Dan Georgakas: In Memoriam
by Yiorgos Anagnostou
A multifaceted public figure, Dan Georgakas (1938–2021), holds a considerable share of presence in my imagination and experience as a Greek Americanist. Along with his various writings entrenched in my memory are two landmark moments—one that opened and another that closed our lively professional relationship that lasted for more than 25 years. I trace the prologue in our conversation in the 1990s when my initial stab on scholarship—while I was still in graduate school—found a welcoming place in the Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora (JHD), a journal which Dan, as part of the editorial team, purposefully made hospitable to researchers new in the field. The second moment highlights a particularly meaningful epilogue. In October 2021, about a month before his passing, Dan offered an endorsement to his general readership of Erγon: Greek/American Arts and Letters—a journal which Martha Klironomos and I created after the closing of the JHD—a sign which, in retrospect, feels like an ally’s affirmative farewell.
A couple of essential interactions have punctuated the in-between. A signed copy of his autobiography that I have in my possession serves as a material reminder of a series of exchanges, which had its tumultuous moments but gradually cross-fertilized into a productive give and take. “For an academic comrade in arms,” his dedication reads, a gesture underlying our shared cause to promote the field of Greek American studies, albeit often from different perspectives. In the vocabulary of this signature, one hears echoes of his political radicalism in the past and his enduring belief in the power of words. Dan viewed ideas as weapons one employs to promote a vested position, a fighting of sorts in a ring crisscrossed with ideological struggles.
I received the copy of his autobiography in 2006, some years before I personally witnessed—in a series of email exchanges—one version of what it meant to be a “comrade in arms” with Dan. One can find the public version of his private critique of a writing of mine in the article “Greek American Studies in the Twenty-First Century,” he published in JHD in 2012, intending to clarify and reassess the institutional scope of Greek American studies. While certainly asserting the authority of an established figure with a long history of investment in the boundaries of the field, I also like to think of his critique—to which he did not ask me to reply, and I opted not to engage with it elsewhere—as an invitation for agonistic belonging to Greek American studies, a challenge that has driven me since. I am thankful for the opportunity to revisit some of the points of our contention in a 2019 interview1 I took with him at his home in Amherst, Massachusetts, where he and Barbara, his wife, offered graceful hospitality.
I foreground this memory in the opening of my tribute because it provides a compass in my grappling to find the appropriate angle for expressing my respect. It is not that I am uncertain about a wide range of Dan’s contributions as a researcher and value as an intellectual. When a few days after his loss, Nicholas Alexiou invited me to pay homage in a Cosmos radio broadcast, I was moved for the opportunity to voice my personal appreciation. I praised Dan’s steadfast commitment to writing until the very end. I recalled the importance of his work in labor studies which has been indispensable in my research. I expressed my gratefulness for creating spaces, as editor, for scholars—including myself—poets, and students to write for the non-academic community. I celebrated his voicing neglected, even taboo, topics at the time of publication in Greek American history—the immigrant working class and the Left in particular—and, more broadly, recognized his overall determination to promote Greek American learning. I singled out the importance of the Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora and his various writings during my graduate studies. Along with my academic home at the Ohio State University, this journal offered one of the few institutional spaces at the time which were committed to exploring the Greek American experiences, inspiring further work, generating a sense of belonging to a community of researchers, and contributing to the making of my identity as a Greek Americanist. Much later, I should now mention, I twice registered my unease for the journal’s neglect to review some theoretical scholarship—an issue that I also raised during our 2019 interview—in missing the occasion to translate critical ideas and critiques of prevailing narratives to a broad audience.
Tributes to a deceased person are, of course, designed to extend honor and appreciation, and this is with no doubt my genuine aim. But the question that preoccupies me is about what it means to pay a meaningful tribute to a comrade in arms who cherished rigorous debates. His agonistic ethos steers me away from the compliant trap of unreserved adulation. Extolling praise is already pervasive in the Greek American and Greek obituaries I have read, though I want to believe that this is not what Dan would have wished, most likely not from me. We both agreed that cultural mythologies function as ideologies that obfuscate rather than clarify matters of social importance. For this reason, I am convinced that the example of Dan calls for an alternative ethos of paying due respect: the offering of a reflective tribute on his legacy to further an expressed mission of his, probe difficult truths about Greek America.
