Dan Georgakas is director of the Greek American Studies Project at the Center for Byzantine and Modner Greek Studies, Queens College (CUNY). His My Detroit: Growing Up Greek and American in Motor City is available in English and Greek.
A central concern in every era of Greek America has been how to sustain a viable Hellenic entity in America. The Greek America of 2017 is far different than the community of 1917. Rather than being mostly foreign-born and not well-educated, the current community is primarily American-born and well-educated. The future community will be even more different.
In the past, repeated new waves of immigrants renewed Hellenic identity. The most spectacular inflow was the 250,000 Second Wave immigrants from Greece and Cyprus (1965-1980). Since then, the flow of Greek immigrants has been so low that it is largely balanced by Greek Americans relocating to Greece. A massive Third Wave of Greek immigration is not likely. Even during the present Greek crisis, when over 500,000 Greeks have left the homeland, less than 8,0000 came to the United States.
The dominant demographic feature of today’s Greek America is an outmarriage rate to non-Greeks that is at least 85%. This phenomenon means that in fifty years, the majority Greek American population will have a mixed ethnic heritage. These mixed-heritage Greek Americans can just drop their ethnic heritages, treat them symbolically, cultivate multiple heritages, or decide to be Hellenes.
The Greeks of the Great Migration (1880-1924) and the Second Wave (1965-1980 were Greek by birth and mainly were concerned with how American they wished or were allowed to be. Their children mainly thought of themselves as caretakers of an inherited ethnic legacy and had to decide how Greek they wanted to be. The emerging mixed ethnic heritage generation is less concerned about being caretakers of a historic legacy. Individuals opt for a Greek identity when that suits their personal ambitions and psychology. The challenge facing the present Greek American community is to establish an attractive and welcoming culture. With that reality in mind, there are numerous community actions that foster the choice of Hellenic identity.
Access to Greece
A Greek America that is not connected to Greece is hard to imagine. Maintaining that contact is essential. We are fortunate that the land and people of Greece pretty much sell themselves. For the past decades, many Greek American organization have understood this reality and fed that connection by sponsoring travel to Greece by thousands of Greek Americans, roughly aged from 15-25. The response has been terrific. Participants return feeling very enthusiastic about being Greek and wanting, in many cases, to learn more about Greek culture and to better navigate the Greek language.
The nature of each program differs. Organizations like AHEPA and the National Hellenic Society provide relatively large numbers with an introduction to contemporary Greek culture laced with some education on the Byzantines and Classic Greece. Regionally-based groups focus on familiarizing students with the local history and culture of their forbearers. The American Hellenic Institute provides a relatively small group interested in public service with intense interactions with political figures and thinkers in Greece and Cyprus. The variety of programs offers considerable choice for young Greek Americans. A doable goal for Greek America should be to establish a national program that offer all maturing Greek Americans the opportunity to visit Greece with a group of their peers.
Revitalizing Secular Culture
If Hellenic culture, rather than genetic heritage soon will be central to Greek identity, the community needs to move into areas where it has not been strong. Although we have done well in preserving traditional dancing and music, there has been a weak commitment to the other arts. We must understand that if we want young people to choose Greek identity we must go beyond celebrating Greek national holidays and traditions. If we wish to have work produced by, for, and about Greek America, we need to support our artists and intellectuals. Without such support, they will go to where their efforts are appreciated.
One existing model of cultural activism is Chicago’s National Hellenic Museum. The museum has regular book signings, music programs, culinary classes, and other activities designed to engage different elements of the community. Organizations in smaller cities cannot match the variety of activities in Chicago, but events on a more modest scale are possible.
Every Greek American household needs to subscribe to a Greek American publication. The best of these are essential in shaping a sophisticated ethnic culture. Moreover, if physical literature is not present in the home, younger people are not going out to find it on their own.
Our newspapers can play a critical role in the next decades, but with major differences from the past. Breaking news has become the domain of the Internet. This means our ethnic press needs to concentrate on in-depth quality commentary while continuing to cover topics that are ethnic in nature but not part of the conventional 24-hour news cycle. Music, film, and literary critics must have the same credibility as political columnists. To simply publicize an event or work by a Greek artist is no longer sufficient. Puff pieces where all works by Greek Americans are automatically praised are counter-productive. The justly popular tradition of offering recipes, evaluating Greek wines, and reviewing restaurants is sound, but they, too, need to be upgraded. If upgrading becomes the norm, our ethnic mass media well grow even as some forms of conventional media perish.
