Sunday, December 5, 2021

The Bicentenary and Contemporary Greek Identity in Relation to Interethnic Encounters

For my contribution to the conversation about the bicentenary, I have been working on a host of narratives which connect the Greek revolution with the making of contemporary Greek identity in relation to historically disenfranchised populations. The context of my initial sample of narratives included both Greece and the diaspora (see my presentation at the Yale conference on the Greek Revolution and the Diaspora here). 

But as I turn my talk into a book chapter, and in the interest of space, I focus exclusively on the diaspora component. Still, the section on Greece belongs to the broader problematic of the paper, namely bicentenary narratives which place the making of Greek civic identities in the context of interethnic encounters and in relation to people not historically connected with the revolution. 

I am sharing it here: 

An essay by Dimitris Christopoulos (2021) brings the Greek revolution and the making of a Greek civic identity today in conversation. The author singles out the first provisional revolutionary constitution––voted by the national assembly of Epidaurus on January 1, 1822––as a prism to reflect on citizenship practices in modern Greece. As the “most robust birth-right citizenship [jus soli] law Greece has ever known,” he writes, the Epidaurus constitution calls to “reexamine Greece’s version of ‘we the people’” in the context of the country’s multiethnic present. Do we consider the children of the immigrants “members of the Greek nation”? he asks. “Do we want them in our polity? … who do we want to be, after all?” 

Christopoulos reminds us that a revolution “confronts the primary political question of power”: “who has power, who claims power, who questions power, who gains power. It defines those we want, those we expel, those we tolerate, those we prefer, those with whom we proceed and those we leave behind.” 

This position recognizes that identity is more than an act of defining the self; it implicitly or explicitly positions the self in relation to others. As John Gillis’s (1994) statement in the epigraph indicates, “every assertion of identity involves a choice that affects not just ourselves but others” (5). 

Two hundred years since the revolution, the question of Greek civic identity is raised once again with urgency in view that since the 1990s, at least, Greece has become the destination of waves of immigrants. The reigning jus sanguine (the right of blood) at the time presented a legal barrier for conferring citizenship rights to immigrant children born in Greece and consequently a roadblock for their social integration and mobility. It is upon the Greek state’s power to legislate, and the Greek people’s power to decide about the place of non-ethnically Greek demographics such as immigrants, refugees, and their children in the polity. 

The birthright legal principle of the revolutionary era¬¬––whose cycle ended in 1835––presents a legacy, Christopoulos advocates, to be adopted and adjusted (1) to the current circumstances of multiethnic Greece. And while in fact the legal framework has been shifting since 2015 toward an inclusive jus soli ideology, the place of naturalized immigrants and their children in the nation is still contested. 

Will those immigrants who are conferred the legal right of citizenship be rendered as equally Greek in the national imaginary? The question requires further reflection about the necessary political arrangements and cultural mechanisms toward this inclusion. It also calls for investigation about how certain intersections between civic and cultural Greek identities might facilitate the process of inclusion.

Yiorgos Anagnostou 
October 2021. 


1. For the ideological and pragmatic motivations regarding the criteria for citizenship in the provisional constitutions during the revolution see E. Vogli, «The Greek War of Independence and the Emergence of a Modern Nation-state in Southeastern Europe (1821-1827)», στο Plamen Mitev et al (επιμ.), Empires and Peninsulas: Southeastern Europe Between Karlowitz and the Peace of Adrianople, 1699-1829 (Berlin 2010: LIT Verlag), σ. 194–195]. 

Works Cited 

Christopoulos, Dimitris, «Giannis Antetokounmpo and 200 Years of Greek Revolution», OpenDemocracy, 8 March 2021, [accessed June 10, 2021].

Gillis, John, «Memory and Identity: The History of a Relationship», στο John R. Gillis (επιμ.), Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity (Princeton 1994: Princeton University Press): 3–24.

