A Paradigm Award, A Paradigm for Greek/American Cultural Policy
In its 2021 gala celebrating the academic success of its scholarship recipients, the Panhellenic Scholarship Foundation (PHSF) honored George Pelecanos, a fiction writer and TV/film writer and producer, with its Paradigm Award. An organization promoting Greek American education, leadership, and civic contribution, the PHSF offers this award to annually recognize a distinguished professional whose lifelong career and service provide an inspiring example (παράδειγμα) for young Greek Americans.
This was not the first time that the PHSF honored a Greek American professional who is nationally recognized in the field of arts and letters. But it was the first time that this honor was granted to an accomplished national figure in the arts who consistently incorporates facets of Greek American history and culture in the corpus of his work.
The selection offers indeed an excellent example for the purposes of the PHSF. But its significance, I would like to propose, extends more broadly as an example for establishing the cultural value of Greek America in the United States, and, in turn, guiding cultural policy for the purpose of enhancing its civic currency as well as cultural preservation. The nature of the 2021 Paradigm Award, as I will explain, presents us with a template for embracing a civic paradigm—“paradigm” this time referring to a change in approach—to guide the way we go about envisioning our place in our home society in the future.
What motivates my proposal? The answer requires that we place the question of cultural value in the context of our social history.
The Question of Greek American Cultural Value in History
I refer to cultural value as a question for two reasons. First, in connection to the dramatic devaluation of immigrant culture early in the twentieth century, when its value was subjected to intense scrutiny regarding its fitness to American modernity. On this question and questioning, the powerful nativist and racist movements dismissed it wholesale. They rendered the newcomers biologically inferior and consequently, following the racial determinism of the era, as culturally lesser, out of place in the polity. Along with their fellow immigrants from southeastern Europe, Greeks witnessed their own subjection to a dehumanizing “vocabulary of contempt”1 in popular as well as scientific publications espousing the “science” of eugenics. They were seen as a grave reproductive threat to the nation, as Robert Ward, a professor at Harvard, put it starkly in a 1912 National Geographic Magazine article:
We do not hesitate to prohibit the importation of cattle from a foreign country where a serious cattle disease is prevalent. It is only in very extreme cases, indeed, that we have ever taken such a step in connection with the importation of aliens. Yet there are certain parts of Europe [southeastern] from which no aliens should be allowed to enter this country, for reasons which are eugenically of the first importance.2
If nativists embraced the imperative of exclusion—materialized politically in the 1924 Johnson–Reed Johnson Immigration Act—a sector among the assimilationists placed the value of the immigrants on long-term probation. Acceptance was predicated on evidence of generational socioeconomic mobility. In his greatly popular book, known by Greeks at the time, entitled Greek Immigration to the United States, Yale anthropologist Henry Pratt Fairchild drew from social Darwinism to say this in 1911:
The business of the alien is to go into the mines, the foundries, the sewers, the stifling air of factories and workshops, out on the roads and railroads in the burning sun of summer, or the driving sleet and snow. If he proves himself a man, and rises above his station, and acquires wealth, and cleans himself up—very well, we receive him after a generation or two. But at present he is far beneath us, and the burden of proof rests with him. (237)
The gaze of the dominant scrutinized, assessed, and judged the place of immigrants in the polity, announcing for everyone to see that the immigrants are—and would be—under surveillance. This scrutiny generated a variety of immediate responses, including the formation of the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association (AHEPA), which acted not merely for sheer protection from nativist and racist violence, but also for countering cultural devaluation—for proving the worthiness of the immigrants.
The striving for the recognition of cultural value did not cease with the increasing social acceptance of Greek Americans. It continues unabated even until today, as developments throughout history, more recently the economic crisis in Greece and the concomitant international tarnishing of the national image, have necessitated initiatives to assert or recover the value of Greek identity in the diaspora.
In fact, our story could be told around a common theme meandering throughout our history, namely the vast investment that Greek immigrants, their daughters, grandsons, and great granddaughters have been making to demonstrate to American society that Greeks deserve recognition as equals. There is a particular Greek word that explains this yearning, the notion of isotimia. Isotimia, as its Greek etymology suggests, stands for a deeply ingrained sense of the “right to be treated as a person entitled to equal esteem.”3 Permeating the male rural world of Greece at the time of mass migration, it entails the agonistic demand that others recognize one’s value. The vocabulary and practices of contempt in the United States assaulted the isotimia of the immigrants as Greeks, an experience that was translated into a persistent quest for national recognition as equals.
This sustained interest brings me to the second reason that I refer to cultural value as a question. It is about considering the various strategies Greek Americans have deployed throughout history to claim ethnic value. Of particular interest is the ways in which they negotiated powerful—and ever-changing—national expectations about what it means to be an immigrant and, later, an “American ethnic.” What strategies were available to them and what were the social implications of their applications? And, what strategies could we imagine in connection to our stated civic and cultural aspirations today?
