“The Promise of Tomorrow 1940-1960”:
Regional History, Community, Scholarship
In early May, I watched the documentary The Promise of Tomorrow 1940-1960, taking advantage, like many Greek/Americans, of its free online availability. My own DVD copy, still in plastic wrap, remains in my office, inaccessible due to Covid-19-related campus restrictions. The Promise of Tomorrow (2009) is the second of a three-part documentary series The Greeks of Southern California—Through the Century, produced by the Greek Hellenic Society of Southern California (GHS). I’d previously watched the first part entitled The Pioneers 1900-1942 (2002), and I’m looking forward to the third, The New Greek Americans 1960-2018 (2019).
The trilogy—the project of which began in 2000—covers regional history across a span of 120 years, a major undertaking
In the broad context of cultural production in Greek America, the trilogy represents an example of the ongoing—and intensifying it seems—process of grassroots preservation.1 It involves community-supported initiatives, often overseen and managed by heritage organizations, which produce local history and its attendant social memory with the aim of transmitting ethnic identity intergenerationally. Narrating the past and cultural preservation go hand-in-hand. Making a past, as we know, shapes cultural becoming. It is a future-oriented activity.
It is of significance that these narrations move beyond the bounds of the local community. Digital technologies such as the internet and DVDs enable their circulation nationally and internationally. The GHS is not an exception. In addition, in fact, it makes a concerted effort to enhance the institutional visibility of its work, placing its documentaries in the international circuit of film festivals in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Greece. It does so successfully, enjoying considerable recognition. The Promise of Tomorrow, for instance, has received at least two awards: the Indie Special Recognition Award at the Boston International Film Festival and the Best Feature Documentary at the Beverly Hills Film, TV & New Media Festival. At the time of this writing, the third and final installment, The New Greek Americans 1960-2018, has been named a finalist at the 2020 London Greek Film Festival. Via this circulation, the community identity narrative seeking empowerment in turn receives validity as legitimate public history. Heritage organizations, in other words, aspire to both position themselves and achieve recognition as authoritative producers of knowledge about U.S. diversity and Greek America.
The Promise of Tomorrow tells its story primarily in relation to major events that shook the country—and also the world—during the turbulent and transitional 1940s and 1950s: World War II, the GI Bill, the Cold War, the Greek Civil War, the Korean War, and post-war U.S. economic prosperity as well as nascent ethnic revival. It focuses on the perspectives of the first generation—American-born offspring of the first mass wave of Greek immigrants (roughly from the 1890s to the early 1920s)—who eyewitnessed the 1940s and 1950s as adults.
The documentary makes public history via two narrative modes: personal interviews and a narrative voiceover by award-winning actress Olympia Dukakis. A wide range of interviewees share personal stories that explore their participation in World War II—including battlegrounds in Greece—and the Korean War, as well as their involvement in Greek Orthodox institutions and community leadership roles. The interviewees also share details of their own relationships with their immigrant parents, as well as views on and experiences of marriage, socioeconomic mobility, cultural change, U.S. national belonging, and mobilization on behalf of the historical homeland. In addition to these extensive personal narratives, shown as interviews, Dukakis herself introduces the documentary, facing the camera and speaking to the audience, and it’s her voiceover that provides narrative links, commentary, and historical context between interview segments. These commanding voiceovers often bring closure to open-ended personal narratives, on which she often comments and contextualizes, by assessing situations and reaching conclusions.
The First Generation and Dual Belonging (1940-1960): The Historical Context
Marking World War II as the departure point for representing the experience of the first generation works well for the purposes of the documentary. It is not only that the first generation came of age at the time. It is about something much broader. The 1940s and beyond represented anew a challenge that has been invariably present throughout Greek American history: how to create political and cultural spaces that could accommodate at any given historical moment Greek America’s dual connectivity with the United States and Greek ethnicity and diaspora. These spaces set in motion centripetal forces of selective affiliation with as well as a process of centrifugal disconnections from various facets of American and Greek culture.
The years between 1940 and 1960 were indeed a watershed historical period for enabling new spaces of dual belonging. Unlike other racial and ethnic groups, such as Japanese Americans, Italian Americans, and German Americans, Greek Americans found themselves in a favorable historical position. The fact that Greece and the United States joined in allied opposition of the Axis powers made possible an alignment of loyalties, sparing Greek Americans potential conflicts of loyalty or the toxic status of enemy alien. Greek Americans could simultaneously demonstrate deep national (U.S.) and ethnic belonging through military service and large-scale public support of the war effort. In addition, a newly found “ethnic confidence,” particularly in view of the exceedingly positive press in the U.S. media of Greece’s national resistance, emboldened Greek Americans to mobilize in the highly visible Greek American War Relief Association effort on behalf of Greece. The documentary offers remarkable historical footage to visualize various aspects of this experience.
