New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
What does it mean to be Greek American? Yiorgos Anagnostu associate professor of modern Greek and American ethnic studies at the Ohio State University demonstrates that there are many ways of being Greek American in his very new book, Contours of White Ethnicity, from Ohio University Press.
Anagnostu, who has published widely on ethnicity and immigration in various scholarly disciplines, including ethnography, folklore, sociology, and diaspora and cultural studies, has thought long and hard about this topic, and his book, which is of “great importance”, says Artemis Leontou, of the University of Michigan’s Modern Greek Studies department, “demonstrates a patient and very deep reflection on the past, present, of ethnicity in America. It’s immediate subject—popular ethnography’s treatment of the Greek immigrant past in America—is quite precise, but its scope is wide,”
Anagnostu talks with the Greek News about why he wrote Contours of White Ethnicity and what being Greek American is all about.
TGN: What was your main reason for writing Contours of White Ethnicity?
YA: There were several reasons for taking up this book project. I wanted to engage the academic community with the example of Greek America. I also wanted to bring to the fore Greek American perspectives that offered compelling social visions for our future…. and I wanted to include points of view that are often marginalized even within the Greek American community. The result was a book demonstrating that there are many ways of being Greek American. This is, I think, the crux for a democratic future of Greek America. And one of its great challenges too. How do we build on this diversity? It will be a mistake, in my view, to try to conveniently silence it. The plurality of perspectives and a genuine public dialogue that takes it into account can function as our strength, as our rich resource. If we endorse the concept of a pluralist America, why not embrace the notion of a pluralist Greek America?
TGN: What might be a good first step for Greek Americans to take in order to not forget Greek traditions yet not necessarily live only within the sphere of those traditions?
YA: Traditions may serve as sources of great joy and value for many people. Take the performance of folk dances among the Greek American youth, for instance: dancing generates great intensity, a sense of belonging, and a feeling of connection and memory across generations.
TGN: Why have folk dances persevered?
A: There are many reasons which explain the perseverance of folk dances in Greek America: they are taught and performed since early age, they are shared in both family and institutional setting (language schools), they are valued beyond the ethnic community (they are particularly popular features of festivals); what’s more, dancing is a joyful activity. But let us not forget that in the 1920s it was a source of embarrassment to wear the foustanella and dance in a public setting; old timers tell me stories of dancing indoors with their window blinds drawn so that they would not “offend their neighbors” in rural Ohio. Traditions then must be analyzed in terms of particular social contexts and in relation to the larger society.
TGN: Did certain Greek traditions oppress sectors of the public?
YA: Generations of Greek American women suffered from patriarchal traditions. One witnesses the devastation that tradition may wreak on women by reading the autobiography of Olympia Dukakis or the popular ethnography “American Aphrodite: Becoming Female in Greek America”. Because of this many women vehemently rejected Greek ethnicity. At the same time, women may embrace particular traditions or modify their meanings to suit personal circumstances. In my view, the point is not to valorize “tradition” as a way of life, but to examine how individuals act upon tradition: how they negotiate it, how they modify it, how they reinvent it, as we often say today. This is a public discussion long overdue in Greek America. My book contributes to this conversation.
TGN: Did personal experience play any role in your approach? Did intuition play any role?
YA: They did, in several and complex ways. Just to connect the dots with my previous point: I felt the visceral need to include a plurality of perspectives in the book when I did not recognize my personal experience in numerous stories about Greek America. Where is the story of the working class, I asked myself. Where is the experience of artists and those who love letters? Where are the stories of those who staked their lives in order to promote social justice? Where is a nuanced telling of the Greek American experience that genuinely addresses how U.S. history shaped who we are today? I was not alone in feeling puzzled and frustrated. Many of my Greek American friends and colleagues–some born in the U.S., others having lived more than half of their lives in this country–asked the same questions. We often spoke about the need to portray Greek American life as richly textured and multidimensional, not as the simplified caricature that often passes as the Greek American story. This is not say, of course, that the book is autobiographical.
TGN: How long did it take to write this book?
YA: There are two ways to answer this question. In a practical sense I started writing it in 2000, the year I was hired as an assistant professor at OSU. It took about seven years to complete the project. I didn’t write, of course, continuously. Those familiar with academic life know that writing is only one facet of a professor’s responsibilities because of teaching and administrative duties. To make this book happen it was essential to work during weekends and waive off summer vacations.
Now from a philosophical perspective I cannot really pinpoint a definitive moment when I started writing the book. Ideas fertilize for a long time before they crystallize into a book project. I spent a great deal of time, for instance, thinking about issues of Greek American identity and culture throughout the 1990s, during graduate school. I am sure that in one way or another this thinking fertilized during the actual writing of the book.
TGN: What are you working on now?
YA: I have been thinking about several issues. One question has to do with the American context of the popular film “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and the reasons for its success. I am also interested in the question of academics writing for the general public. And the question regarding the “next generation,” how we develop Greek America’s cultural and social leaders, is always on my mind. These concerns may appear disparate. Only time will tell how they will cross-fertilize into the next book project.