There has been no universal answer. The solutions varied depending on the expectations of what constitutes American belonging at any one time in history in connection to the socioeconomic position, gender, aspirations, options, and ideologies of those claiming recognition.
In the early immigrant years, for example, the quest for isotimia played out across class lines. Greek immigrant workers in the mining industry, railroad construction, and textile industry sought to redress their rampant exploitation and scornful treatment by joining the American labor movement. The movement gave them the language to see and present themselves as American workers toiling for the country’s infrastructure, and thus deserving equally the promise for a decent American life. The language of American democracy also validated their claim to be recognized as both an integral part of the nation and culturally textured immigrants. Labor activist Louis Tikas, a union organizer from Crete, was murdered in Ludlow, Colorado, in his quest for labor justice. In an early example of immigrant Americanization, cultural (Cretan) pride and class consciousness coexisted in his newly formed hyphenated identity.
In contrast, numerous small business owners and the emerging middle class faced a different set of challenges, leading them to deploy alternative routes for recognition. One such adaptation was to capitalize on the high esteem American society held for classical Greece, present themselves as the biological inheritors of this civilization, and, in this manner, advance the claim of rightful belonging as equals to (white) America. The strategy was to maximize the visibility of their “natural” connection with the ancient Greek legacy by displaying it amply in public—in parades and civic events for example—and, significantly, combining it with signs of their assimilation as businessmen. These spectacles of identity linked evidence of mobility and national belonging demonstrating in the most visible manner the fulfillment of the social contract regarding their capacity for fitness into the nation via socioeconomic mobility. Their answer to Fairchild’s devaluation was the performance of their ability of moving out of their probation within a single generation. This was a racialized Hellenism claiming ancient Greece as the biological property of the immigrants who were performing the alignment between Americanism and Hellenism, and in turn staking the claim for the positive valuation of the Greeks.
Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, as the quest for roots occupied a central place in the freshly invented American identity as a “nation of immigrants,” folk culture provided Greek America with yet another venue for the recognition of its value. Festivals claiming authentic access to Greek rural roots hosted exhibits of folk costumes and performances of traditional dances, affirming the value of the ethnic community in modernity. An otherwise integrated ethnic group, Greek America represented a collective rooted in meaningful practices, shielded from the malaise and its attendant problems confronting urban America.4
Parallel to these developments, some Greek American women sought to reclaim “folkness” in their own terms, interrogating the patriarchy embedded in traditional culture. They, along with other second-wave feminists, fought for gender equality and struggled for recognition in their effort to undermine American and Greek immigrant patriarchy. But their story, alas, remains largely untold.
If festivals ingrained into the national consciousness the recognition of Greeks as a culturally enriching American “folk” community, a particular narrative of identity has placed Greek America’s social worth in the national imagination as a middle-class American ethnic group. I refer to the struggle and success narrative, the rags-to-riches story at the heart of America’s promise to immigrants. Its significance is multilayered, reflecting more than the prideful acquisition of hard-earned social status. It once again reiterates the proof that immigrants and their progeny continue to pass the Darwinian test for national acceptance.
This partly explains the consistent and persistent privileging of socioeconomic success in self-representation of Greek America. If the worth of the Greeks was predicated on their capacity for mobility, Greek Americans are quick to smugly flaunt their successes, whether in documentaries, autobiographies, ethnic histories, official announcements, and all sorts of commentaries. “If we were doubted and dismissed on the grounds of who we were,” the implicit logic has it, “here it is what we have become, this is our worth you have doubted and denied.” Among its various functions, the narrative of success works as a mantra exorcising the trauma of the early violent devaluation and reiterating the rightful belonging to the nation. But this route for recognition, let us note, is not necessarily the result of our autonomous choosing, but of a mediated—in fact imposed—condition.
Additional layers of meaning were attached to the struggle-and-success narrative in the ethnic and racial politics of the post civil rights era. For the descendants of southeastern European immigrants, this narrative posits mobility as the direct result of cultural values. Family cohesion, independence, honor, work ethic, and entrepreneurship are seen as the exclusive resources leading to success. From this angle the recognition of success validates the immense personal and parental sacrifice. But it also works ideologically, seeking national recognition by linking ethnic values with American ideals of individual effort and initiative while forgetting the realities of systemic racism against people of color.
This brief overview highlights the desire for cultural recognition as a constitutive force in Greek America. I have no doubt that a fuller exploration of this landscape will reveal the depth and breadth of the affective forces as well as social and material interests at work contributing to its shaping. And will shed light on the cultural alchemies through which American society assigns value to—or is drawn to the power of—Greek American expressions such as the festival and the blockbuster My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
But let me reiterate three key claims that the community privileges as resources for the recognition of its equal value: (a) the possession of an authentic—biological—link with classical Greece and the protection and promotion of this heritage as ethnic and universal property; (b) the authentic possession and performance of tradition and heritage as a sign of identity and meaningful belonging to which American audiences are invited to partake; (c) the possession of enduring cultural values driving socioeconomic mobility. In this set I would like to add a fourth identity narrative that posits a host of values and virtues—courage, compassion, heroism, honesty—as a biological property of the Greeks. I refer to the recent branding of philotimo as a sign of Greek identity for the purposes of global distinction, but also a tool for public diplomacy.