Sunday, November 7, 2021

Neglected Books

I am rereading with great interest Yiorgos Kalogeras' «Εθνοτικές γεωγραφίες: Κοινωνικο-πολιτισμικές ταυτίσεις μίας μετανάστευσης» (2007), an important book about various facets of Greek America. This is how it is described by the publisher:

«Το βιβλίο "Εθνοτικές γεωγραφίες" αποτελεί καρπό έρευνας, συγγραφής και επανασυγγραφής μίας δεκαπενταετίας. Τα επιμέρους κεφάλαια επικεντρώνονται κατά κύριο λόγο στην πρόσληψη και κατανόηση της ταυτότητας που οι Έλληνες μετανάστες στις ΗΠΑ και οι απόγονοι τους προβάλλουν στα κείμενα τους. Ο συγγραφέας εξετάζει λογοτεχνικά, ιστορικά, ανθρωπολογικά και κινηματογραφικά έργα, αναλύει γνωστά και καθιερωμένα από την κριτική κείμενα όπως το "Αμέρικα-Αμέρικα" του Kazan ή την "Ελένη" του Gage, αλλά και ανασύρει από τη λήθη άγνωστες μορφές του ελληνισμού της Αμερικής που σημάδεψαν την εποχή τους όπως η δημοσιογράφος Δήμητρα Βακά».

Εθνοτικές γεωγραφίες is often cited in theoretically-oriented publications in Greek. It asks hard questions about Greek American institutions, and engages critically with canonical texts. But as far as I can tell, it has not been reviewed in U.S. journals specializing in Greek America and diaspora. I cannot help but wonder why.

Monday, November 1, 2021

Epitaphios: A Poem, a Song, a Dirge (Writing for the local community)

The story of the poem “Epitaphios” starts with a newspaper photograph depicting a mother lamenting over the body of her dead son, killed during a peaceful protest by tobacco workers, in May 1936, in Thessaloniki. The victim was one among a total of twelve dead workers in a strike “drowned in blood by the dictatorial government” at the time.

When poet Yannis Ritsos (1909-1990) saw this dramatic image, moved he rendered it in poetry. Initially entitled “The Dirge” (Miroloi), it was published the same year in a leftist newspaper. It was later expanded to 324 lines and renamed “Epitaphios.” 

This is the opening two couplets: 

My son, flesh of my flesh, dear heart of my heart, / little bird in the poor courtyard, blossom in my desert, How is it that your eyes are closed and you do not see me cry, / and you do not stir or hear my bitter words? 

The final form of the poem consists of twenty stanzas of eight rhymed couplets (with some exceptions). The fifteen-syllable meter and the rhyming are unfortunately sacrificed in its rendering into English. Bilingual readers will readily recognize the loss in the translation: 

Στη στράτα εδώ καταμεσίς τ’ άσπρα μαλλιά μου λύνω / και σου σκεπάζω της μορφής το μαραμένο κρίνο. 

Here in the middle of the street I let down my white hair / and cover the wilted lily of your form. 

The poem has an interesting music life. Musician Mikis Theodorakis (1925-2021) composed eight songs based on selective verses in 1958, and soon later Manos Hadjidakis (1925-1994), another prominent composer, arranged the same music for recital-hall performance. 

“Epitaphios” is a lamentation, a public expression of intense grief, which is put into music and sung, something which is not unusual in Greek religious and social life. An ancient tradition, lamentations express heightened grief, not only about the loss of human life but also social and political crises. There are folk lamentation-songs, for example, about the fall of Constantinople. Early in the 20th century, the experience of emigration––xenitia––generated folk songs about a family member venturing into an uncertain, dangerous future. There is also a rich tradition––now vanishing––of dramatic performances of ritual laments in rural Greece, particularly the regions of Mani, Epirus, and Crete. Laments are about shared grief and collective participation in its experience. 

Significantly, “Epitaphios” draws from both the religious and folk traditions of lamentations. It draws recurrent motifs and images such as lavish praise for the deceased and incredulity in the case of untimely death. These motifs heighten the emotional involvement of the participants. Greek Orthodox readers will recognize the connection between the title of the poem–– “Epitaphios”––and the ecclesiastical tradition, as it obviously evokes the lament “Epitaphios Thrinos,” the dirge of the Virgin Mary and the mourning women at the tomb of the crucified Christ. The poem draws from several images and themes in Mary’s lamentations. They share, for example, the theme of unjust death. Christ is crucified “as a criminal among criminals” (stasis 1.8), and is “unjustly condemned” (1.56), just as the dead laborer is killed unjustly “for demanding adequate wages for his work”: My son, what wrong did you commit? From unjust men / you sought payment for your own labors. Or, if “with his physical beauty Christ beautifies the natural world” (stasis 1.9), the son’s beauty is lavished by the grief-stricken mother: Eyebrow, smooth as braided silk and drawn with a fine pen, / an arch where my glance would perch and rest 

