In a recent talk I gave at the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago, the audience raised urgent questions of concern to all of us who care about Greek America and its future. In the hospitable setting of the museum, the question regarding Greek identity in the U.S. came up repeatedly: Who is a Greek American? What is it that makes us Greek Americans? What does it mean to be Greek in America?
A powerful impulse drove some in the audience to define Greek Americans as a homogeneous group. There was the conviction that defining ourselves around a fixed cultural core–say language, dance, food, and a common understanding of history–is the most secure path to ethnic preservation. According to this view, the sharing of cultural practices and ideas translates into ethnic strength and vitality.
Others doubted this premise. What if one does not speak Greek but nevertheless self-identifies as Greek? What if one is not drawn to dance but finds alternative Greek expressions meaningful? What if one interprets history differently? This line of thinking encapsulates the multitude of ways in which Greek-American identity could find expression today.
Though seductive in its cultural focus, the idea of defining Greek America as a homogeneous group inevitably works via exclusion. It erects a wall banning a vibrant sector of Greek Americans who do not conform to any single definition. It certainly alienates a pool of valuable human resources from our communities. The relentless pursuit for sameness will stifle those who do not conform. Is this a desirable vision for Greek America? Can we afford to exalt America’s embracing of diversity while insisting on a Greek-American monoculture?
The issue of homogeneity raises practical issues as well. Let us admit this: We are a fragmented community, linguistically and culturally. Some families visit Greece often, revitalizing diaspora connections; others do not. Greek Americans living in close proximity to Greektown Chicago have at their disposal a rich gamut of venues to experience ethnicity, unavailable in, say, suburban Columbus, Ohio. Interethnic marriages add to our internal diversity. Competing lifestyle options as well as ideologies contribute to our heterogeneity. There are millionaires in Greek America, a visible middle class, and a toiling working class, each pointing to fundamentally different experiences. And rival interpretations of our history and culture animate scholarly debates. It is simply impossible to excise heterogeneity when one tries to define Greek America. Those who have ventured to portray us as a single culture have managed to produce only monstrous caricatures.
Let us pause for a long moment and pose the question afresh: What if we see this heterogeneity as a resource rather than a weakness? What if we see it as a source of enrichment rather a cause for despair? What if we embrace the notion that there are many ways of being a U.S. Greek?
I anticipate a legitimate concern. Diversity threatens to dissolve community and dilute communal values. It encourages privatization of identities, compromising collective belonging and modes of action. It is a force that pushes toward the critical point at which all cohesion breaks down. It enables those who make no effort to reach out to the group to see identity as a pursuit of personal discovery in the colorful pool of American ethnic selfhood. In this scenario the obligation to support ethnic institutions weakens or even evaporates.
These concerns help to reframe the question of interest here: How can we maintain a collective that is spaciously inclusive while also maintaining a functioning degree of cohesion? In other words, how do we sustain cultural democracy under the collective banner “Greek Americans”?
It is possible to imagine an alternative definition of Greek-American identity, one that is centered on active participation in and support of specific events, initiatives, and cultural projects that cultivate Greek cultural connectivity and learning. Let us conceptualize this kind of involvement as the creation of a “public square,” a thriving space hospitable to broad-minded and informed exchange of ideas. In this respect, I see my talk at the National Hellenic Museum as a quintessential Greek-American moment. A collective came into being on the basis of a shared interest in a specific issue, namely the relevance of the past for our identities today. There was agreement within the audience on several issues as well as disagreement. Most importantly, however, we participated in a common problematic within the context of a welcoming institution fostering this dialogue. If this is not cultural democracy at work promoting Greek learning, what is it?
Similarly, Greek-American collectives can materialize around specific interests, namely dance, food, education, cultural activism, and literature, for example. This network of cultural affiliations produces knowledge and comprises the building block of institutions. It may animate local heritage organizations, sustain dance troupes, promote ethnic food, inspire regional societies, and support centers of Greek learning, museums, journals and presses promoting Greek letters and scholarship, among others. Thinking of Greek America as a network of cultural exchanges, an idea proposed by scholar Artemis Leontis, promises an inclusive vision of Greek America, a view of ethnicity which welcomes internal diversity as a resource that ultimately contributes to a richer self-understanding.
Still, one pressing idea preoccupies me after my visit in the museum: The importance of Greek-American cultural literacy. Raised by the audience, the idea of cultural literacy inescapably points to the importance of creating a learned Greek-American public via Greek and Greek-American education. This is a project of enormous complexity that I cannot possibly do justice here. It calls for a multifaceted dialogue and in-depth discussion. Yet one could safely argue, it seems to me, that cultural education could anchor the future of U.S. Greek identity. How many of us know of Helen Papanikolas, George Pelecanos, or George Economou, for instance, and why are they important to know? We cannot sustain a meaningful network of connectivity without knowledge of Greek America’s literature and history.
Seriously addressing the issue of Greek literacy in all levels of Greek-American education is long overdue and one of the most important issues for our institutions to address. Working toward inclusive literacy in both Greek-American and Greek culture is precisely one commitment that could define us as U.S. Greeks. In this context we will have to think hard about what must be taught and how, what must be exhibited in museums, or portrayed in documentaries, and how, what civic values must be highlighted, and how. This is a particularly challenging prospect that requires enormous resources, political will, and open-minded intellectual engagement.
In closing, it is only appropriate to evoke the motto in the National Hellenic Museum: “Connecting generations through Greek history, culture, and art.” In Chicago at least, a Greek institution holds the promise of producing identity through cultural literacy. The more inclusive this literacy the richer we will be becoming. What is holding us from undertaking comparable initiatives in various cities across America?
This essay was originally published under the title "What Exactly Does it Mean to Be a Greek American?" in the National Herald Online, November 3, 2011