Saturday, April 30, 2011

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Pacifism in Translation

The arm and the army

Ο αρμός και οι αρμοί

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Diaspora Greeks

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Explaining Immigrant Mobility: Don’t Neglect the Race Factor

Review of Larry Odzak's “Demetrios is Now Jimmy: Greek Immigrants in the Southern United States, 1895-1965” (Monograph Publishers, 260 pages)

No single story can capture the experience of early immigrant Greek America. Men who toiled in the mines and railroad construction under dangerous labor conditions experienced immigration differently than those who owned small businesses. Men and women interacted with different American publics. Among women, those who were consumed by tradition-bound domestic chores saw America from a different angle than those women who worked as wage laborers. And the experience of those who conformed to dominant ideas cannot possibly compare to those who resisted what they saw as an unjust status quo.

Researchers have started to explore this fascinating heterogeneity. They have been focusing on previously neglected topics such as women, the working-class, cultural and political activists, and artists. At last, there is an interest in recovering views that have been socially marginalized, and in the process understanding the past from multiple perspectives.

“Demetrios is Now Jimmy” contributes to our understanding of one aspect of Greek America’s variety, regional diversity. Of course, the book addresses a well-covered topic, the economically successful male immigrant. But it also takes up an understudied topic with regional focus: Greek America in the American South during the Jim Crow era. This was a period of legal racial segregation (1876-1965) characterized by anti-foreignism and brutal racist violence.

This historical study is based on the author’s doctoral dissertation. Lazar “Larry” Odzak (b.1933) is currently an archivist-historian at the North Carolina State Archives. He received his Ph.D. degree in U.S. History from Strassford University (London, England, 2003). His book, “Demetrios is Now Jimmy,” follows academic conventions. The author sorts through a considerable corpus of scholarly works on immigration and ethnicity, whose citations are dispersed throughout the book. A readable account, the book provides useful archival information and oral testimonies on regional history. Comparative in scope, it dedicates whole chapters to immigrant adaptations in cities such as New Orleans, Birmingham and Tarpon Springs. Furthermore, a chapter exploring the “Formation and Development of Greek Immigrant Communities in the American South” includes discussions and comparisons of the cases of Atlanta, Jacksonville Savannah, Charleston, Raleigh, Charleston, and Mobile.

The book discusses the transformation of the Southern Greeks from immigrants to ethnic Americans through “selective adaptation.” The argument here is that immigrant adaptations must be seen as a process of acculturation, not wholesale assimilation. A key to the selective retention and inter-generational transmission of ethnicity was the early establishment of ethnic and religious institutions. To this end the author discusses the changes that defined two prominent institutions, American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association (AHEPA) and the Greek Orthodox Church, up to the mid-1960s. A chapter entitled “Fraternal Bonding and Conservatism: Jimmy Joined AHEPA” situates the establishment of AHEPA and its subsequent development within the region’s racial politics. Another chapter, entitled “From Byzantine Rites to Civil Rights,” discusses the transformation of the Greek Orthodox Church in the South from immigrant to ethnic.

Because “Demetrios is Now Jimmy” is a book published by a non-university press, I will not review it in terms of its scholarly omissions and limitations. Though I will refer to some of its shortcomings, critiquing will not be my main focus. I will not reflect, for example, why a book that situates immigrants in the context of race relations and mobility utterly ignores important academic sources on “white ethnics,” labor struggles, and race. Rather, I wish to discuss the contributions that this work makes to our understanding of one aspect of Greek-American history, namely immigrant socioeconomic mobility, and to illuminate the implications of its findings for future research.

A particular research question animates the author’s project. The primary goal is to test the hypothesis known as the “Southern variant” of the Greek immigrant experience. First proposed by sociologist Charles Moskos, the hypothesis states, “Greeks in the South achieved economic and residential upward mobility faster and in greater proportion than Greeks elsewhere in the United States.” Odzak builds on empirical evidence to prove that this hypothesis is true in regards to self-employed immigrants, but not the working class. He compares the “ratio of Greek-owned businesses, excluding the itinerant vendors, to the total Greek population” in Northern cities to corresponding data in Southern cities, concluding that the percentage of self-employed immigrants was higher in the South. He also cites the early “Greek family formation in the South,” and the Southerners higher rates of immigrant intermarriage with whites as further evidence of mobility. The author believes that the “Southern variant” was caused by a combination of factors. They include: the importance of “timi” (honor), which prodded them to succeed in the workplace, the relentless pressure to assimilate, the acceptance of those who assimilated as “white,” and the smaller numbers of the Greeks in the south, which discouraged the formation of immigrant enclaves.