Postwar developments in the United States furthered the favorable conditions of biculturalism for the first generation. The GI Bill set in motion mobility through college education, propelling the sons (mostly) of southeastern European immigrants into the U.S. professional class and deeper into the social fabric. At the front of ethnic and religious pluralism, the imperative to wartime unity—infamously performed by Frank Sinatra in the short film and song The House I Live In2—developed into increasingly pressing calls for ethnic and racial inclusion, eventually culminating in the Civil Rights movement, the idea of the United States as “nation of immigrants,” and the so-called ethnic revival. Ethnic festivals eventually became deeply ingrained in the U.S. landscape of leisure and entertainment; citizens were motivated to research family ancestry; students were encouraged to explore their heritage. Political activists mobilized collectively to confront racism. After a Defense Department decision in 1955, Eastern Orthodox servicemen could elect to have their religious affiliation marked on their dog tags, a result of a Greek American lobbying effort, which the documentary features. Last but not least, the Beat culture established an avant-garde colony in Venice, Los Angeles, giving rise to the hippie movement. It would be of interest to have an in-depth study about the first generation’s encounter with the local counterculture, and the effects of this interfacing.
Monumental legal changes marked the era too. California officially ended racial segregation in 1947, and a year later the California Supreme Court ruled the State’s anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional, leading to their repeal. This explains why in 1941, John Otis (Ioannis Veliotis), born in 1921 in Vallejo, California, had to elope to Reno, Nevada, to marry Phyllis Walker, a woman of African American and Filipino descent. Otis, a rock and roll legend and a pioneer in crossing interracial lines, died in Los Angeles in 2012.
Physical and symbolic violence also rocked the country in the 1940s and 1950s, often associated with the question of racial equality and democratic representation. Among its expressions were the racist riots against Mexican Americans and African Americans in 1943, and continuing racism, unofficial as well as institutional, despite the legal reforms. Scholars who explore the racial dynamics of the era comparatively, including UCLA anthropologist Karen Brodkin, show how crucially race mattered when it came to social acceptance and mobility. They demonstrate how work ethic alone was not sufficient for the move to the professional class; the social structure played a major role too. For example, the GI Bill, which several interviewees emphatically acknowledge as the catalyst for their access to college education and eventual entry into professional life, disproportionately benefited European American men.3 The trajectory of inclusion privileged the first generation of Southeastern European immigrants, but was not equally paved for women and people of color. The documentary does not probe this terrain, but it’s a fertile one, worthy of exploration.
Inclusion was also selective when it came to political radicals, progressives, and dissidents. Concerning Greek America in particular, the controversial testimony of Elia Kazan (born Elias Kazantzoglou) before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952 may offer a departure point to connect McCarthyism with the Hollywood blacklisting, and the terror it unleashed by denying citizens—and immigrants—due process and violating civil liberties. Through family memoirs and testimonies, we know that McCarthyism led to the deportation of some Greek Americans, and the damaging of the professional, social, and family life of others. Archival records also indicate that Greek Americans formed organizations, such as The Greek American Defense Committee and the Greek American Committee for Protection of Foreign Born in Michigan, in counter-response. The Promise of Tomorrow does not venture into how this political drama played out among the Greeks of Southern California, perhaps considering the matter outside its purview.
Hyphenated Identity as Becoming
The documentary’s main interest in the exploration of identity-making in a historical situation of cultural betweenness is fascinating. It speaks, I should note, to my own personal and professional interests. As an immigrant who invested in creating a variety of connections with Greek/America I recognize the complexities, rewards, and frustrations of this process. Fostering a hyphenated identity takes considerable work.
This interest also informs my academic work in Greek American studies. I seek to understand cultural identifications as experienced by others and expressed by institutions. Some of the questions I ask inquire how individuals negotiate two cultures. I am interested in exploring the meanings that individuals and institutions attach to hyphenated identity. I ask these questions, as I mentioned, in relation to specific historical circumstances. Greek immigrants participating in the U.S. labor movement in the 1910s connected with the United States in dramatically different ways than immigrant business owners at the time. And negotiating a Greek American identity at the height of U.S. nativism in the early 1920s is radically different than asserting a hyphenated identity in the multicultural, diaspora-celebrating 2010s.
