In graduate school, when I first asked the question, “what does it mean to be Greek?” I was immediately told I simply couldn’t ask that question.
Logically, or so I thought at the time, I next asked why was it the wrong kind of question to ask. My professors simply stared at me. I must confess that, at first, this silent staring was really off-putting, to say the least. In time, what I came to understand was that in the social sciences, the accepted parameters (and so the accepted questions one could ask) were already established and that when I ventured beyond them, I only showed my own ignorance. As a graduate student I was expected to read the established literature in my chosen field of social anthropology, integrate it into a specific way of thinking and build on that. This last step, if I was good enough, was facilitated by my being accepted by a professor as his or her student and so whatever rough spots I might have in my understanding of the field would be worked out in discussions with my mentor(s).
Well, I got most of the way but I never could get past asking the wrong questions. This point really bothered me. Still does. If I can’t ask questions outside of a framed area of thought, then logically I will never be able to ask anything new about the topic under review. The circularity of it all really bothered me.
My uneasiness grew as I became more aware that one of the cardinal rules (if not “the” cardinal rule) of anthropology was that we were to learn and record what was then called, the native point of view. In other words, we document what the group being studied says about itself. We then watch our subject community closely and see if their actions match their reported statements about who they are and what they do. If there is any difference, we next ask why and record what they say. Our ethnographic accounts are based on this three-point approach. That seemed clear enough.
But, then, I learned what the social scientists say they are doing is not always what they claim. As a case in point, I offer the contents and testimony found in Gaspar Papi and Ana Pons; Their Lives and Their Descendants by Latrell Pappy Mickler (West Conshohocken PA: Infinity Pub, 2008). This 312-page book is composed of ten sections. It is a truly impressive gathering of information, especially given the fact that Gaspar Papi, a Greek, was born in Smyrna in 1750 or 1781 and his future wife Ana was born in Florida on June 9, 1791.
Gasper Papi was a 17 year-old indentured servant when he arrived in Eastern Florida with those destined to establish the New Smyrna Colony. In 1768, three ships arrived with 1,255 settlers, most of the colonists were from Greece, the island of Minorca and Italy, and are considered by many to be the largest single migration to North America during colonial times. The majority of the colonists were Greeks and persons of Greek descent who had settled on the island of Minorca. In 1777, the ill-fated colony collapsed after mismanagement. The survivors, some 600 men, women and children marched nearly 70 miles north on the King’s Road and relocated to St. Augustine. In 1783, East and West Florida were returned to the Spanish.
When the Spanish reclaimed Florida, a Catholic bishop was part of the diplomatic mission that came to St Augustine to formally reestablish control over the region. The first thing this bishop did was conduct a census. An Irish born priest we have no record of what languages were used to conduct this census. We do know that out of nowhere a large group of Romanians appeared out of nowhere. No one has ever been able to explain where they came from.
It is my belief, given that it was the late 1700s, that when asked who they were many of the surviving Greeks, in trying to speak to someone with whom they did not share a common language, told this bishop they were ‘romios,’ e.g. Romans as in the sense of being what Western Europeans now call Byzantines.
Mickler clearly understands the cultural complexity of the Mediterranean during the mid-1700s. In speaking about who composed the new settlers she notes: “Many of the new arrivals were from Corsica, but the majority of them had Greek names, their families having left Mani for Tuscany, Italy about 100 years previous for much the same reason the people of the Mani had joined the [New Smyrna Colony]: war and oppression visited on them by the Ottoman Empire.”
This is no commonplace observation. For decades after the New Smyrna Colony survivors arrived in St Augustine the Catholic Church was determined that they not identify as Greeks but as Minorcans or Italians and therefore Catholics. That the descendants of the New Smyrna Colony are arriving at their new own sense of identity is completely unexpected. Gasper Papi and Ana Pons were married in the Avero House on 41 St. George Street, which today is the location for the St. Photios Greek Orthodox National Shrine.
In the 1980s, when I worked on a museum project for the St. Photios Shrine I met several individuals who claimed to be descended from survivors of the New Smyrna Colony. They were visiting the St. Augustine and the Shrine as part of their efforts to explore their own identities.
When I went to Greek school, long before my college days, I learned another point of view about Greek identity. I was told that Isocrates (436–338 BC) had in Classical Times described who exactly was a Greek, and it had nothing to do with blood-relations: First, you claimed to be Greek; second, you acted like a Greek; and finally you could assume Greek culture and life style. Venizelos, again from my old Greek school days, took up Isocrates’ position in coming to political terms with “Greek” populations scattered across the Balkans, Asia Minor and the eastern Mediterranean. So what about Latrell Pappy Mickler or any of her literally hundreds of relatives delineated I her book? Are they, following Isocrates and Venizelos, not Greeks as well?
Yet another book offers a further twist in our historic tale: Exiles at Home: The Struggle to Become American in Creole New Orleans by Shirley Elizabeth Thompson (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009). In her study of legal and cultural issues surrounding the legal status of creoles in New Orleans the claim that Alexander Dimitry and his incredibly large extended is a Greek is definitely challenged and found wanting.
In 1854, George Pandelly (a nephew of Alexander Dimitry) brought a legal suit against Victor Wiltz for that man’s assertion that Pandelly was of negro extraction. Compounding the racial charges was the fact that $20,000 in damages would be nearly a quarter of a million dollars today and so drew considerable public interest at the time. In short Wiltz was correct, Marianne Celeste Dragon; Pandelly’s grandmother was of Alabama Indian descent. The Dragon-Dimitry women were commonly referred to in, legal documents as mulatresses or quateroons.
While one must read Thompson’s book for all the specific details it is enough to note here Alexander Dimitry used his considerable influence to fix the trial and have his nephew and so the extended family judged to be white. Nevertheless, Dimitry and many members of his extended his family had to spend years in the north. With the Pandelly trial in mind, Dimitry’s support of slavery in the south and the Confederacy during the American Civil War takes on a whole new set of meanings and ramifications. During the 1930s, Ahepa chapters around the country frequently invited descendants of Alexander Dimitry to speak at their dinners.
If Alexander Dimitry the lauded internationally recognized diplomat and educator is ‘really’ a Greek what about Latrell Pappy Mickler and her hundreds of relatives?
I have never smoked cigarettes. I have never held hands with hundreds of others to sing Mikis Theodorakis songs in protest. I have no stories to tell about the Junta during my college years. And I don’t even think soccer is a sport. Does that make me less a Greek than others? What is our expiration date as Greeks? Are we still Greeks if we are second generation or does it get cut off by the reckoning of social scientists at the third generation? Even if I am asking the wrong questions – something not covered in your average social science class is definitely going on among the Greeks in North America.