The poem also builds on folk imagery, such as the metaphor of bird (“pouli”), a term of endearment with which mothers frequently address their male children: “The dead boy is a frail bird who has flown from the cage”; “his hands are folded like the wings of a sick bird.” In the example of “Epitaphios” modern poetry interfaces with ecclesiastical and folk traditions. Secular lamentations may be disappearing in Greece, but they acquire a new “life” in poetry and musical compositions. But this does not happen without controversy. 

“Epitaphios” has been stigmatized “as dangerous and blasphemous,” and was included in a public book-burning event by the dictatorship of John Metaxas (1936-1940). For the Greek left, in contrast, it is a “slogan song.” It was performed, for example, outside a Salonica hospital in 1963 to mournfully protest the assassination of parliamentary deputy and pacifist Grigoris Lambrakis. Poetry and politics are often interwoven in Greece, and “Epitaphios” is not an exception. 

Yiorgos Anagnostou 

Credits for the translation and analysis: Rick M. Newton

Sunday, June 27, 2021

From the Point of View of College Students: What is a subject worth the attention of Greek American studies? [Food, connections with cultural identity, Greek Orthodoxy, and Greece]

"When thinking about important topics to study under the realm of Greek America, one that is significant to me is the study of the Greek food in America, particularly how it is a way for Americanized and later generations of Greek Americans to retain aspects of their culture as well as their religion. As a 3rd generation Greek American, food is the most common way I connect with the culture of my mother and grandparents. My yiayia makes delicious dishes, heavily influenced by the food she ate growing up and the food made by other Greek Americans she is friends with. She attempts to pass on her recipes to her children and grandchildren, but this is sometimes difficult because “a cup of flour” to her is flour filled to the brim of her favorite mug. Nevertheless, eating and enjoying these dishes brings us together and makes us feel Greek without being in Greece. This topic is an important one to study because, just like it is for me, for many it is a way to connect with the culture of their ancestors in a country across the ocean. It would be interesting to study how food connects later-generation Greek Americans to their heritage.

The topic is also relevant because Greek food is heavily influenced by the Orthodox religion that is common in Greece. There are many fasting and feasting days in the liturgical calendar that require certain foods be eaten. For example, many Orthodox Christians avoid eating most meat and animal products during the forty days leading up to Easter. This means there are many meals and cookies that are made specifically during this period of time. Then, on Easter, a popular meal is roast lamb, supposedly representing Jesus as “the lamb of God.” Greek recipes like this not only tie Greek Americans to Greece but also tie them to the Orthodox religion. To study the connection Greek food has to religion in America, I would ask if later generation Greek Americans still hold these connections; do they know that recipes like lentil soup are often made during the Lenten season? Do they feel a connection to the Orthodox Church through these meals?

Lastly, a question I would ask you in particular is what are the best ways that later generation Greek Americans can keep aspects of their Greek culture? Since I am half Greek and a second-generation American, how can my future children stay connected to this culture that will only be a sliver of their heritage?"

[My note: Given the centrality of Greek food in Greek American family, social and public life, it is astonishing––isn't it––that there is no systematic scholarship on food cultures in Greek America]

Saturday, June 26, 2021

From the Point of View of College Students: What is a subject worth the attention of Greek American studies (Redefining Greek American identity among the youth, intergenerational cultural distance)

Something that fascinated me is how the younger Greek Americans are redefining their identity nowadays. I think the older generations are noticing a change or general trend of perhaps different priorities or emphasis on other aspects of Greek culture than what they would like. I have been noticing in the Greek community, in St. Louis (my hometown), that the older generations are expecting a lot more from the younger generation Greek Americans as far as the language and religion aspect of being Greek. However, I don’t think the youth has fully embraced their Greek heritage as their grandparents or older generations would want. I think this tension can cause distance between these generations which I have seen with my peers personally. Thus, it would be important to explore how young Greek Americans are defining being a Greek American in today’s society. I personally think this may help the two points of view understand each other better and may show which direction Greek Americans are headed as far as preserving Hellenism in the future. Some specific questions would be what do the youth want to take away from their Greek American community socially and religiously? How do they plan to (if they want to) maintain their Greek background? I also wonder how Greek Americans connect with other Greek Americans whether this is through the Greek community or in school/college. It would also be interesting to find out what specific Greek traditions they will continue if they had any growing up in their household. I feel like as if right now there may not be a general consensus for these questions, but it's still worth it to explore.

