Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Greek American Histories, Popular and Scholarly

The phenomenon of popular (non-professional) historians publishing books on Greek America's past continues unabated. A spate of recent monographs on community history testifies to the continuous vibrancy of this popular tradition, a tradition that heavily draws upon oral history, photography archives, and family lore among other documentary material.

Consider, for instance, the following sample of the most recent titles:

The Greek Community of Essex County, New Jersey (by John Antonakos, AuthorHouse 2010)

Greeks of Stark County (by William H. Samonides and Regine Johnson Samonides, Arcadia Publishing 2009)

Charleston's Greek Heritage (by George J. Morris, History Press 2008)

Greeks in Phoenix (by Holy Trinity Greek Historical Committee, Arcadia Publishing 2008)

This interest in writing local history further extends among Greek American academics whose professional expertise do not necessarily include history. Deno Trakas and Michael George Davos, for instance, are both professors of English who have ventured into historical research, producing Because Memory Isn't Internal: A Story of Greeks in Upstate South Carolina (Hub City Writers Project 2010) and Greeks in Chicago (Arcadia Publishing 2009) respectively.

How do popular histories represent the ethnic past? What are their sources and what kind of questions do their authors ask? Do they feature diverse perspectives, or do they privilege a particular point of view? In that case, who is excluded, and why?

I have a longstanding interest in this topic, which was the subject of my first book-length research project, Contours of White Ethnicity: Popular Ethnography and the Making of Usable Pasts in Greek America (see,

Given the powerful presence of popular history in the cultural landscape of Greek America I wish to reiterate the necessity of analyzing it. This is because the writing of history entails more than the mere stating of facts; more than producing documents about the past. Rather, in selecting what facts to feature and in interpreting these facts from a particular angle, history shapes our understanding of how society works. In turns, it shapes how individuals act upon society.

Take for example the historical question of why certain ethnicities managed to succeed socioeconomically. At stake in interpreting this phenomenon is our understanding of the causes of poverty, the workings of American society, and the significance of cultural values for a given ethnicity. History, in other words, powerfully shapes our understanding of the nation (is the nation meritocratic or does it discriminate?); narrates ethnic identity and community (what does the success or failure say about a group); and defines the identity of other ethnicities and racial groups (questions about the socioeconomic success of one particular ethnicity implicitly offers an explanation about the failure of others). In turn, this knowledge will be instrumental in the ways in which individuals will be predisposed to act (or abstain from acting) toward poverty plaguing Others.

The fact that history is implicated in contemporary political issues heightens the responsibility of writing history. This is why professional historians exhibit such remarkable reflexivity in the ways they represent the past.

What about the popular historians of Greek America? Are they conscious of the ideological operation of their work? And if critical reflexivity is too mush to ask from popular chroniclers, what is the responsibility of professional scholars in this process? Is there a space where popular and professional historians could enter into a constructive dialogue?

One thing is for certain. Written in a language accessible to the lay reader, and often featuring photographic material of particular interest to a multitude of individuals, families, and communities, popular histories are likely to be read widely. They are positioned therefore to crucially shape Greek America's understanding of itself, the nation, and Others.

Thus one would hope that professional researchers would engage with popular history. The topic certainly invites a multifaceted research project exploring issues of popular-history production, the relationship between popular and professional history, strategies for popularizing the latter, critical ethnic historiography, etc.

It is relevant to share here my closing thoughts from an article I published in 2008, where I discussed precisely this issue in reference to the work of Helen Papanikolas, a popular ethnographer and historian ["Research Frontiers, Academic Margins: Helen Papanikolas and the Authority to Represent the Immigrant Past." Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora, Vol. 34 (1&2): 9–29. 2008]. My remarks below reiterate a number of points I made above while highlighting the vital importance of professional scholarship in producing local heritage:

"Undertaken as a life-long vocation, Papanikolas’ work produced a vast archive and brought high institutional visibility to the nascent field of Greek American studies. Her legacy lies in managing to tap into an emerging cultural zeitgeist–multiculturalism and its corollary discourse on roots–and in effectively undertaking long-standing research and cultural activism, as testified by the expansive dissemination of her work in numerous venues, including professional societies, scholarly journals, popular publications, library archives, public lectures, books, and the university classroom (see Anagnostou 2004/2005).

Significantly, there is yet another crucial component that layers the making of this archive. “[W]hen an article was published about an important event and did not include Greeks,” she writes, “I immediately researched the subject and wrote an essay to show their participation” (2001:20). At a time when academic Greek American Studies was still in its infancy, this investment returned high dividends, proving instrumental in advancing the field. This fundamental contribution explains the current tribute and intense scholarly interest extended to Papanikolas’ work.

I have dissected here the research politics that turned a popular folklorist into an institutionally recognized ethnographic authority. This analytical route illuminates at least two implications for contemporary scholarship on Greek America. First, the necessity arises for a reflexive Greek American historiography. Second, the need emerges for critical thinking about local Greek heritage production and the various components that contribute to its making (institutions, popular researchers, and academics among others).

