I am often challenged when I speak well of the history of Greeks in the United States. “Oh, the Slavs, Italians or Polish immigrants could make the very same claims,” I am told, as if what the Greek’s accomplished is nothing special. If no one group is “exceptional,” then this nation owes its existence to all its citizens equally. And if that is the case, then we need to reassess the American history we have been and are now being taught.
Such reassessment is especially timely since “it has been estimated that nearly half of all Americans today can trace their family history to at least one person who passed through the Port of New York at Ellis Island (www.ellisisland.org).” The Northwest Europeans were never alone in the Western hemisphere, but if you read the majority of history books or other media outlets, that is typically the underlining position. Or should I say, that is the propaganda line? Why do our histories start in New England? Didn’t the Spanish establish colonies there in 1492, or was that elsewhere?
Certainly, this is not a new or original argument. In an 1883 letter, Walt Whitman, wrote, “We Americans have yet to really learn our own antecedents, and sort them, to unify them. They will be found ampler than has been supposed, and in widely different sources. Thus far, impress’d by New England writers and schoolmasters, we tacitly abandon ourselves to the notion that our United States have been fashion’d from the British Isles only, and essentially form a second England only—which is a very great mistake. Many leading traits for our future national personality, and some of the best ones, will certainly prove to have originated from other than British stock. As it is, the British and German, valuable as they are in the concrete, already threaten excess. Or rather, I should say, they have certainly reach’d that excess. Today, something outside of them, and to counterbalance them is seriously needed.”
The arguments about Greeks and other ethnics from the 1880 to 1920 massive waves of immigration wishing to become White, does not agree with either my personal memories or any stories I have heard from family or community. In the 1960s part of the Movement, as I remember and experienced it, involved what was called the New Ethnicity. This basically was a public reassertion of ethnic pride that as far as I have seen and was told never died. For the Greeks in America, during the 1960s, the success of the films Never On Sunday and Zorba the Greek seemed to ignite a new awareness of and respect for the Greek community at large.
Does that mean the newly arrived immigrants did not experience racism and prejudice—of course not! Yet recent writings on the 1880 to 1920 waves of all these immigrant groups asserts that all of these people wished only to become as much like the dominant society around them as they could. This whole notion of wishing to ‘become white’ is not just wrong and fundamentally insulting it basically reinvents in another way the effort to dominate the non-English/Germans of America.
Also, why is it that only the ethnic people are changed by contacts with the Anglos? Didn’t the white folk adopt anything from the millions of newly-arrived ethnic people? Why is the social and cultural adoption all one-way? Did the Greeks and all the other ethnic folk wish to better themselves? Yes. But the next logical and mandatory step from “bettering themselves” to being the agents who physically built America’s wealth and industry somehow disappears. I wonder who is served by that omission. Why isn’t there any extended discussion of social classes, labor history and the attempted domination of the newly arrived immigrants by the ruling elite?
Among the Greek scholars now writing on Greeks in the United States the unanimous conclusion is we are not Greeks (as they are) but rather we are really just immigrants or assimilated individuals of Greek descent. According to which school of thought? For Isocrates, and so Modern Greek culture, one is a Greek if that person simply claims to be Greek. Period. In terms of contemporary social science research you first write down and base all your subsequent work on what the individuals in that community claim about them. So, why are the Greek émigré scholars (because no matter how long they live here they are never immigrants) not applying the first rule of modern social research on the Greek American communities?
If you honestly think that Greek-Americans are not “really” Greek as they claim to be, then, my question is: what does it mean to be Greek? I was told in graduate school I could not ask this question. I now realize that I was told this so I would not think to ask that most fundamental, necessary and basic of questions.
This is also a fundamental question about the Diaspora. While simultaneously one more historical and cultural point of difference from the general category of being just another “American immigrant.” Is there a Greek Miss Manners who visits each Greek community around the world checking to see that everyone is towing the line and being really Greek? And ultimately, and here I believe is the core problem, who exactly decides what are the normative boundaries of Greek social experience?
May I not make the claim that the Modern Greeks in the nation state of Greece are simply another Balkan people trying to pass as Northern European? Are the Greeks in Greece simply trying to be White? Who gets the authority to make these distinctions and have them stick? And toward what end?
Consider this example, solely based on the personal claims of individuals questioned about their identities. On July 20, 1768, some 1,300 colonists arrived in the waters off of St. Augustine, FL at a time when Florida was a British colonial holding. These individuals hailed from the island of Minorca, mainland Greece, and Italy. As indentured servants these individuals were hired to establish the New Smyrna Colony some 75, miles south of St. Augustine to grow hemp, sugarcane, and indigo, as well as to produce rum.
Gross mismanagement caused the colony to collapse, after suffering major losses due to insect-borne diseases, Indian raids, and savage mistreatment of the colonists. During May and June of 1777, the survivors, numbering some 600, all relocated to St. Augustine, where their descendants live to this day. In 1783, Florida was returned to the Spanish. Upon the Spanish return to St. Augustine a Catholic bishop (of Irish descent) took a census of the town and surrounding area. Outside of the predictable Spanish, British, Minorca, Indian, Italian and Greek colonists a vast number of Romanians appeared—as if out of nowhere.
While the arrival of the Romanians remains unexplained by all scholars involved in the region or the New Smyrna Colony, I offer here once again, my explanation for their existence. No one recorded which language or languages were used during the Spanish Census. And as everyone knows, Greece was not a nation state in 1783. Then, I asked myself, how would a Greek, especially a tradesman from the countryside, identify him or herself in 1783? I offer for your consideration they would say, Romios. Which to an Irish-born Catholic bishop trained in Spain must have sounded like Romanian. Now I can’t prove this point, but what do you think?
For those of you unfamiliar with the phrase Romios or Romiosyni, that personal designation has a complicated history. It marks both our time under Roman rule and when we were the Romans, as in what is now referred to as Byzantines – for well over a thousand years. Given the changing usages one could well be served by consulting two books. Patrick Leigh Fermor in his Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece, where he spends some time defining these two words, their history and their various meanings. As Fermor notes, “the word Romaioi soon meant a subject of the (Byzantine) Empire an Orthodox Christian in…contrast to the Western Christians with their spiritual capital in Old Rome.” More is involved here but, nonetheless, few would disagree that in 1783, a working-class Greek might well refer to himself as a Romios. In Helen Zeese Papanikolas, An Amulet of Greek Earth: Generation of Immigrant Folk Culture (2002) we are offered insight into the usages struck here in North America. As with most things Greek, the words and ideas behind these two words are hotly debated.
So where does all this take us? Whose “scientific” perspective are we using? Toward what ends? What does it mean to be Greek in North America cannot be answered from a point of view that categorically denies Greek Americans their own self-identity. And if it does, why?