In his inquiry, the author places the immigrant Southern experience within the context of economic and racial relations in the region. On the one hand, he observes, the vision of an industrialized “New South” brought about dramatic population growth in cities and towns of the region. The example of Tampa, Florida, illustrates the scale of urban transformation. The town’s population grew from about 5,500 in 1890 to nearly 38,000 in 1910. This growth in turn created an urgent demand for a substantial service sector: groceries, cafes, quick lunch stores, dry cleaners and shoeshine parlors among others. The prospect of becoming a self-employed business owner catering to white society attracted to the South immigrants of various nationalities. There is mention of Jews, Italians, Syrians and Greeks, among others, but not of Asian immigrants. Here one must stress that Jim Crow segregation did not extend this crucial opportunity to African Americans. Therefore, it was immigrants who were recruited to fill this much-coveted economic niche.

The author points to the importance of cultural values to explain immigrant success. He covers a well-trod territory when he suggests that immigrants strove for mobility because failure would have compromised their “timi” (honor), shaming them in the eyes of their family and community. Thus, according to the author, it was the cultural dictates of the honor system that fuelled the desire to succeed at any cost. Consequently, hard work to the point of sacrifice, dogged persistence and frugality, are seen as causes that resulted in the much-sought-after financial security, even prosperity, among early immigrants.

One of the author’s contributions rests in showing how erroneous it is to explain ethnic success on the basis of cultural values alone. The discussion makes it clear that one must account how other variables in the host society – institutional and everyday racism for example – may propel some groups to the path of upward mobility, while barring this opportunity to others. Odzak takes into account how the pervasive racism against African Americans in the American South favored immigrant mobility.

In discussing the issue of male immigrant success in the context of economic and racial relations, this book parts from traditional Greek-American historiography. The fresh perspective is that in racially segregated regions it was the immigrants who were seen as the solution to a growing demand for service businesses, not local racial minorities. Odzak suggests that the relatively light tone of the immigrants’ skin provided the ticket for entering this economic niche in white society from which African Americans were excluded. He writes, “skin color helped a large proportion of the first generation Greek migrants to the Southern cities to achieve economic progress.” In other words, the “whiteness” of the immigrants worked as a racial privilege; it granted them a competitive advantage in a labor market that relegated African Americans to menial jobs. Therefore, the roots of immigrant success were partly embedded in a system of racial discrimination.

The historical record is unequivocal here. Immigrant mobility was not achieved in an environment of equal opportunity but occurred at the expense of African Americans. This realization must put to rest the popular belief that immigrants self-propelled themselves to mobility, that they rose exclusively on their own bootstraps. It counters the self-congratulatory rhetoric one hears so often in accounts about “white ethnic” success.

What about Southern anti-foreignism? In what ways did it affect the immigrants? The author makes a strong case that the integration of immigrants was conditional. In exchange for acceptance as “white” they were pressured to publicly display total conformity to the dominant culture. The case of a café owner in Pensacola, a certain Chris Lochas who was accused for violating Federal Law and was ran out of town by the Ku Klux Klan, illustrates the degree of public intimidation. Those who did not conform were targeted as unwanted cultural and racial outsiders.

The result of this climate of fear was the rampant Anglicization of names, adoption of the mannerisms and the ideologies of the dominant society, unconditional support of 100% Americanism, and en-mass joining of American fraternal organizations. It was this ruthless pressure to conform, the author suggests, that contributed to the immigrants’ upward mobility.

However, conformity was not merely limited to outward appearances in manners, dress and speech. Most significantly, the immigrant experience in the American South entailed a momentous historical compromise: compliance with the racial status quo of the region. Acceptance of a system of racial oppression was the tremendous cost that immigrants had to pay in order to ensure their business prospects. In the chapter on AHEPA, Odzak provides examples of the relationship between the all-powerful Klan and the Greek immigrants, showing how immigrants internalized and enacted the racial logic of Jim Crow. In addressing this hugely sensitive issue, the author is ambivalent. On the one hand, he embarks on an internal critique of the organization (the author mentions his affiliation with AHEPA in the dust jacket of the book), expressing discomfort in view of the fact that George Wallace, Alabama’s segregationist governor, became an AHEPA honorary member in the spring of 1964. On the other hand, he rushes to defend the immigrant acceptance of Jim Crow as a pragmatic, “prudent observance of the American Southern custom of segregation.”