Dan Georgakas distinguished himself in labor history, the area of his academic study. He held a Bachelor in American History (Wayne State University, 1959) and a Master of Arts in Labor History (University of Michigan, 1961). He co-authored the highly regarded Detroit: I Do Mind Dying: A Study in Urban Revolution (1975), a pioneering work by a Greek American on African American urban radicalism, and co-edited The Encyclopedia of the American Left. He is remembered as a resourceful author—a writer of historical scholarship, cultural and policy essays, film criticism, autobiography, poetry, scholarly reviews, media columnist, and editorialist. His pioneering work on the Greek immigrant Left built a foundation for a new generation of scholars working on issues of class and immigrant activism.
Academic work, writing, and political commitments were inseparable in his way of being in the world, it seems. In a private communication which I solicited for the purposes of this writing, Alan Wald, a distinguished Professor Emeritus of Labor Studies, portrays Georgakas as an activist-scholar and public intellectual whose “Left political commitment” was embodied “as a complete and integrated way of being and acting”:
The versatile and prolific Dan Georgakas made no secret of his deep commitment to anarchist politics, but he was adept at imparting a compelling, thoughtful and lucid kind of radical sensibility in his conversation, teaching, and writing. Even when taking on tough subjects such as the tragedy of the Communist movement in its illusions about the USSR, he succeeded in achieving an objectivity and level of fairness that was assisted by his scrupulous scholarship. Moreover, the life he led was one that challenged many of us to think about Left political commitment as a complete and integrated way of being and acting. With his peripatetic and unconventional career—adjunct teaching, publishing, editing, television commentator, collaborating—Dan set a high bar for what an activist-scholar and public intellectual should be.
Being a radical outsider and an acclaimed insider to Greek America is the seemingly paradoxical signature that Georgakas, as an intellectual, has bequeathed us for pondering. An activist engaged in the 1960s and 1970s with political radicalism, both as a practice and object of study; a co-founder of the New York-based anarchist group Black Mask, an admirer of the Industrial Workers of the World (an anarcho-socialist labor union), and a self-identifying anarchist until the end; a public figure which was ascribed the label diaspora rebel by a thread of the Greek Left; and a labor historian who foregrounded the neglected topic of Greek immigrant leftist politics, Georgakas pieced together a life of political and cultural activism which appears out of place in Greek American mainstream institutions where someone’s ideology needs multiple stamps of approval before extending the invitation to represent the group, let alone become an insider.
An insider is what Georgakas became eventually, and an esteemed one. His involvement with the antijunta movement in New York City—against the ideological grain of significant sectors of Greek America—and his growing interest in immigrant history—inspired by ethnic revival—was the prelude of his increasing gravitation toward Greek America’s academic, political, and cultural scene. He operated within an ethnic network of publishers, newspapers, lobby organizations, and academic programs, seeing himself as a public intellectual who could make a difference via his belief in cultural education as an engine for consciousness-raising and gradual social reform. This cause colored his understanding of research and writing as a conduit connecting thinkers and academics with the ethnic community, reflecting, I believe, one of the major driving points of the 1960s movement to open university curricula to Ethnic Studies and link it with community empowerment.
In addition to writing, two major activities—the editing of journals and public speaking—served his purpose of reaching a broad audience. Georgakas gave lectures in a wide range of fora, from Modern Greek programs—including a distinguished lecture at my institution—to Greek universities, and from Greek American communities and organizations to seminars for workers. He was a Fulbright Greece recipient. For a span of about 40 years, he devoted considerable energies to sustain—along with a committed editorial team—the Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora, a multi-genre enterprise established in 1976. He also served as the Executive Director of the Journal of Modern Hellenism, founded in 1984, as part of his academic position as the Director of the Greek American Studies Project at the Center for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies at Queens College.
Parallel to these commitments, he found it purposeful to embed himself in the institutional structures of major Greek American institutions such as the American Hellenic Institute (AHI)—a lobby organization—and The National Herald (TNH)—a right-to-center newspaper with a conservative cultural angle. He served as the editor of AHI’s American Journal of Contemporary Hellenic Issues and a regular columnist for TNH. In 2021, indicative of his belief in the intersection of academic platforms and community organizations, he arranged for AHI to become a co-publisher of the Journal of Modern Hellenism. Some of these services were paid positions, undoubtedly contributing to making a living as a “cultural worker” outside the financial security of a tenured faculty.