Hence my intense interest in The Promise of Tomorrow. Its personal narratives explicitly highlight the question of hyphenated identity in relation to this first generation. Interviewees register joys, rewards, ambivalences, tensions, frustrations, even puzzlement and aversion in negotiating immigrant culture. Women recall strict parental orders that pressured them to marry solely within the group, to which an interviewee reports she had no choice but to succumb: “In those days you either had to marry a Greek or become a nun.” Were Greek women courted by non-Greek men? Were they desirable mates outside the community? Their testimonies offer echoes from an era when patriarchy exercised a particularly powerful cultural hold on women. The interview segments reminded me of Constance Callinicos’s American Aphrodite: Becoming Female in Greek America (1990), a book based on oral histories documenting the ways in which the immigrant patriarchy subordinated Greek American women, as well as the social and psychological cost of this subordination. An author of a particular feminist orientation, Callinicos (1943-2019) was connected with the Los Angeles community, and served as the Choir director of its Saint Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral. She is not included or mentioned in the conversation. It is perhaps the documentary’s emphasis in achievement that makes it difficult to find a productive angle—say, women reconfiguring tradition to fit their contemporary needs—to document this gendered aspect of the ethnic experience.
But despite the struggle of “growing up Greek,” a sector of Greek America
did not turn its back on Greek identification, an ethnic success story that
the documentary celebrates. In retrospect, voices representing this
generation express admiration for their parents and also assert their
ethnic pride. It is this situation that makes the question of ethnic
identity among the first generation even more poignant. As an interviewee
states, near the closing of the story when the line of the questions leads
to cultural diversity and its value in the United States: “We ourselves
have created our own subclass within this United States. We are Greek Americans.” Interviewees offers insights on various facets
of negotiating the hyphen.
The documentary then narrates Greek American identity in the 1940s and 1950s, amidst immense changes in the United States and Greek America. Inevitably, this directs attention to the ways in which the first generation worked out its place in connection to a fluid national and ethnic landscape, the connections and disconnections that it set in motion. And the manner in which identity was displayed in public and negotiated in private. To phrase these questions in the language I used previously, what spaces did Greek Americans create to express their dual connectivity, and how? The documentary offers ample material for further analysis.
Situating The Promise of Tomorrow as Community Narrative
It is instructive at this juncture to identify the GHS’s official narrative. The GHS is a preservation society, which aims to document regional history via the collection of oral histories; the making of visual, audio, and textual archives; folk art exhibits; and the presentation of public talks, among other initiatives. Its ambition lies in linking preservation, education, and identity, an undertaking of impressive scope that warrants close attention. I cite at length its mission statement:
The Greek Heritage Society of Southern California (GHS) was established in 1985 to preserve the rich culture, heritage and traditions of Greek immigrants in Southern California. Through its FLOGA Project (FLOGA in Greek means FLAME and signifies PASSING THE TORCH from generation to generation), the Greek Heritage Society documents the story of early Greek immigrants and highlights continuing generations. In doing so, it provides the community with an extensive database of Southern California’s rich Greek American history.
GHS is a non-political, non-profit California corporation, in association with the Basil P. Caloyeras Modern Greek Studies Center at Loyola Marymount University (Los Angeles, California) for educational, literacy and educational purposes.
[Its goals are:] To establish a Greek-American Archive and Resource Center that will showcase and preserve the artistic, academic, professional and athletic achievements of the local Greek community. To compile historical photos and documents and develop educational materials to stimulate and maintain an interest in Greek culture, literature and heritage. To provide workshops and training programs focusing on the accomplishments of the Greek community and extend this knowledge to members of the community. To work with other cultural and educational organizations for the promotion of cross-cultural studies.
The GHS positions itself as a key cultural producer. It organizes its official narrative around three interrelated interests. A “non-political” entity is committed in preserving and promoting heritage from the vantage point of ethnic accomplishments around the question of generation. In this orientation, GHS is not alone. Achievement, and the narrative of ethnic pride it generates, is a thread running throughout Greek America’s representation of the Self, as exemplified by previous documentaries and countless accounts, a fact that makes ethnic accomplishment a pervasive idiom in the group’s self-representation.
