Dan Georgakas, the Director of the Greek American Studies Project at the Center for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, Queens College (CUNY), a film critic and author, in his own words, “a public intellectual”, is increasingly visible as a most valuable asset to the Greek American community.
Professor Georgakas, who suggests a bi-cultural identity as a means of perpetuating Greek American culture–a “neo-Hellenism” that has closer contact with Greece and a revival of Greek in America as a second language–received large-scale tribute at two important events in the last months.
At its biannual symposium at New York University on Oct 15, 2011, the Modern Greek Studies Association, held a panel on his life work titled, Retrospective on Dan Georgakas, citing him as “an organic intellectual of the working class”, and only a little over a month later, in Washington, D.C., Georgakas, a Keynote Speaker at the dinner of the American Hellenic Institute Foundation’s Tenth Annual Conference on the Future of Hellenism in America on November 19, was presented with the Annual Hellenic Heritage Public Service Award for the Promotion of Hellenism in America.
His talk,The Now and Future of Greek America, provided an overview of both positive and negative trends and statistics regarding the strength of the Greek American community’s identification with its Hellenic roots.
“I was quite surprised by this award and quite moved to receive it,” Georgakas told the Greek News, ”I never thought that what I was doing was promoting Hellenism in the sense that I think what one does daily is more important than what one says to justify
or rationalize their behavior. So if I behave as a Hellene, I will be promoting Hellenism. That seems to be the general perception of me and I was quite gratified that a public intellectual would be so recognized by the most viable of our political organizations.”
Georgakas’ essay, Election Year Possibilities for Greek American Activism, in which he Georgakas focuses on ground-up organizing and rhetoric in Greek America appears in the Winter 2011-2012 AHIF Policy Journal.
The Modern Greek Studies Association’s panel, Retrospective on Dan Georgakas, moderated by Gus Hatzidimitriou (editor of the most important documentary history of American populist support for the Greek War of Independence and editor of an important documentary history of the Smyrna Catastrophe), was chaired by Constantine Hatzidimitriou, St. John’s University; and organized by Peter Bratsis, University of Salford, and there were two talks: Peter Bratsis, Georgakas as Organic Intellectual of the Working Class; Nikos Alexiou, Queens College, CUNY, The Sociological Imagination of Georgakas and the Greek-Americans: Eric Poulos, Georgakas and the History of the Greek-American Left.
Alexiou, a sociologist at Queens College who has long-term ties with Georgakas in their joint interests in Greek American history, sketched out how Georgakas was the first historian to deal with the Greek American working class and the Greek American radical movements, both phenomena reaching a peak in the 1930s and 1940s. Alexiou, who writes poetry, also spoke of Georgakas literary output (mostly poetry), and how it both fused with and expanded his other work. Alexiou also noted that Georgakas had an ability to connect with audiences of diverse political and social views, citing, in particular, Georgakas’ book My Detroit: Growing Up Greek and American in Motor City.
Peter Bratsis of the United Kingdom spoke at greater length of Georgakas’ contribution to the general radical movement, his involvement with Black Mask in the 1960s, a group which prefigured many of the ideas now found in Occupy Wall Street and related movements. He quoted from some of Georgakas’ writing of the time. Bratsis also noted how Georgakas’ activism was coupled with high-level scholarship in the same area, citing his co-editorship of The Encyclopedia of the American Left, which is published by Oxford University Press.
New York attorney Eric Poulos spoke of the work Georgakas has done building archival collections of Greek America data. He spoke in particular of his father’s collection, which Georgakas placed in the research-oriented Tamiment Library housed by New York University. Poulos also noted Georgakas’ Detroit: I Do Mind Dying, which has been in print since it original publication in 1972.
Georgakas was not present during the actual presentations but came for the final hour to answer questions, which included: How he balances his activism, scholarship, and creative writing; how he is able to speak to so many different kinds of groups, given his strong personal views which are a distinct minority in the community; and what is the future of Greek America.
Speaking with the Greek News, Georgakas took on those questions again.
First, regarding his activism, scholarship, and creative writing, Georgakas takes a unified approach: “There are no compartments in my thinking… everything is of a piece… understanding reality and trying to move reality in a progressive direction. Sometimes a thought or project lends itself to a scholarly approach and sometimes something more creative,” he reports, “In any case, I consciously accept the role of public intellectual. For me, that means taking complex historical research and finding a creative means to bring to the attention of the general public in some engaging fashion.”
“I’m able to speak to many groups and work with many groups in Greek America because the ‘national issues’ are so clear-cut that there is a consensus on the problems, and given the problems faced by Greece, an openness to finding solutions. This is quite unlike the anti-anti-junta movement, in which opinion was quite divided for most of the seven-year reign of the dictators,” says Georgakas, in answer to the second question, and third, when speaking of Greek America, “ I rely on my own personal experiences and scholarship, and feel compelled to give a full portrait of the community, warts and all, like it or not.”
Georgakas observes that “this portrait is quite different than what is heard at our endless banquets and award ceremonies, but I have found that audiences almost always identify with what I’m saying and seem glad to hear someone saying aloud what they had thought privately.” In a subsequent interview with the GN, Georgakas said that he thought there was something of a “silent majority” in Greek America whose voices were not heard very clearly in our official organizations, press, and Church activities.
In regard to the future of Greek America, Georgakas thinks that “the term ‘Greek American’ is now “suicidal”, as it means being an American of Greek origin, and with the huge out marriage rate, the Greek component is likely to perish. “I think that’s the likely future for the community, but there is an alternative: Changes in American and Greek society have made a bi-cultural identity viable. That means a Hellenic identity that is not necessarily a matter of geography or genetics, but of culture. I term that ‘neo-Hellenism’. I believe the new electronic technological revolution, closer contact with Greece, and a revival of Greek in America as a second language offer a pathway to survival.” Georgakas discusses these ideas and others regarding prospects for research in the new century in his essay, Greek American Studies in the Twenty-First Century, in the upcoming edition of the Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora
The essays mentioned in this article are a small part of Georgakas’ prodigious creative output. He is the author of some 14 books; his own favorites are Detroit: I Do Mind Dying and My Detroit, Growing Up Greek and American in Motor City.
Detroit: I Do Mind Dying, which has been in continuous print since its first publishing and was rated in Alexander Coburn’s journal as one of the hundred most important nonfiction books of the twentieth century, deals with labor issues in Detroit of the 1960s that now apply to the entire country.
In private conversation Georgakas told this this writer there would be a third edition of Detroit: I Do Mind Dying in 2012, and that a Greek publisher expressed interest in publishing a Greek translation of My Detroit, Growing Up Greek and American in Motor City.
Georgakas is also an editor of Cineaste, America’s leading magazine of the arts and politics of the cinema, since 1969. He writes about various categories of films, but in recent years Georgakas has focused increasingly on Greek film, and as one of the founders of the New York Greek Film Festival, continues to assist in its annual programming. He edited the guide to Greek film just published by Oxford Bibliographies on Line (OBE): Cinema and Media Studies and co-edited a recent double issue of The Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora (of which he is an editor) that is totally dedicated to Greek cinema.