How Malcolm X and James Brown Secured My Hungarian Identity

I can’t really remember a time when I was not self-consciously of Hungarian heritage. Sure, I harbor a few single-picture early memories frozen in my mind before I had any sense of what identity even meant, but the sauce in which I was marinated from my earliest remembered days was as a child with two parents who had come to the United States from Hungary by way of Germany after World War II.

I grew up speaking and responding to Hungarian right alongside English, and with my parents’ thick accents and European mannerisms and cultural sensibilities, there was no hiding the fact that members of the Hidas Family were aliens arrived on these shores.

And as freshly arrived immigrants who had attained maturity in their native land, my parents faced the typical immigrants’ dilemma: how to blend into the new land and its ways without denying and sacrificing the old.

The horns of that dilemma are nearly impossible to reconcile in a neat and tidy way, the competing forces being as strong as they are.

It wasn’t until later that I was struck by the largesse my father showed not only in noticing the ambivalent, confused bumblings of his bi-cultural son, but also in adjusting his no-doubt fiercely held mores of fatherly affection to the practices of the new world.

In the extreme, we see it pathologized in the ghastly phenomenon of “honor killings,” a rare-though-documented event in the U.S. in which mostly Mideast immigrant parents kill their daughters who have brought shame on the family by adopting Western ways of clothing and comportment, or in one infamous 2008 case, for trying to leave an arranged marriage.

But there is no immigrant family who doesn’t deal with the tensions and mixed messages of American-Melting-Pot-vs.-Old-Country identity, and the Hidas Family was no exception.

***

I don’t know when I first noticed my parents’ accents. What I remember are fragments, moments of sudden awareness that they didn’t sound the least bit like others, that they were “different,” and therefore I must have been, too. My best friend Jimmy’s dad was a plain-talking fireman who seemed appealingly nondescript. I wondered sometimes what life would be like if he were my dad.

One time when I was probably 8 or 9 years old, I was playing in our backyard with my other friend Mike. My parents had recently acquired a family dog.

“What’s the dog’s name?” Mike asked.

“Cindy,” I said. “It’s a poodle.”

My mother, within earshot as she hung clothes on the line, corrected me.

“Cinka Puna” (pronounced “Tseenka Pun-nuh”), she said. “It’s a Hungarian puli.”

I was mortified, but Mike didn’t pursue my lame attempt to Americanize the name and breed, something that just blurted out of me unplanned and unconscious. Obviously, though, it spoke to a deep desire to blend in seamlessly to some prevailing notion of true blue Americana rattling around in my head.

***

The Americanizing Hidas Family, two more daughters still to come, 1956

***

The same dynamic later came into play when I got my driver’s license, for which I had to produce proof of my immigration status, having been born in Germany.

The green card issued to me at Ellis Island had “Andreas” as my first name, just as it appeared on my birth certificate. I was too daunted at age 15 1/2 to inquire about changing it when applying for my learner’s permit, but for the next couple of years, I tried to avoid showing my license to my friends at all costs. Once I turned 18, I discovered changing it was a breeze at the DMV, and change it I did.

That feels sad and ridiculous to me looking back from the advantage of all these years. “Andreas” contains an appealing tinge of the European and exotic that would have suited my self-identity quite well if I’d have stuck with it. But it was impossible for me to feel even a shred of that at the time, so powerful was my drive to be vacuumed up into the great maw of homogenized America.

***

About this same time is when my father’s kiss became another casualty of my growing, unspoken desire to fit in with my peers.

It was our habit, as an Old-World European family, to freely kiss our parents on arrivals, departures, and in saying good-night. But in time, I became self-conscious about it—at least with my father. In mid-20th century America, physical contact between fathers and sons was pretty much restricted to firm handshakes and occasional roughhousing during touch football or jousts on the lawn.

There came to be those times of street baseball when my father would pull into the driveway upon returning from work and I would wave distractedly, suddenly intent on fiddling with my mitt. He would wave back and continue into the house.

One day he took me aside and told me he’d noticed that the other kids didn’t kiss their fathers hello or good-bye, so from then on it would be O.K. with him, really it would, if we didn’t do so in public, though we could still maintain the practice in our own home.

My memory is of sitting mute, eyes downcast, listening to him as from a distance, feeling neither happy nor sad, perhaps anticipating even then the hollowness of this small victory for assimilation.