Work in all these domains earned Georgakas official and unofficial recognition as a writer and thinker who crossed boundaries between ethnicity and U.S. society, the academy and the ethnic group, Greek American studies and ethnic politics, anarchism and Hellenism, U.S. radicalism and conservative ethnic spaces, poetry and history, research and cultural commentary. A panel consisting of scholars, academics, and activists offered a retrospective of his life’s work at the 2011 Modern Greek Studies Association Symposium (MGSA) in New York City. His autobiography has been translated into Greek. He was interviewed copiously and featured in a multitude of U.S.- and Greece-made documentaries, becoming the subject of one. In 2011, AHI granted him the Annual Hellenic Heritage Public Service Award for the Promotion of Hellenism in America.
Posthumously, Georgakas is similarly the subject of Greek American adulation. In AHI’s obituary, he represents an “exceptional individual who worked diligently to promote Hellenic ideals and values. … his love for Hellenism was endless.” Along the same lines, the National Herald lamented his passing as the loss of a Greek American intellectual “with a special interest in Hellenism.” It bid its “goodbye with gratitude” to “a child of the Greek-American community,” who “found the golden section: How to be a good American, but also a good Greek.”
Georgakas’s life trajectory—an arc punctuated with dramatic turns and crossings—calls for reflection. The unmistakable truth is that he was highly influential in establishing himself as the undisputable authoritative voice of an intellectual who sought to guide the ethnic group along the path of diaspora advocacy for the homeland, ethnic preservation, and future cultural orientation. This, from a position of arbitrating literary, scholarly, and cultural work to shape the perception of his audiences. His legitimacy was derived from several sources, including his (a) accomplishments as a researcher and cultural activist—including engagement with Greek film festivals; (b) dense presence in Greek America and its popular media as well as affiliations with U.S. cultural institutions such as the prestigious Cineaste, a magazine of film criticism; and (c) eye-witnessing of over a half-a-century of the Greek Americans’ experience, which he often evoked in reconstructing the past and tracing cultural change.
Within this general (and partial) outline, there is ample space for research and fertile critical thinking. What intrigues me personally is the question of Dan’s function as a Greek American intellectual operating at the intersection of his political beliefs and ethnic engagement. This role deserves, I believe, a close look at his border crossing between U.S. institutions and ethnic America: the intellectual routes he opened and the turns he negotiated to achieve acceptance as an authoritative spokesman for the group. Studying his example will illuminate, I believe, the transactions associated with the aspiration to function as a Greek American intellectual from within community institutions, helping us identify what this position enabled, the limitations and potential compromises it entailed, and the venues it opened.
A future study could investigate, for instance (a) the ways his version of anarchism engaged with the version(s) of Hellenism he promoted; (b) the place of theoretical thinking and scholarship in his operation as a public intellectual and key figure in Greek American studies; (c) the place, also, of the post-1990s Greek American and American working class in his popular and academic writings; (d) the assumptions he employed to evaluate cultural production that fell outside the area of his academic expertise—for example, literature (Jeffrey Eugenides), the intersection of oral history and biography (Zeese Papanikolas), theoretical scholarship (Ioanna Laliotou); and (e) the translation of his radicalism in the past into ethnic politics in the present. Ultimately, the question is about the form and substance of his interventions as an intellectual when he spoke from the ethnic podium.
In settings where the range of what can be said—and what must be left unsaid—about the history and culture of the ethnic group is closely regulated, Georgakas saw himself—and is seen by many—as the moral conscience and voice of truth for the group. We gain a first impression of how he perceived his function in this context in an interview upon receiving the AHI service award I mentioned for the Promotion of Hellenism in America. His perspective deserves citing in length:
I was quite surprised by this award and quite moved to receive it … I was quite gratified that a public intellectual would be so recognized by the most viable of our political organizations.
I rely on my own personal experiences and scholarship, and feel compelled to give a full portrait of the community, warts and all, like it or not. [Georgakas observes that] this portrait is quite different than what is heard at our endless banquets and award ceremonies, but I have found that audiences almost always identify with what I’m saying and seem glad to hear someone saying aloud what they had thought privately.
[He] thought there was something of a “silent majority” in Greek America whose voices were not heard very clearly in our official organizations, press, and Church activities.