My discussion demonstrates that the documentation of the past is never a straightforward enterprise, a mere collection of facts. It brings into focus the awareness that the past cannot possibly be approached as an aggregate of transparent facts, which are available for automatic retrieval. Instead, the past is best understood as a social construction framed by powerfully entrenched assumptions about proper methodologies of generating knowledge, rules of assessing its validity, the poetics and politics of its telling, as well as the ideological and institutional context within which research is produced and disseminated. This is to say that all sorts of archival material, including oral histories and scholarly interpretations of this archive, constitute representations that actively construct the past, not merely record it. In this respect, my analysis suggests interpretive caution when contemporary scholars of Greek America turn to the work of earlier historians, ethnographers, and folklorists to treat it as unmediated evidence.12

A critical approach to representations of the past matters because specific archives enable specific kinds of knowledge while they disable others. Analyzing the past as social construction inevitably sheds light to what has been omitted or marginalized. Reflexivity creates spaces to question established truths: what if immigrant culture was not as uniform as it has been represented to be? What if the vernacular never vanished? What if ethnographic nativity is but one among a variety of locations, each one offering a distinct (but not superior) source of knowledge? Mapping how we get to know the past only expands the territories of knowledge we have yet to explore, produce, and disseminate. It invites us to examine, for example, the ways in which individuals, families, and institutions reproduced, transformed, or radically altered the vernacular. Such critical scholarship holds the promise of undermining taken-for-granted narratives by asking questions never considered previously, and in turn producing alternative histories and cultures.

Finally, in making a bid for generating a denser field of Greek American ethnography and history, Papanikolas provides an indispensable compass, pointing to the value of studying ethnicity in specific regions, and to the importance of cultivating ties between researchers and local institutions. This crucial legacy urges us to reflect on how non-academic researchers negotiate their place in relation to those institutions, and, further, on the place of academics in this enterprise. Since the time when Papanikolas established productive relations with her city’s historical societies, universities, libraries, and museums, regional institutions have intensified their interest in ethnic heritage. Significantly, this takes place at a time when heritage production is increasingly generated by popular historians and ethnographers whose books, oral histories, and museums exhibits enjoy popular and institutional acclaim.13 What kinds of methodological assumptions inform these preservation projects? What ideologies do these narratives advance? Under what circumstances do institutions embrace popular heritage undertakings, and under what conditions do they reject them? Given that this process is heavily mediated, as my analysis demonstrates, scholars cannot afford to ignore the manner in which knowledge is produced every time popular research and institutions interface. Because representations of ethnicity matter, scholars must find ways to engage with these issues. Research on the making of local heritage offers itself as an obvious critical route. Participation in the social production of ethnicity is another, though this territory is uncharted to most scholars and therefore fraught with unfamiliar challenges.14 The question therefore is not whether we need to have our voice heard in the public construction of ethnicity, but how are we to position ourselves in the complex contours of this process. Helen Papanikolas’ legacy reminds us that no matter how wide we spread our research net we have much to gain in continuing to reflect on the potential, limits, and implications of local knowledge production.


12 For a detailed analysis of the ways in which professional and popular folklore construct Greek America see Anagnostou (2009)

13 Consider for example the complex intersections associated with the Newark Public Library exhibit Remembering Newark’s Greeks: An American Odyssey (2002-2003), which eventually led to the publication of a book with the same title (Lampros 2006). Initiated by Angelique Lampros and Peter Markos, both Newark-born teachers and administrators, this archival project points to the complex interfaces that may infuse or deny institutional life to popular heritage production. To begin with, The New Jersey Historical Society turned down a funding proposal for the project. On the other hand, the Hellenic Heritage Fund at the Newark Public Library made the exhibit possible, while The New Jersey Information Center and Newark Historical Society embraced it. But based on a disagreement with the author, Rutgers University Press rejected the proposal to turn the material into a book. Lampros envisioned a commemorative book that would “capture the words, the feelings and the images of the people themselves” (quoted in Karageorge 2007:7) while the Press, in contrast, pictured a book “written from the perspective of a historian” (6). It was ultimately Donning Publishers, a company specializing in commemorative volumes and pictorial histories, which published the book. A review in The National Herald portrays the book as “a delicious baklava of a book … capturing the warmth, beauty and uniqueness of that largely vanished world of Greek America” (Karageorge 2007:6). The critical approach I am proposing here would have raised different questions. One must examine for instance the reasons why the curator and author privileged the telling of the past through the voices of the people. What were the assumptions that led to her rejection of narrating the past from a historian’s perspective? Within this framework, one must also consider what kinds of perspectives are disabled once a historical account privileges oral testimonies at the expense of historical analysis. Ethnographers and heritage scholars will be well situated to explore these concerns.

14 Artemis Leontis (1997) introduces this mode of engagement in her discussion of “cultural activism” in Greek America. Given the vast investment in time and energy that “such an absorbing project” (85) demands, this commitment raises practical issues for academics. Scholars specializing in museum studies and ethnic preservation are best positioned to systematically participate in local heritage production.


ANAGNOSTOU, YIORGOS. Contours of White Ethnicity: Popular Ethnography and the Making of Usable Pasts in Greek America. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2009

––––––––. “Helen Papanikolas as a Humanist: Immigrants, ‘Contact Zones,’ and Empathy in the American West.” Modern Greek Studies YearBook 20/21 (2004/2005): 147-173.

KARAGEORGE, PENELOPE. “New Book Extols Legacy of Newark’s Greeks: Beautiful Evocation of Almost Vanished Immigrant Society.” Review of Remembering Newark’s Greeks: An American Odyssey. The National Herald, Book Supplement, May 26 (2007): 6-7.

LAMPROS, ANGELIQUE. Remembering Newark’s Greeks: An American Odyssey.Virginia Beach, VA: The Donning Company Publishers, 2006.

LEONTIS, ARTEMIS. “The Intellectual in Greek America.” Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora 23.2 (1997): 85-109.

PAPANIKOLAS, HELEN Z. “The Time of the Little Black Bird.” Greek American Review 52.641 (2001): 17-20."

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