Proceeding through the usual adolescent hiccups of my teenage years, I often thought my father hopelessly dim and outdated. (I noticed my daughter shooting me occasional looks the past few years suggesting the same—ain’t payback grand?)

It wasn’t until later that I was struck by the largesse he showed not only in noticing the ambivalent, confused bumblings of his bi-cultural son, but also in adjusting his no-doubt fiercely held mores of fatherly affection to the practices of the new world. It had to pain him to cast an analytical eye on the situation and take the action he did.

It would be years before I would embrace and kiss my father again in public. Years during which we spoke less and less Hungarian in the home. The kids—there were eventually six of us—resisted, and my parents, outnumbered and more assimilated themselves with each passing year, stopped insisting.

Everything different eventually seemed to get swallowed up in the giant island country of America, melting pot of the world.

***

At maximum occupancy, Easter Sunday, 1964

***

By the time I escaped junior high in 1966 for the more expansive climes of high school, the culture was in upheaval. The Watts riots a year earlier had left a pall of smoke easily viewable from our suburban community just 15 minutes from downtown Los Angeles. The accompanying rhetoric and rallying cries suggested the rioters might be coming to burn down our hard-won home as well, something my dad muttered about while watching the evening news.

The Black Power movement, the foundation of which had been paved by countless heroes on the front lines since slavery days and then through Reconstruction and the Civil Rights movement of the 1940-50s, was expressing itself in angrier, less patient terms. Intellectually, it appeared to me most powerfully in the person of Malcolm X, whose autobiography stunned and sent me into an alternate universe that I can honestly say changed my world.

Politically, the more inflammatory Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, the Black Panthers and others came along to both frighten and fascinate me.

But right along with the ultimately empty threats of “Kill Whitey,” there were also salutes and affirmations: “Black Is Beautiful,” and from James Brown:

“Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.”

The song had a kind of irresistible funk to it, even for suburban white kids. And of course James was just the grittiest, grooviest dude ever. I had next to no sense of rhythm at the time (still don’t), but I could feel myself taking on a whole lotta soul.

As blacks rose up in mighty rebellion against the discrimination and oppression that lingered as a deep stain on the American project, they started wearing dashikis and growing Afros, celebrating, emphasizing, their African roots. No more Stepin Fetchit cowering or kowtowing.

***

In the way of such things, the “pride” sentiment that was emerging as such a powerful theme in black culture didn’t contain itself within those borders. It also served to inspire a kind of giant coming-out party for all those who had ever felt shame or been shamed by others for their heritage or any other characteristic that made them who they are.

And it became clear to this Hungarian-American boy that the movement was beginning to burn away some of my own self-consciousness about being different, ethnic, strange.

Eventually, the “power” unleashed in a kind of Black Declaration of Independence multiplied and splintered into a hundred different movements for the previously disenfranchised. Even women’s rights, gay rights, disabled rights, all with their own established historic trajectories, nevertheless seemed to get an extra rocket boost from the thrust of the Black Power movement.

Freedom always carries a viral element, from where it either takes up residence in a new host or is snuffed out under the boot of some antiseptic or authoritarian response.

***

My own ethnic awakening amidst this deep historical tableaux reached its symbolic apotheosis when my high school basketball teammates began calling me “The Mad Hungarian,” partly in good-natured jest, but also with a kind of respect for my hard-nosed (typically Eastern European, I might add) style of play.

Unthinkable as it might have been just half a decade earlier, I embraced the moniker and relished the opportunity to be, yes, “different, ethnic, strange.” 

It didn’t hurt, either, that my mom would occasionally suggest I invite some of my cronies over for a weekend dinner, when she’d do up the authentic-as-can-be Old Country goulash or chicken paprika.

And my parents’ accents? The public hugs of my dad?

“Say it loud, I’m Hunkie and proud.”

***

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8 comments to How Malcolm X and James Brown Secured My Hungarian Identity

  • Linton Hale  says:

    Hi Andreas!

    Beautiful! At one point I wanted to be Mike, John, Doug, Mark… anything other than Linton Reynolds Hale. My story’s a bit different. I’m still sometimes self-conscious of being so whitey and male, apologetic about representing the dominant culture. Probably one of the reasons I love world music and had a pony tail for 18 years?