This testimonial juxtaposes the ritual staging of Greek American self-representation and the parallel absence of a public culture hospitable to open expression. Once we place this self-censoring in relation to a supreme Greek American identity narrative, a fundamental contradiction comes in full sight: an ethnic group that extols its dual identification with the ideals of ancient Greek democracy and American liberty, including freedom of speech, lacks a rigorous public sphere. How to explain this reticence for genuine public debate? Why is it that voices are muted, and critical self-reflection is stifled, in stark contrast, say, to an ethnic group such as Jewish Americans?
The poignant question to ask at this juncture is how an intellectual negotiates this self-regulated space from within. In his narrative, Georgakas identifies himself as one whose authority to speak truth to power (the leadership) lies in giving voice to the community’s “silent majority.” His values rest in his ability to articulate what he believes Greek Americans wish they were able to say in public where they felt free to do so. The intellectual’s function in this view is to operate as a catalyst for democratic opening. Georgakas casts himself as an intellectual whose perspective grows organically from the base—the concerns, interests, and the aspirations of the people he is positioned to lead.
What truths did Georgakas speak from his various capacities to the ethnic community? This is a vital question to investigate. At this point, I only qualify to identify the range of practices that fell outside his definition of an ethnic intellectual—what was left unsaid—in this interview. The stated aim is to voice what the intellectual perceives to be in the people’s minds, but it refrains from identifying a whole alternative range of an intellectual’s responsibility. For example, voicing “minority” points of view; questioning authority; introducing new critical perspectives; or stating truths that might disturb or unsettle the collective body.2 The assumption here is that there is a collective defined by common interests, which the intellectual organically voices and promotes. But this is a misplaced assumption, given the political, cultural, and socioeconomic heterogeneity of contemporary Greek America.
In charting the U.S. political scene, author Joan Didion found “not a mechanism that offered the nation’s citizens a voice in its affairs, but one designed by—and for—‘that handful of insiders who invent, year in year and year out, the narrative of public life.’” This disconnect is evident in Greek America, too, in the divergence between the identity narratives that a professional elite invents and an increasingly diversifying demographic that negotiates identities and affiliations. To the best of my knowledge, a wide range of inconvenient truths remains unsaid by Greek American organic intellectuals, their utterance perhaps mediated by the aspiration for recognition by the ethnic community or a strategy to institute incremental social change from within. These truths have been available. They are generated within the space of the academy, “the last remaining protected space,”3 which affords some scholars the speaking of truth to power, relatively unencumbered from ideological conformity.
Scholars writing about Greek America have established a broad range of facts that intellectuals and groups within this field must grapple with in an effort to imagine the contours of Greek America’s cultural and civic identities. These include (a) the narrative of struggle and success as a component of White backlash to civil rights gains; (b) the historical privileging of ethnic self-interests over interracial solidarities; (b) the making of cultural hierarchies ranking Greek America on the top; (c) political and ethical culpabilities of institutions which compromised their ideals; (d) the sheer ethnographic reality of Greek America’s diverse sexual, class, and ideological subjectivities, which are stifled by the community’s narrow public narratives and practices of exclusion.
Ethnic gatekeepers have been consistently sidelining these issues—so vital for historical and cultural self-awareness and collective reflection. As an intellectual operating within community structures of power, Dan Georgakas strove to restore some critical ethnohistoric truths while opening and supporting spaces within community venues for voicing new perspectives and visions for a more inclusive Greek America. The degree and manner in which his interventions shaped the consciousness of Greek Americans and the extent to which they punctuated institutional culture need indeed charting. In addition to building on an impressive range of accomplishments, a timely tribute to Dan would be to expand the ongoing discussion of what it means to operate as a twenty-first-century Greek American scholar, critical thinker, and intellectual.
1. Forthcoming in Erγon: Greek American Arts and Letters.
2. See Elizabeth F. Dahab, “On Edward Said, Scholar and Public Intellectual,” Comparative Literature and Culture 5.4 (2003). For reflection on the question of Greek American public intellectuals, see Artemis Leontis, “The Intellectual in Greek America,” Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora 23.2 (1997): 85–109; and Yiorgos Anagnostou, “Public Scholarship in Greek America: Personal Reflections, Intellectual Vocations,” Journal of Modern Greek Studies 33.1 (May 2015): 15–24.
3. Moustafa Bayoumi and Andrew Rubin, eds., The Edward Said Reader (New York: Vintage, 2000), 436.
Editor’s note: All photographs are by the author (Amherst, Massachusetts, March 2019).