Greek film festivals did not exist in the 1980s. Today, there are half a dozen. Cinema is a dynamic way of bringing contemporary Greek culture to a popular audience. Screenings are cultural rather than financial enterprises. A side benefit is that Greek films help those with limited Greek or those learning Greeks with their language skills. They get to simultaneously hear idiomatic Greek while checking the subtitles to see if they have correctly understood what was being said.
Books with Hellenic themes generally sell in the low thousands. Consequently, most are published by university presses, small independent presses, and ad hoc groups. Greek American organizations with multiple chapters can offer tremendous support to these publishers by buying books for their organizations, local university collections, and public libraries. Multiple subscriptions to literary magazines and academic journals would help greatly in keeping these economically marginal ventures viable. The same holds true for videos with Hellenic topics. DVD sales of such works are so low by usual commercial standards that even modest support would be sufficient to keep independent filmmakers solvent even if theatrical screenings are sparse.
The Future of Greek Orthodoxy
The Greek Orthodox Church has long been a backbone of Greek America. Church policies in the next decades will greatly affect the nature of our ethnic identity. Three major options are available to the Church.
The easiest option is to continue present policies. The Church currently welcomes converts, but is passive in terms of its outreach. Consequently, most conversions are a result of outmarriage to non-Greeks who adopt their spouse’s religion. The shortage of priests continues and many new priests are converts from related faiths rather than clergy schooled in Greek Orthodox seminaries. Not much is being done to promote national or ecumenical visibility. There is no specific agenda aimed at the needs of children of outmarriages
An alternative policy would be to make the preservation of Greek identity in America a priority. Fewer compromises would be made with American culture and using the Greek language would be stressed. Such a Church would almost certainly decrease in total numbers, but the faithful would be united by a strong commitment to a culturally-focused Church. While such a Church is not particularly appealing to children of outmarriages in general, those who were attracted acquire an intense ethnic identity. Such a pathway was favored by former Archbishop Spyridon. The controversial Spyrdion has opined, “I constantly ask what the future of our Church is going to be in America as I see the continuous assimilation of the Greek element. The closing of the Greek schools and the growing career mentality of the clergy have me agonizing more and more every day.”
A third choice is for the Church to strive to become a national Orthodox Church in which the Greek in its title is generic, like the Roman in Roman Catholic. The emphasis would be on faith rather than ethnicity. There could be serious outreach to other Orthodox believers, but growth would mainly entail conversions from other faiths. The Greekness of the Church in this scenario would be in its core values and rituals. Although the liturgy and hymns might remain in Greek just as the Catholics once used Latin, most Church activities would be conducted in English. This orientation has obvious appeal for the children of outmarriages. Such an approach, however, has never been attempted in the United States and has numerous risks and complexities.
Accessing the Communications Revolution
A new dynamic force in Greek America and the rest of the world is the ongoing communication revolution. This phenomenon can be a tremendous asset in promoting Hellenic identity. The most obvious benefit is that electronic media offers instant communication with family members and intimate friends. Exchanges of photos, letters, and Skype sessions mean that, unlike the past, geographical separation does not mean an automatic familial disconnect.
Greeks who do not live in Greek centers can now easily remain up-to-date on all Hellenic current events. They also can be in communication with professional colleagues in virtual communities that can be as productive as face-to-face relationships. That means Hellenic contacts with colleagues in Greece, Australia, Ukraine, and other places where speed and ease of communication was slow and difficult even ten to twenty years ago.
Our organizations mainly use electronic media as a substitute for the pamphlets they formally printed. Few have tried to develop publications aimed at the general public or preserving a historical memory. Local web sites can offer a schedule of upcoming or ongoing events in a manner even more effective than the community radio or weekly newspaper of yore.
Another new phenomenon is the use of the Internet to build social relations among young people.
The Greek Language in America: An Endangered Species
Whether Greek Americans can truly be Greek if they only speak English, has long been debated, but no one questions that Greek culture is best appreciated in the mother tongue. A new factor in sustaining Greek in America is that the United States has recognized we operate in an emerging global system that prizes cultural sensitivity. The need to speak more than one language is becoming all but mandatory. This situation results in some unexpected benefits for us, including new funding pathways. Public charter or magnet schools, Greek language classes in some public schools, Internet language courses, and a strong focus on college language courses are all positive developments.