    I had a good friend in elementary school, Robert who was Hungarian. In kindergarten he did not speak for months. The teacher asked me to hang with him, and I did. I remember being proud that she asked me to take on this role. He and I became genuine friends throughout elementary school. Looking back, I wonder if he didn’t speak much English at first, but don’t remember him having an accent.

    His mother had a strong accent, married a seemingly wealthy man who worked down in Manhattan, who I can hardly remember. I don’t even remember if had an accent.

    She was clearly different, still hungry from starving as a little girl near the end of WWII. She always fed us steak, proudly, but with a kind of desperation, incredulous that we didn’t want to eat the marrow out of the bones. I could see this bone sucking embarrassed my friend, and I remember I felt stuck in the middle, unable to support both of them, sometimes going along with her, sometimes him…

    Well, thanks for the words, the memories, and Power to the People!

    Peace and love,

    Linton

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Linton, it’s so interesting that we all pass through phases of wanting to be someone, anyone, but what we are, before we come to our senses (often much later) and understand we are who we are, and we should be thankful for it.

      Your reflections on the mother who couldn’t understand why you wouldn’t suck the marrow out of bones brought to mind my father’s love of bacon grease, which he spread thick on French bread whenever he could, garnished with as much paprika as one would want to pour on top of it. It was a Saturday morning staple in the Hidas household, accompanied by tomatoes, radishes, pickles and green bell peppers—all the peasant food ingredients that Hungarians are so good at tossing together and making a feast of.

      Good on your teacher for assigning you to help the new Hungarian kid, and for her recognition that you were just the kid to ask to do it. That compassion business starts early, I think, and good teachers learn to recognize and rely on it to help them.

  • joan voight (@shapelygrape)  says:

    The enchanting dance of blending in and yet standing out. For extroverts, it’s easier I imagine.
    In my half-immigrant house, it was all about Mom’s Thai food, which our family ate frequently, but my “American” friends relished only on special occasions. (No Thai restaurants in the suburbs back then.)
    For my good friend with Polish parents, it was about their name, “Woloszyn.” We non-Poles could never remember how to spell it, so we made up a song for it, which we sang it whenever we had to write it down. I still sing it to myself, when I write a note to her family: “W-O-L-O….”
    Also, Andreas, could you share a recipe of your family’s Hungarian stew or other peasant food. Please. Ethnic food rocks.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      So Joan, in your accounting we have food and song taking up the torch of the assimilation/individuality tension. Something heartening about that, given they’re such universals. All people everywhere sit to table and make music. But oh, the different stews & orchestras they produce!

      “Doe, a deer, a female deer,
      Woloszyn is her name…” :-)

      Also: I’ll get on that recipe task when I talk to my older sister, keeper of the flame…

  • Chris Bell  says:

    Beautiful, Andrew.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Thank you very much, Chris. Appreciated…

  • David Jolly  says:

    Andrew,

    I really loved this posting.

    I grew up in Bridgeport, Connecticut, which in the 1950’s and 60’s was decidedly blue collar, the manufacturing capital of the state, and incredibly diverse. About 20% of the kids in my high school were Black, another 20% Puerto Rican, the rest an amazing mix of European ethnic groups: Irish, Polish, Italian, Greek, Rumanian, Hungarian (at one time a section of Bridgeport was known as Little Hungary), German, Russian, Swedish, Finnish, French (usually by way of Canada) etc. There was even a girl in my class whose family was from Luxembourg. Many kids were first generation, and your piece made me wonder how many of them were embarrassed by their parents’ “ethnic ways”. I think perhaps that way back then I didn’t give it any thought because everyone seemed to be from somewhere different and there was no one dominant ethnic culture to measure everyone else by. Also, coming from a profoundly, boringly WASP background, I found the whole scene endlessly interesting. But I could have been clueless (as I was to a whole lot of stuff in high school), and many may have faced the same issues you did. If so, I hope they resolved them as gracefully as you.

    I’m heading to my 50th high school reunion in October. Perhaps I’ll take a poll.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Jeez, David, that really is the quintessential American Melting Pot, and fascinating that with no dominant grouping, the question more becomes, “Just who IS the American here?” So different from my experience, where I’m pretty sure I as the token European and one other kid of Chinese descent were the only non-WASPs (though there were likely a few Catholics in the mix) in my elementary school. There was just a little more diversity later in junior high and high school.

      I actually would be quite interested to hear what if any tension your ethnic classmates experienced around the assimilation issue, so if the conversation allows that evening at your reunion, please do report back!

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