2) Ask these scholars a question of your own choice. Please be creative and insightful, devote some time thinking seriously the questions you will be asking.

My grandparents, parents, and other members of my Parish in St. Louis fear that there will be a loss of Greek culture, at least the aspects that were highlighted by Greek immigrants that came to the United States. I personally can see their point as younger generations are redefining what it means to be a Greek American. I know that there are multiple factors as to why this can happen. I was wondering if scholars believe that a loss of some aspects of Greek culture (if not all) is inevitable based on what we know today. I know it can be challenging to predict this, but it would be interesting if there was any research or statistics that supported one way or another. Going off that question, I am curious to know if scholars believe there is a way to potentially change that outcome, if the data supports that the loss of Greek culture and traditions is inevitable.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

From the Point of View of College Students: What is a subject worth the attention of Greek American studies? (Immigrants, Greek Americans, and Historical Homeland Politics)

"An important topic I would like the academics to research is Greek Americans’ involvement and stand in politics and other important matters back at home in Greece. This topic is important to me because I have seen other groups of immigrants who although probably lived here so many years still keep updates on what goes on back in their homeland. Some even have protests and other supportive activities here in America to support and raise awareness about what goes on in their country such as Palestine. Every year there are protests that happenings in many different states to show how what happens in Palestine is very unjust and how they need help. Also, these types of activities bring together people of all kinds, not only different generations of immigrants but also people from other parts of the world, because at the end of the day everyone is fighting for human rights. So if the academics did a research on this topic, I would like to see if Greeks also do the same things as other American immigrants I’ve seen do. Some of the questions they should be asking in their research topic is what generation of immigrants are the participants, do they do a daily update on what goes on in Greece, how involved are they, do they send money back home to relatives that still live there, and to other people who might be in need. Does their stand on politics in Greece effect their stand on politics in America?

Questions for scholars: What made you become interested in research? How often do you participate in new research? Do you ever feel like this isn’t what you want to do anymore? Does information you find in your studies often change your perspective in life and the way you live? What is one of your most interesting research topics, and what made you decided to pursuit that research?"

Monday, June 21, 2021

College Students: What is a subject worth the attention of Greek American studies? (Psychology of Immigration)

One of the homework assignments in my Greek American class this semester (Spring 2021) was asking students the following: 

1) What is an important topic of personal significance to you that you would like scholars of Greek America to explore? Why is this topic important (to you, or the country, or Greek America)? What questions should they be asking in their research of this topic? 

 2) Ask these scholars a question of your own choice. Please be creative and insightful, devote some time thinking seriously the questions you will be asking. 

A topic I feel is an important one for research is the emotional toll immigrating to America as a Greek person can have on the mental health of Greek Americans. This topic is important to me because psychology is something I am very interested in, but the state of a person’s mental health also affects their daily life. There is a number of hardships associated with moving to a new country, especially when leaving behind family members is involved, and these hardships can easily take a toll on anyone's mental health. Some questions I feel would be of importance in this area are understanding what sorts of difficulties in the process of immigration have been most upsetting or stressful. Also, how these struggles may be impacting people's day to day lives, and if there is an outreach for help. The personal problems of singular Greek Americans are not talked about as much as the widespread issues, and I feel there should be more attention put towards the mental health of individual citizens. Individual questions could be about issues of current life in America, and how often they think about their problems with adjusting and how much of a stressor these worries are causing. 

One question I have regarding Greek America is how much of the Greek culture remains in Greek American families through second, third, fourth, etc. generations of Greek Americans. How much of the culture remains as families get farther away from the original immigration? We have learned in class that many families have become less and less traditional as time goes on and children are often much less traditional than their Greek parents. Along with this I would like to know how they perceive this straying away from tradition will affect Greek American culture in the United States. Will Greek culture remain a large part of American society, or as Greek Americans become more Americanized will this start to change?