Universities are playing an increasingly critical role in Greek language education. An advantage of such programs is that they often have formal study abroad options that provide extensive first-hand experience and interactions with Greek colleagues. A chronic problem in maximizing the potential of such outreach has been that funding from foundations often goes to Classical or Byzantine Studies rather than Modern Greek Studies and Greek American Studies. All are worthy, but funding the latter two is essential for community survival.
Ethnic Heritage and Political Engagement
Greek Americans are justly proud of Classical Greek and Byzantine history, but our knowledge of both is shallow and even shallower about modern Greece history and the history of the Greeks in America. In many ways, we treat our heritage as a precious porcelain art work to be admired but not used.
Learning about Greeks in history is unusual even at the college level. Classical Greece gets some play, though not as much as it should or used to. The Byzantine Empire usually rates only a page or so in conventional world history texts. The Greek genocide engineered by the Ottomans and then Turkey is rarely discussed. Accounts of World War II, rarely make much reference to the Greek defeat of Mussolini or the diversion of German divisions from other battlegrounds to combat the Greek resistance. The history of Greek American does not fare any better. Greeks are usually just lumped in with “other European immigrants.”
National umbrella organizations have never been successful in Greek America. Effective action is usually more viable when carried out by groups at the base of the community. An example of possible direct Hellenic action relates to the annual 500 Greek food festivals, usually held in tandem with a local Church. Not one offers a literature table on a non-controversial religious matter, such as the continued closure of the Halki seminary by Turkey. A petition could be available to send to the appropriate politicians, mass media, and even the Turkish government. Just a few persons are needed to attend such a table. Outreach of this kind would greatly aid our Congressional leaders. If by some miracle, all the festivals took such action, there is a potential for half-a-million signatures.
The topika somatei (regional societies) have a crucial role to play. They embody the most direct and immediate linkage to Greece. These organizations, unfortunately, have not done much to communicate with the American public. Pontian societies are an exception. They vigorously sponsor lectures, organize forums, and publish books, including teaching guides for elementary school teachers. Actions are often undertaken in cooperation with Armenian and Assyrian organizations. Other groups also have been vigorous, but the majority of the topika somatei remain social societies with limited outreach.
Modern Greek Studies programs rarely organize events of interest to other scholars, journalists, or the general public. If the community wants to have more public seminars and more dynamic scholarship it must fund such projects. A legitimate complaint of MGSA program in this regard, however, is that funding cannot be accompanied by conditions about who can and cannot speak and insistence on preconceived conclusions. Those are intellectual non-starters.
Greek Americans are increasing aware that our future has more to do with interactions with modern Greece than nostalgia about “the village,” Classic Greek ruins, and Byzantine glories. We must know our history to understand why some of our tactics succeeded while others fail. We must understand that when dealing with foreign policy issues, we cannot stress ethnic pride but why what we propose is good for the United States. We were able to mount a successful Greek War Relief in World War II, but most Greek Americans were silent about the junta. Why did politicians such as Spiro Agnew and many organizations openly embrace the dictatorship? We were we able to rally ourselves when Cyprus was invaded by Turkey and we succeeded in holding down military financing for some time. Now, we are less active and effective on this issue. Why have we not pressured our government regarding the FYROM name fiasco? Why have we allowed Turkey to be regarded so positively? What cultural strengths in Hellenism have earned us the distinction of being recognized by other Americans as a “model” immigrant community? Answers to such questions demand serious scholarly study and public debate, not silence about the negatives and uninformed self-congratulations on the positives.
Speculating on the future is always risky. If we were thinking about the future in the early 1960s, we would not have anticipated the importance of the Second Wave of immigration that was already underway. Nor would we have imagined a military dictatorship being established in 1967 in the land we routinely celebrate as “the cradle of democracy.” That a Greek American would be the presidential candidate of one of the major parties was not on our agenda either.
Most ethnic groups in America do not survive past the fourth generation unless there is renewed or constant immigration. High outmarriage is the norm and the children of those marriages usually move away from ethnic identity to American identity. This pattern suggests that even if all the changes that appear positive should materialize, the maintenance and growth of Greek America is not guaranteed. What is guaranteed is failure of the community and possibly its demise if it just looks backward, hankering for a romanticized yesteryear or dwelling on the negatives in play.
Often forgotten by doomsters is that while new forces will wipe away many old patterns, they will also establish powerful new social dynamics. One of our ethnic legacies is that earlier generations of Greek Americans knew their fate in America required initiating actions believed appropriate for growth. Our image in America is extremely positive. From this position of strength, maintaining a durable Hellenic identity in America is doable, but it requires more than wishful thinking.