By Sophia A. Niarchos
OYSTER BAY, N.Y. -Having returned to the Queens College Center for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies after nearly two decades, Prof. Chris Ioannides, its new director, has seen almost a generation’s worth of evolution from the students enrolled in its courses and Bachelor of Arts degree program then to those attending classes there now. When he taught there in the mid-80’s, the majority of the students were Greek-born; today the majority are of Greek heritage but American born. According to Ioannides, this evolution requires a new way of looking at the priorities of the Greek-American community and Greek studies programs in America for the 21st century. Central to the examination is understanding the modern components of the Greek-American identity.
“We need to be on more solid ground when we talk about the Greek-American community. I think what is going to happen in this community, in the general New York area, regarding language, Greek education, and the sense of preserving the Greek identity is going to determine where the Greek-American community is going to be thirty years from now, a generation from now,” he said in an interview with Greek News.
“It’s very common to say that the Greek-American community is in transition, but now we are really in transition because we are entering the generation that is going to determine whether “Greekness” is going to be dominant or at least as dominant as being American, or whether the American identity is going to absorb the Greek,” he said.
Prof. Ioannides believes it is the role of such institutions as the media, the Church, organizations and, of course, the Center to meet this challenge. Critical to the survival of a Greek-American identity in which “Greekness” prevails, he says, are: acknowledging Greece as the wellspring of Greek-American identity; reducing the tension that emanates from differences between the Greek and Greek-American peoples; archiving the documents and other artifacts that provide a history of the Greek-American experience; training students to conduct extensive long-term research studies on Greek-American identity; and supporting and offering a wide variety of courses at Greek studies centers that explore the Greek-American experience.
He finds it “very interesting” that today’s students, specifically those in his undergraduate workshop on “The Greek Community of Queens and New York,” are curious about what it is to be Greek.
“‘What makes us Greek? Is it our language, our origin, our faith?’ they ask.
“I find this very interesting,” the professor says. “So, I am having them do relevant reading and empirical research in the community to begin to get some answers.
But he noted that broader work on attitudes and in the accumulation of data and artifacts must also be done.
“First we must acknowledge that in the final analysis, the source, the spring of Hellenism, the water we drink, comes from Greece.”
Noting the distance that separates the people of Greece and Greek-Americans as the result of differences relative to political events [i.e., Greek-American support of the junta in the ’60’s, the “kala na pathoun” (“they deserve it”) attitude of Greeks after 9/11, and the generally opposing views vis-à-vis the war in Iraq], Prof. Ioannides cautions: “The only way to sort out the differences is to be sincere with ourselves, acknowledge these sources of tension and see how we can understand each other better. Because the more alienated from Greece the Greek-American community becomes, the more difficult it will become for all of us to really succeed in our struggle to keep the [Greek] identity.”
“The upcoming Olympics offer a unifying concept that can help us bridge the gap between Greeks and Greek-Americans,” he adds.
To preserve the Greek-American identity, Prof. Ioannides would also like to see the creation of a university-based archive.
“Here at the Center for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, we are starting the New York Greek Immigrant Experience Project,” the professor announced. It is intended to become a source for primary research.
“I know there have been other efforts to archive our history, and I praise those efforts, but I think it will also be good to have an immigrant archive in a university environment. It is the best way to honor those immigrants who came with nothing and lived terrible conditions, especially because that generation is almost gone. One way to preserve their history is to collect the material related to their arrival, presence, struggle and achievement in the U.S.: the correspondence of important Greek-American leaders in public office or the community, which gives you the political history; and the documented evidence of the existence, actions, meetings, yearbooks and dances of another very important element, the regional associations (topika somatia) centered in New York City, which have written their own history but are slowly fading away.”
Collecting this information is only the first step. There are plans to have an “archivist categorize the documents and make them available for academics, researchers, and students who really want to study and write about the immigrant experience, thereby reinforcing the Greek identity in this generation.”
Prof. Ioannides laments the absence of ” a real map of what the Greek-American reality is today,” especially, he says, because this community has “one of the highest educational achievement levels of all ethnic groups; economically, it has moved from lower class to middle class to upper middle class.
“But, where do we stand? How many Greek-American representatives do we send to the federal or state legislatures from this Greek-American community in Queens? How many Greeks are registered to vote? How many vote Republican, how many Democrat? There are no statistics to tell me that. For Hispanics we have very detailed studies on their voting habits. As a result they are a subject of very serious academic interest because they can provide the swing vote now.
“We don’t have this with the Greek-American community, and I think it is a paradox that we don’t study ourselves more thoroughly and systematically.”
Prof. Ioannides notes that there appears to be a “back-to-our-roots” movement among the grandchildren of immigrants, evident in students’ expressions of liking Greece, or having a desire to spend a semester in Greece, or even to go to live in Greece; but only through tangible research, he says, can there be confirmation that such a movement exists.
“Is there really a back-to-the-roots movement? If there is, we may be in a better position than we all think; and the new generation is a source that will help us even more to preserve the identity,” he said, adding that this can only be done if “we give more support to Greek studies and train students to do long-term research, write theses or dissertations and obtain degrees in this field.”
An equivalent challenge, however, is the practical question that every college student must face: Where am I going to find a job? In order to continue to attract students to Greek studies, Prof. Ioannides says we must have “more programs and studies so we can employ people.” While he admits, “there is an increased consciousness about the need to support Greek programs,” he thinks it is inadequate considering the wealth of the Greek-American community.
By introducing more courses about the Greek-American community itself (two offered this year are Dan Georgakas’ course on Greek and Greek-American film and Greece’s Road to Athens 2004: Balancing Tradition with Modernity offered by Prof. Alexander Kitroeff) and reaching out to the broader New York community with free programs on a wide range of subjects (such as Yiannis Simonides in the Apology of Socrates) representative of the Greek-American community’s own significant achievements, Prof. Ioannides hopes to help the members of the Greek-American community become “conscious of their own history in America.”
Of the Olympics course, he said, “it is important that at an American institution we can offer a course for credit that deals not just with the tradition of the Olympics, but with the Greece of today. It’s an indication of what we are trying to do here.”
And if there’s any doubt about the impact of the Greek-American community on the broader New York culture, Prof. Ioannides has a special collection to show those who would minimize its importance.
“Here is a binder full of articles in the New York Times on matters Greek, and only for the last four months or so. Every week there are several items, from food, theater, arts, museums, exhibits. This is part of the achievement of the Greek-American community; if you make it into the New York Times, it says something.”