In what manner does the interest in the non-political, in accomplishment, and in generation shape The Promise of Tomorrow? Let us consider its narrative point of view as a first step. The documentary privileges the narration of lived experience. It features eye-witnessing accounts, whose main theme of negotiating cultural duality is acknowledged as one also shared by the narrator, Olympia Dukakis, who, born in 1931, belongs to roughly the same generational cohort as the interviewees. It is written and directed by Anna Giannotis, an actress, playwright, and teaching artist born in Newport, Rhode Island. This is to say that The Promise of Tomorrow is vested in the representation of community from the “community’s” point of view. It takes it upon itself to produce the meaning of accomplishment via first generation voices.
But let us keep firmly in mind that a “community” is an internally differentiated social entity. Who is invited to represent a community—and who isn’t—matters a great deal in the making of meaning about community and history. Those who are selected for inclusion have the power to showcase their own version at the expense of alternatives. Greek America is often portrayed as a homogeneous group. But no single story can possibly capture the heterogeneous experiences associated with Greek America, or any group, for that matter, so the claim of universality, while aiming at inclusion, may instead end up alienating those whose narratives are left outside public representation.
Community Narratives and Scholarship: Toward a Conversation
The particular answers the documentary provides to the question of identity for the first generation invite greater analysis. A scholar’s work toward this direction is essential for understanding the documentary’s take on generational connectivity—the passing of the torch, as the GHS puts it—and its own rendering of ethnic accomplishment. What does The Promise of Tomorrow tell us about Greek America between two major points in U.S. history, World War II and 1960, an important year for civil rights?4
Yet there are more questions that arise. The documentary does not feature any scholars who work on ethnic diversity in Southern California, despite the presence of at least two eminent research institutions in the region, UCLA and UCSD. Nor does it feature a historian of Greek America, for that matter. Vested in producing community from the community’s perspective, The Promise of Tomorrow displays no interest in complicating its story with sociological or historical analysis, hence the absence of scholarly voices in the narrative. I can’t help but wonder how the additional layering and framing that scholars might have provided would have contributed to this story.
If the documentary does not accommodate scholarly analysis, what is the place of scholars “outside” the space of the documentary? In what settings do community narratives and academic narratives “meet,” and in what manner? At stake here is the relationship between “town and gown,” a question of particular relevance to “ethnic studies” scholars who interface with their communities in multiple ways, often achieving mutually benefitting collaborations.5
It takes work to build productive dialogue. Misunderstandings of each other’s mission pose a major challenge. Academic and community historians may share incompatible assumptions about key concepts. For example, what constitutes the “political” in society. Or, what is “ideology,” and how it works in the making of a community. Moreover, they may practice different methods (or similar methods differently), address different primary audiences, and negotiate different sets of power relations. For instance, an academic scholar may accumulate accolades via critical engagement with controversial issues, while a community historian who addresses controversial issues within a community may bring about internal discord, even jeopardize their social status.
We stand to benefit, I believe, if the Greek American public and scholars working on Greek America could meet outside the classroom, so to speak, in public fora, for a meaningful exchange. As a step toward this direction, I would like to keep discussing The Promise of Tomorrow from an angle that reflects the following interest: how academics can contribute to Greek America’s heritage narrative, and in turn, how the community’s narratives could inform scholarly work. In this respect, I would like to start building on a previous idea for a project involving authors, scholars, and Greek America’s various publics.6
I will be devoting time to continue thinking, writing, and publishing toward this goal. Until then.
Yiorgos Anagnostou teaches Modern Greek diaspora and transnational studies at The Ohio State University. He writes about Greek America in academic journals, community publications, and the media in Greece and Greek America. His most recent publication is entitled, “Greek American Youth: Multiplying Routes to Hellenism as Cultural Policy,” published in the AHIF: American Journal of Contemporary Hellenic Issues.
1. Steve Frangos, “Support Collectivism in New Preservation Movement,” The National Herald, February 13, 2010, 1, 5.
2. For a fascinating analysis of this performance see, David R. Roediger, Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White. The Strange Journey from Ellis Island to the Suburbs (New York: Basic Books, 2005), 235–244.
3. See Karen Brodkin, How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1998).
4. Congress passed legislation in 1957, 1960, and 1964 to address voting disenfranchisement among the black community.
5. Anthony Julian Tamburri, Editor, Interrogations into Italian-American Studies. The Francesco and Mary Giambelli Foundation Lectures (Bordighera Press, 2020).
6. For instance, “there is little theoretical work on how we build communication with the communities, how we collaborate or make interventions in a language that is understood by the community, how we enter in conversation to establish a common ground, how we negotiate hegemonic narratives (other than critiquing them).” See Yiorgos Anagnostou, “Authors, Scholars and the Public in Greek America: Toward a Conversation.” November 27, 2016. [Accessed May 19, 2020].