportunities to their children that they would have never dreamed of in Poland.

The story of my family is not a unique case.  According to Jagoda Urban-Klaehn, there are millions of Polish people living in the United States today.  In fact, there are 855,526 Polish people just in the city of Pennsylvania. (Urban-Klaehn)  In my research for this essay, I have learned that although I consider myself American, I am also the product of a chain of events that began across the Atlantic Ocean.  There are literally millions of people who have the same exact history that I do.  Now, it is my turn to make the choice.  Will I stay here in America or migrate to a new place and extend my family even further across the world?  The possibilities for my future and the future of the family lie in my hands and only time can tell what will happen.

-Burns 2018

What is Taste? A Cultural Analysis

Kant philosophy

One of the hardest words in the English language to define is taste.  The definition has been wrestled with and torn apart for centuries but still nobody knows what it means.  There are two schools on the idea of taste.  The first believes that taste can be standardized and objectified.  The second believes that taste is not something that can be measured or standardized by any means and that it is completely in the eye of the beholder.  I say that taste has taken on new definitions and implications in the 21st century and that has changed the definition of taste 180 degrees from the philosophies of Kant and Bourdieu.

The late philosopher Immanuel Kant attempted to answer the question of taste in his essay The Critique of Judgment.  I think that Kant’s ideas sound good in theory but are impossible in practice.  One of Kant’s major topics is that taste must be separate from all personal bias.  In order to achieve a “pure judgment of taste” the critic must be impartial to emotions and purpose of the work, in other words, disinterested.    A piece of government propaganda cannot be aesthetically beautiful because it was born with the purpose to persuade.  Pure art should have no purpose; it should simply be.  I disagree with Kant on this point.  I believe that the purpose of art is to convey an emotion in the mind of the beholder.  If a piece of art fails to do this then why even create it?  The purpose of art is to be enjoyed and savored, not robotically examined.

There are many things that are considered pleasurable.  Musical notes, the color green, flowers, all are pleasing to the senses but, according to Kant, they are not beautiful in themselves.  Kant proposes that it is not the individual parts that make something beautiful, but the “delineation” or form of the individual components.  In the words of Kant, “ a pure judgment of taste has for its determining ground neither charm nor emotion-in a word, no sensation as the material of aesthetic judgment.”  One must put all charms aside and look only at the form in order to recognize pure beauty.  Although his first point is almost irreconcilable to me, I do believe with Kant on this point.  The form of a piece of art is more important than the individual pieces because we perceive art as a whole entity, not a random assortment of parts.

In the late 20th century, a man named Pierre Boudieu conducted a large-scale study on the link between taste and social class. Between the years of 1963 and 1968 Bourdieu surveyed a group of 1,217 people who he divided into groups based on their economic and cultural backgrounds.  Bourdieu found very strong similarities within the groups and this led him to believe that taste is a learned element of culture, not an inherent quality that people are born with.  He divides taste into three categories: low brow, middle brow and high brow.  A person who has grown up around money and a culturally rich lifestyle will be more apt to like a “legitimate” work such as the song “Well-Tempered Clavier” than a person who was raised around “popular” works such as “insert popular work here.”

I strongly disagree with Bourdieu for many reasons.  His assumptions of what is legitimate and what is not are completely biased on social class.  According to Bourdieu, a large percentage of the population is automatically doomed to lowbrow taste with no consideration of the individual.  These assumptions are just as bad if not worse than racism.  Social class does not make one more tasteful than another.  Simply listening to a particular song or viewing a piece of art does not mean that one fully grasps its aesthetic essence.  Furthermore I believe that Bourdieu’s theory has become obsolete with the rise and widespread use of the Internet.  We are now in a new age, the information age in which cultural and social boundaries have become blurred and the standard of taste is eroding.

Before the invention and widespread use of the Internet there were indeed societal barriers to entry to “highbrow” art.  If one wanted to hear the latest piece by the symphony or view the most esteemed art of the time, a monetary payment was necessary.  Today a bum on the streets of New York can walk into a public library, access the internet, put on headphones and enjoy the Sydney Opera just as much or more than a person who is actually there.  In the past information and art was shared physically but today a song, dance, or piece of art can be sent to the farthest reaches of the globe in milliseconds.