Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Re/collecting Greek America: Reflections on Ethnic Struggle, Success, and Survival


Journal of Modern Hellenism, Vol. 31 (Forthcoming, Winter 2015)

Two interrelated ideas guide this essay: the notion of history as re/collection, and history as cultural practice. A concept with a twofold meaning, re/collection captures both remembering and revisiting an archive to remember anew. Re/collection animates rediscovery and recovery. It brings into focus what earlier collecting has intentionally or unintentionally overlooked or marginalized. In this dual capacity, re/collection forestalls forgetting and expands the range and scope of remembering. It enables knowing differently.

Historical re/collection illuminates history as cultural practice. Historians recognize that the making of history is not a disinterested enterprise divorced from cultural assumptions and ideas. This is the reason why at any one time, society may privilege the telling of some pasts and the sidelining of others. Because certain voices are excluded, remembering is punctuated by absences. Thus critical historiography asks, who produces history? How and for what purpose? What pasts does a society remember and why? This approach explains the silences in the historical record, and reflects on the consequences of forgetting. In turn, reflexivity probes re/collection to produce new pasts. Re/collection is an integral component of history as cultural practice.1

To bring the idea of history as cultural practice to bear in relation to ethnic historiography: The American/immigrant narrative of success defines achievement in terms of money, status, career, entrepreneurship, and assimilation; not in terms of an immigrant’s worth as a person, ability to build intercultural bridges, creative negotiations with bicultural belonging, or selective ethnic reproduction. In the case of Greek America, for instance, history notes the divergent cultural positioning of male and female immigrants to point out that success as socioeconomic achievement refers to men, and success as civic and cultural achievement refers to women.2 In response, one could raise two questions: why does this narrative privilege socioeconomic status? And why does it present it as ethnic when the narrative essentially speaks to a gender-specific (male) experience? Critical scholarship endeavors to examine, as I pointed out, the implications of this social construction. Immigrant success as socioeconomic status legitimizes the American Dream. The mobility of newcomers asserts the inclusiveness of the nation. Demonstrating the gender inflection in this story of success would identify this story’s displacements. The framing of male history as ethnic renders invisible women’s alternative struggles and successes, and thus masks different visions of becoming an American ethnic. The practice of reflexivity in history illuminates presences and absences in a collection of evidence, and helps us think about their respective ramifications. 

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