A Greek-Cypriot-American on Martin Luther King Jr. Day

by Joanna Eleftheriou

Last year, the university where I serve as assistant professor of creative writing canceled only a few late afternoon classes on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. My courses, scheduled earlier in the day, would go on as if this day were not a public holiday. To mark Dr. King’s birth (and death), I assigned to my students an array of archived newspaper articles and essays about this great American man. I included a Guardian article from 1968 announcing King’s assassination.

“Dr. Martin Luther King,” the article read, “died in hospital today after being shot in the head.” King’s own speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” from April 3rd of that year, was included in the assigned readings too, along with James Baldwin’s 1962 “Letter from a Region in My Mind” and Ted Conover’s “The Strike That Brought MLK to Memphis.” I had long done my best (though never enough) to help students expand their knowledge of MLK beyond “I Have a Dream.” Since I would be teaching on Martin Luther King Jr. Day for the first time, though, in 2020 I intensified my curriculum. I asked students to write a letter to their younger selves about what they had learned from the day’s reading. My hope was that they would reckon with the limitations of their earlier education in a way that didn’t feel punitive, or filled with the proverbial white guilt. I was trying to find a way to help students open up to greater truths about the civil rights movement beyond the rigid, sanitized icons of meek respectability in their textbooks and on TV. The letter to their former selves proved effective. And it revealed a lot of my own ignorance, too.

For me, there was something powerful about the Guardian article. I imagined King’s assassination from the perspective of the journalist who wrote it in 1968, when the great man had not yet become a memory. Born in 1929, King could still be alive if he had not been shot; in 2021, he might be building houses with Jimmy Carter. He might chat with Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis about freedom and art. The date stamp of 1968 caused me to think about my parents, too, who had already graduated from college when King was killed. While my Greek American parochial school had taught me many poems and songs about the 1821 Greek War of Independence, my parents and teachers had related to me almost nothing about the civil rights of their own youth. They repeated only this point of pride: “Archbishop Iakovos walked with Martin. Archbishop Iakovos was there, lending his support.” Iakovos was the namesake of the high school where my parents met and were still working when I was born.

One decade before I was born, Dr. King was alive. Reading the archived news reminded me that King is closer to us in time than the heroes of Greek revolution I read about in Greek class, Botsaris and Bouboulina. Somehow, perhaps because Makrigiannis, another major figure in the independence war, was imagined as our hero, he felt closer in time and space to me than King. “Είμαστε στο εμείς, κι όχι στο εγώ” (“We are in the we, not in the I”) I read in ninth grade. I felt certain that when Makrigiannis said “we,” he included me. And yet I am separated from 1821 by four or five generations. Theirs was a totally different time, without engines or machine guns, without radios or cars. And so were the Cypriot freedom fighters of EOKA (National Organization of Cypriot Fighters), who fought against British rule from 1955 to 1959, Evagoras Pallikarides and Grigoris Afxentiou feel even closer to me—like my contemporaries and my compatriots—yet they were martyred years before Martin Luther King.

Dr. King was thirty years younger than my Cypriot grandfather. King was eighteen years younger than Iakovos. As I reflect upon my own awareness of King’s life, I realize that the freedom fighters of EOKA in the 1950s and the Greek revolution in 1821 loom larger and more recent for me than the American hero and I ask why. The heroism I was taught to admire in those men (and Bouboulina) shines just as brightly in Martin Luther King, but he feels distant to me because, I suppose, his fight never felt like our fight. Although I knew the name, I don’t remember really learning anything about Dr. King until I read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” as a senior in college.

Having listened again to King’s recorded voice, and reread his glorious speeches, I admired his allegiance to justice and truth. Yet I have seen him always as too distant from my life to serve, for me, as a model.

Reflecting on my own misperceptions—that the civil rights struggle was less my own and more distant in the past than EOKA and 1821—I wonder what it means to feel ownership of a hero. If I think of King as more my own leader than Afxentiou, am I appropriating an icon that belongs to black Americans? Or am I recognizing that King deserves to have a more central position as an American hero? Am I seeing that every American should aspire to emulate King, and feel gratitude for how he uplifts our vision for what a human being can be? Is it even my choice to make, or has my upbringing forever conditioned me to think of Martin as their hero, not mine. Is the barrier unbreakable?

I possess a Cypriot passport and a U.S. passport. I was taught in my parochial school that I am Greek-Cypriot and American. I rattle off without effort the places from which I am descended: Asgata, Drovjiani, Karpenisi, Amikles. To realize that the common fight for justice, dignity, and self-determination makes King and Afxentiou kinsmen—that requires that I question constructed boundaries of race and class. In comparing my distant vision of King to my intimate sense of Greek heroes, from Bouboulina to Pallikarides, I see how indelibly racism has marked me. I was taught to imagine MLK as a leader benefiting black people, rather than elevating the country as a whole. I didn’t learn to see him as a great person. Also, essentialist narratives about bloodlines, Orthodox kinship, and ethnicity make possible my intimate connection with Greek and Greek Cypriot heroes and impossible an identification with an African American leader. I look upon the image of King, feel that he is far away, and wonder how it might be possible to change. How can I see that King is as much my forefather in hope as Afxentiou? If the men had not been killed, after all, by their respective tyrants, they would be ninety-two and ninety-three years old today. Maybe I could ask them each how to see them as my own. Or better, how to see myself as a servant of their common, blessed cause.

Perhaps it’s too utopian. Perhaps my knowledge of Dr. King is still so lacking, I’ve bought into a sanitized, idealized portrait. Nevertheless, I look forward to a generation of Americans who, in their entirety, spend the third Monday of January meditating on this man’s many virtues, and aspire to be fearless in their struggle against exploitation and tyranny. What I think makes Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a hero is that he subordinated his own person and profit to the more righteous cause of justice.

Joanna Eleftheriou is author of This Way Back and teaches at Christopher Newport University.