The author sets himself the ambitious goal of covering 70 years of Greek immigrant adaptation in the South. But his discussion of the second and third generation is way too general and often sketchy. The aim to identify historical patterns and to paint history with broad strokes occludes particular events, everyday situations and minute incidents that do not fit the general pattern. One wishes, for example, that the author had dedicated fuller attention to the complexity of the racial situation in the South. It is well known that Greek immigrants elsewhere in the United States were initially classified as non-whites by many social scientists and the wider public. In the racially hierarchical taxonomy of that era they were seen as inferior to whites but superior to other racial groups such as Asian immigrants and African Americans. Scholarly studies on this subject convincingly show that occupation, participation in labor politics, and resistance to assimilation served as important criteria to classify immigrants as non-white in the American West and elsewhere. Unfortunately, the book pays only scant attention to how this racial dynamic played out in the South. It simplifies a vastly complex racial situation into a binary –“black and white” – system, where “the significant presence of blacks tended to raise white immigrants to the next rung.” The author ignores the presence of immigrants from Asia and does not elaborate on the “non-white” classification of and hierarchies among immigrants from Southeast Europe and the Middle East. He provides only a tantalizing example – the case of Lochas whose lack of acculturation was equated with a “non-white” status. But because the focus of the book is on the “successful,” acculturated male businessman, there is no attempt to document what happened to those who refused to assimilate. This inattention is illustrated in the unfortunate choice of words the author uses to describe unassimilated immigrants. In describing them as those who “were not able or skillful enough to show that they were ‘white’ and 100 percent American,” he fails to recognize those immigrants who consciously resisted assimilation.

A number of questions could guide future research. Did sectors within the immigrant community in the South (women, the working class, or wage laborers who eventually became small-business owners, for example) hold alternative visions of success? Did they resist racism and its cultural counterpart, 100% Americanism, embracing alternative visions of a socially and economically just American society? There is tantalizing evidence of resistance, when, for example, the author mentions in passing that “few brave voices (within the Greek community) were openly raised” in support of civil rights in the South. But the reader is left wanting more. Who resisted and how? How did public opposition to the racial status quo affect one’s life?

To answer these questions, researchers must seize the moment and shift attention away from the model of the economically “successful” male toward the study of those individuals or groups whose success entailed a vision and commitment to a more just society. We all stand to gain by identifying these unexplored pasts and by figuring out how these pasts can be of value to Greek America today.

Yiorgos Anagnostou

(Originally published in The National Herald, Book Supplement, Spring 2007)

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Συνθήκη Συλλογικότητας

Αν ειπώθηκε υπάρχει
Αν υπάρχει ξαναειπώθηκε

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Friday, April 1, 2011

Rewinding My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Zooming on its Insights

I have lost count how many times I have watched My Big Fat Greek Wedding (herein Wedding). Since 2002, the year of its release, I have been showing it without fail in my class on Greek America. I also watch the film often on my own to further reflect on how to best present it to my students. This is a story after all that brought Greek ethnicity to the center of national attention, and for that alone it deserves careful attention.

The Portokaloses and the Millers made many of us laugh. But can this light romantic comedy tell us anything of importance about Greek America? Does this blockbuster matter to us, and if so, in what way? To start this discussion I would like to outline my approach to the film as a teaching resource.

Wedding works well as a launching-point for reflection on various aspects of immigrant culture. It successfully dramatizes, for instance, the tendency to display distrust toward outsiders and acceptance toward insiders. Gus, for instance, throws a tantrum over Ian's status as a xenos (stranger/foreigner), using his foreignness to oppose inter-ethnic marriage. How could he possibly trust a stranger as a prospective son-in-law when he knows next to nothing about this person? In contrast, recall the overwhelming affection that the ethnic family showers upon Ian after his baptism. The Millers are now “family” (dhikoi mas), who warrant acceptance and sharing of intimate information. Aunt Voula has so much to explain, so much to disclose, including the story about her unformed twin.

The tension between collectivism (conformity to cultural norms) and individual freedom often comes up in class discussion. Clearly, the film satirizes the immigrant patriarch's insistence that his daughter conform to traditionalist gender roles. It further illustrates the power of collectivism in several instances, when for example it features the group's incredulous reaction to Ian's professed vegetarianism.

If collectivism limits individual preference, the script celebrates those individuals who challenge the group’s norms. It values Toula’s initiative to break away from traditionalism. And it relishes Nick’s aspiration to move beyond the immigrant valuing of business in order to pursue art.

