Saturday, February 12, 2011

Oral History in Greek America (Part I)

Greek Americans self-censor their family histories! This is the discovery of historian Steve Frangos, published in an op-ed in The National Herald. The editorial, tellingly entitled “It’s Always a Wonderful Life in Greek-American Fairy Tales,” offers the following testimony: “I have been asked,” Frangos writes, “to take out the parts in the articles where eyewitness accounts or the stories told to children by their parents about when the KKK chased some ancestor into the water, when say a bank twisted the law to intentionally destroy a Greek businessman from succeeding on a level field with local Wasp businessmen, or how even years after attacks by Wasps, inclusive of the KKK, local Greek immigrants and their children wanted me to take out the names of those who once actively sought to hurt them” (, October 8, 2010).

In other words, Greek Americans consciously regulate what can be known about their past. Turning family stories into public documents entails selective telling.

This controlling of public history exercises censorship on two levels: a) it perpetuates silence about violence and injustices in the past; and b) refrains from naming those who were involved. Disclosure of these issues raises distinct ethical and legal issues. More is likely at stake when one reveals the names of the individuals or institutions who perpetrated the violence.

The editorial revisits a well-known practice: the sugarcoating of ethnic history. Exasperated in tone, it joins the voices of those who have been protesting for some time Greek America’s tendency to idealize its past. Many authors and historians have openly criticizing this sugarcoating, though their writings does not always enjoy the visibility it deserves.

There are good reasons to object to the kind of “history” that blatantly violates all rules of historical inquiry. It is justifiable to say that the sugarcoating of ethnic history entails a form of self-inflicted violence since it excises a whole range of experiences–resentments, exclusions, unrewarded toil, and loss–that have profoundly shaped scores of Greek American lives.

Of course the notion of oral history as selective telling is widely recognized among folklorists and oral historians. This is how Alison Cadbury aptly puts it: "When you live in a village … everyday life is as engaging as fiction" she writes, referring to the stories, histories and gossip people tell, of which there are "as many versions as tellers." "So common among villagers is the practice of embroidering a tale that a typical response to any story is either doubtful 'Alithia?' 'Truth?' or adamantly, 'Psemata!' 'Lies!' followed by imaginative analysis, speculation, and argument about the 'real' events, motives, and so forth" (Panigyri: A Celebration of Life in a Greek Island Village, 5).

But collecting oral histories in Greek America is an entirely different practice than collecting stories in the context of a village. In the village setting the telling takes place in the presence of an audience which shares common history but may have alternative interpretations of the narrated facts. In this context the truth of a story is negotiated in the act of telling; people contest stories, and in so doing they offer their own version of truth. As a result storytelling produces a plurality of versions about the past.

Not so in the context of the private interview between an oral historian and a story teller. In the absence of a wider audience the story teller may exercise the power of offering his version as the ultimate truth. Unlike the village, the remembering of history here is one-sided, monologic.

What can be done then to ensure that oral history does not limit our understanding of Greek America's history? What can we do to confront the picture-perfect view of Greek America the beautiful?

To be continued

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