Dan Georgakas’s Choice
by Eric Poulos
From his beginnings in a typical Greek American household, the trajectory of Dan’s life led to that of a political activist, poet, film critic, author, and formidable figure in both the Greek American community and in different movements seeking radical change in the United States.
While Dan grew up in a Greek American household, he admits that the “movement to recover black history led me to realize that I knew as little about my own ethnic history as most blacks knew about theirs” (My Detroit: Growing Up Greek and American in Motor City 2018, 256).
In the context of the U.S.’s post World War II period, Dan’s statement is understandable. It was the “American century,” a time of prosperity, squashing of dissent and incessant propaganda designed to convince ordinary Americans that their interests were the same as their corporate masters. “What’s good for General Motors is good for America” (Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson 1953) was the message and it was reflected in portrayals of Greek Americans as hard workers who were able to own businesses like restaurants or, even like Spyros Skouras, head a major film studio. Little attention was paid to the struggles of the Greek immigrants (initially labeled as “Oriental”), anti-Greek riots, or the role of the Greeks in the labor and the socialist movements.
In this period much of America was marginalized. Future President John F. Kennedy’s book A Nation of Immigrants (1958) almost completely ignored a huge part of Americans who were not immigrants but were forced here as slaves, those who already lived here as Natives or those of Mexican descent who lived in large portions of the continent only to become Americans due to military conquest.
Dan’s quote demonstrates that the struggle for Black liberation and its insistence of uncovering the true history of America, prompted many writers and activists, starting in the 1960s, to examine their own histories, which was reflected in women’s, Chicano, Latino, Native American and gay liberation movements.
Dan was active in various causes in Detroit regarding Black civil rights. He wrote (with Marvin Surkin) the modern classic Detroit I Do Mind Dying: A Study in Urban Revolution (1975). This profile of Black Detroit focused on the struggle of Black activists in the auto plants and against their union bureaucracy, the fight against police violence and the broader issues of who controlled this predominantly Black city. The title, forecasting Detroit’s collapse was eerily prescient as to Detroit’s bleak future. The book is a classic and was named by CounterPunch magazine as one of the 100 most important books of the 20th century. Since 1975 it has been continually reprinted, as recently as 2012.
He engaged in Greek affairs, not because of family or the Church but through political activism. In April 1967 the Greek colonels’ dictatorship propelled Dan into writing, speaking, and traveling to build the anti-junta resistance. Of his lack of involvement in Greek issues prior to the coup, he wrote: “In many ways I was an ‘idotes.’ This would not alter significantly until 1967 when I was drawn into the struggle against the April coup” (p. 260).
Infused with the example of the Black movement and as an activist in the anti-junta movement, Dan challenged the prevailing and fundamentally conservative narrative about Greeks in the United States and revealed a richer––and more accurate—history: that of the Greek American Left. Every American leftist party had a Greek section. There were numerous left-wing Greek newspapers, and Greeks were active in, or actually led, important strikes in American history: miners in Ludlow, Colorado in 1913 and Hotel Workers in NYC in 1934, and also a major force in left-wing unions such as the Fur Workers (many of whose members were from Kastoria, Greece).
Dan went on to edit (with Paul Buhle) The Immigrant Left in the United States, an anthology of immigrants’ oral histories in the radical movements. He also edited Solidarity Forever (with Stewart Bird and Deborah Shaffer) an oral history of the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), the syndicalist working-class movement that fought for unions and against U.S. involvement in World War I. Dan told me that he always felt close in spirit to the IWW: he disdained the traditional Left groups because of what he felt was their extreme centralization and rigidity.
Dan expressed the hope that he could build a greater connection between Greeks in the U.S., the various diasporas and in Greece. He wanted them to be “talking like a family” (Dan Georgakas: A Diaspora Rebel 2015). After all, as he states in the film, within the Greek community he found himself in agreement, “even with Republicans” on “national issues such as Macedonia, the Turks, [and] the occupation of Cyprus.”
Seeking to make that connection, I think, was why his columns in The National Herald and his many public pronouncements were not radical but generally supportive of liberal mainstream policies. This is not to say that he gave up his oft-stated hope for a socialist future, but I believe that he was engaged in an effort to find a common consensus and not one that would alienate any of the constituencies that he wished to connect.
I was fortunate to know Dan as a friend and comrade for many years. We spent many hours together, and, on several occasions, we spoke at the same events. I also spoke at a Modern Greek Studies Association (MGSA) panel (2011) devoted to his work.
He and I argued (in a comradely way since both Dan and I welcomed a good debate) about a number of issues. For instance, Dan objected to the republic calling itself Macedonia because “Macedonia is Greek” and he felt that it was correct to not recognize “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” (FYROM)—the provisional description under which this country became a member of the United Nations in 1993—unless it changed its name. I took the position that they had a right to call themselves what they wanted and non-recognition or sanctions was wrong. Also, Dan felt Turkey should not be allowed in the European Union (EU) until it admitted its genocide against the Armenians and Pontic Greeks. I felt that, while not forgetting Turkey’s genocide of 100 years ago, if Turkey was barred from the EU, it should be for current reasons; oppression of the Kurds, censorship, occupation of Cyprus and Islamization, but not because of historical reasons: every member country had some repressive past. One of our more memorable disagreements was about Elia Kazan. While Dan certainly did not support Kazan’s cooperation with the House on Un-American Committee’s (HUAC). investigation into the supposed influence of Communists in Hollywood, he felt that my disgust at Kazan’s actions and the lives that he ruined ignored the pressure exerted by the Hollywood studios and that I failed to appreciate how a degree of Kazan’s behavior in front of HUAC stemmed from what he learned in order to survive, as a Greek, in an oppressive environment—Ottoman Turkey. These disagreements and others never prevented us from sharing meals, socializing, and participating in joint events.
The journey, starting as an activist in Black struggles to the anti-Greek dictatorship movement, led Dan to become involved in Greek affairs for the next 55 years. He immersed himself in writing and editing Greek journals, curating Greek film festivals (as well as write for Cineaste), directing The Greek American Studies Project at the Center for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies at Queens College, teaching, and writing the column for The National Herald.
Perhaps Dan summed it up best: “I am a Greek by blood, an American by birth, I am a Hellene because I chose to make that journey” (emphasis added).
Dan’s journey finds an echo in T.S. Eliot’s refrain in Four Quartets:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Eric Poulos is a civil rights and criminal defense lawyer in New York City. He is a veteran activist, including AKNY (Aristeri Kinisi-Greek Solidarity campaign).