The film keeps a distance, however, from American society’s tendency to exalt choice. Instead, it promotes the idea of social life as negotiation between social pressures and individual freedoms. Individuals often resort to compromise as the most advantageous strategy to fulfill personal interests and simultaneously maintain the cohesiveness of family. Ian is paradigmatic in this regard, a super nice guy. To safeguard his love and salvage a measure of harmony within the ethnic family, he converts to Greek Orthodoxy. He further promotes family coherence by persuading his beloved not to elope. Ironically, it is the xenos who defends obligation to the ethnic family.

Along these lines, the film restores the authority of parents to determine the place of ethnicity in the lives of their children. In the concluding scene, Toula emphatically admonishes her daughter. There will be no restraints regarding whom she marries, she promises, but not attending Greek language school is not an option.

This raises an important issue, the selective retention of ethnicity. Unlike village culture, where individuals experience great pressure to conform to tradition, in modernity individuals actively reflect on the status quo, including the ways of their parents. I invite students to think about what it means to act upon tradition. Which aspects of ethnicity does one wish to retain, which to discard, and why? Which facets of ethnicity appear compelling, which behaviors offend, whom, and why? The article “Education of Greek Americans for a Pluralist Society,” by Harry Triandis, provides a context for class discussion.

In teaching the course I carefully address the misconceptions that the film may generate. I take seriously the misgivings of those Greek American commentators who protest the negative portrayal of Greek immigrants in the film or criticize its superficiality.

Films of course do not mirror all of reality. They do, however, powerfully shape conceptions about the issues they portray. A story that turned mainstream, Wedding introduces Greek ethnicity to hundreds of thousands of Americans, shaping public views and sentiments toward Greek Americans. This is why Aliki Efstathiou bitterly complaints about the film’s portrayal of the Greeks as “vulgar, a group of imbeciles, and as ignorant, uneducated louts.” Noted film critic Dan Georgakas enters the discussion from a different angle, taking issue with the anachronistic portrayal of Greek ethnicity. “The Greek Americans offered in the film” are “at best fifty years out of date,” he rightly notes. The “utter banality” of the film offends him. Neither can one ignore the film’s reception in Greece where the often-evoked term “kitsch Vardalos” captures the disdain of many critics.

These are credible reservations, serving as a reminder that the film neglects to address the complexity of the group. Its story is not a true portrayal of Greek America even though some families may recognize aspects of their own lives in the screen. Moreover, its tight adherence to the conventions of the romantic comedy (boy meets girl; boy and girl face obstacles to their romantic union; boy and girl overcome obstacles to find true love in marriage) strips it of any originality.

But I also take an alternative route in teaching the film. Instead of asking what is true and what is false in the script, I encourage students to probe its significance: What is the purpose of portraying certain groups in specific ways? Why for example are immigrants caricatured? Why is it that the Millers are ridiculed in their WASPy ways? What does the contrast between the unruly Portokaloses and the uptight Millers accomplish? What is it that the film promotes?

Clearly, the film denigrates immigrants and WASPs alike. The former are depicted as traditionalists, patriarchal, crude, close-minded. The latter, in the figure of the elderly Millers, are seen as reserved, formal and rigid. In this way the film promotes a particular ideal, namely acculturated ethnicity as the cultural model for America. It is Toula who primarily exemplifies this ideal. She defies patriarchal tradition to assert herself as a confident modern woman but she still connects with ethnicity. Acculturated ethnics represent the golden mean between excessively traditionalist immigrants and excessively formal WASPs.

Students are quick to recognize the main point of the film, namely that ethnicity matters. Ian finds a meaningful sense of community in it, windex at hand and all. Ethnicity offers a valuable sense of belonging that counterbalances the void he experiences in life. The Millers overcome their inhibitions and join the ethnic dance, both literally and figuratively.

This is the age of ethnicity, the film loudly proclaims. It is not alone in this pronouncement. It is now an established fact that hyphenated Americans enjoy great cultural visibility in festivals, parades, documentaries, and museums. The importance of ethnic roots has become a national pastime. There is no stigma for American ethnics of European descent, who intermarry in record numbers. And the film itself enjoys a kind of celebrity in education curricula. Lesson plans for teaching Wedding to students at various levels are all over the internet.

If Greek America enjoys cultural cache, the question comes up inevitably: How to best tap this historical opportunity to further Greek America's resonance in the U.S.? Is there anything in the film that could help us think about this challenge? I believe so. But this exploration will require yet another essay.

Yiorgos Anagnostou

Originally published in the National Herald online (03/31/11) under the title, "Greek America 101: My Big Fat Greek Wedding's Lessons"

** For additional analysis see,