Significantly, all narratives dovetail with national ideals—the ancient Greek connection to the foundations of the American polity, the American Dream, heroism and courage, meritocracy, and the value of the integrated, harmonious ethnic community in multiculturalism. This equation authorizes this ethnicity’s endorsement by the home society. Aligning with normative American values, these narratives blur the boundaries between ethnic and national belonging, sparing internal conflicts with hyphenated identity. They generate ethnic pride in dual affiliation, which in turn motivates cultural preservation.
The dense regularity by which these claims circulate as modes for cultural recognition underlines their consolidation as an unassailable self-representational strategy. According to its advocates, the strategy resoundingly delivers the goal of value recognition—given the high popularity of Greek ethnicity—and therefore presents itself as the best practice for future vitality.
Why then, they are bound to ask, raise the necessity for an alternative paradigm?
The Greek/American Citizenship Paradigm
The paradigm I have in mind already circulates across sectors of Greek America but is not as visible in the community as its ethical magnitude warrants. Several reasons plausibly explain its peripheral status. Perhaps its principles have not been adequately explained to the public. Possibly, because it does not spring directly from community institutions and grassroots initiatives, it feels distant, at remove from the community’s social life. Conceivably it is misunderstood, though its reception by the Greek American public is not at all clear. Is it consciously resisted in some quarters? Is it treated with caution in others as too theoretical or risky?
As a way of introducing this paradigm I wish to note its power, its ethical and civic value is recognized in vital sectors of American society. On these grounds alone, it should merit our attention. I make it my task therefore to explain what I call “Greek/American citizenship paradigm,” contextualize its significance, and identify its importance as a compass informing cultural policy.
The lexicon of the Greek/American citizenship paradigm revolves around the value of learning for the purpose of self-understanding, responsible reflection about social issues, and the making of historical consciousness, as well as the values of inclusivity, of the public exchange of ideas, of dialogue, and of cross-cultural understanding. This as a staple of Greek/American civic involvement in the United States.
The narratives that animate this paradigm are produced not only by Greek Americans but also individuals with no Greek ancestral connection. The two demographics “meet” in their shared interest in contributing to our civic paradigm. It is this cultural convergence irrespectively of descent that makes it a “Greek/American” (in contrast to a “Greek American”) category.
The narratives are in the form of memoir, family biography, essay, documentary, music, photography, scholarship, and fiction—whether more commercial, as with the example of George Pelecanos, or literary, as with the example of Jeffrey Eugenides, a Pulitzer Prize winner. This corpus is discussed in major U.S. newspapers, magazines, and journals and finds its way into college classrooms as well as prestigious academic and nonacademic presses. It is performed in festivals of world music, regional poetry readings, and is featured in local TV stations and international media. Recognized for its high quality, this corpus leaves a mark in the American public sphere, introducing facets of Greek America to a wide range of audiences.
National recognition for civic relevance is not a stranger to these Greek/American makers of culture. In addition to Eugenides and Pelecanos, there is also journalist James H. Barrow (advocating transparency in democracy); anthropologist Phyllis Pease Chock (identifying women’s citizenship); journalist and political activist Elias Demetracopoulos (investigating political corruption); actress Olympia Dukakis (contributing to the women’s rights movement); music collector and researcher Christopher King (heritage preservation activism); historians Helen Papanikolas and Gunther Peck (exposing intra-immigrant exploitation); and writer Harry Mark Petrakis (embodying Greek American isotimia as the right to self-critique). They all exemplify the power of Greek/American arts and letters as a civic force in national life.
What makes this corpus a cohesive paradigm is a particular set of ethical practices in the representation of Greek America—as captured in the lexicon I outlined above. The narratives acknowledge the reality of the group’s heterogeneity and contributes knowledge about its various constituencies. This includes the recognition of underrepresented internal demographics and marginalized social situations. Its inclusive ethos recognizes and advocates the isotimia of civil rights advocates, feminists, intellectual mavericks, political dissidents, activists supporting disenfranchised groups, and the LGBTQ community. The critical task involves the interrogation of mechanisms of oppression, such as patriarchy.
The paradigm unites Greek America as a community of learning. It recognizes the intricacies and nuances of ethnic history that it explores for the purpose of self-understanding. It embraces the exploration and analysis of controversial or difficult issues, which brings to the public for self-reflection.
In this capacity, the Greek/American citizenship paradigm is in tandem with the principles of paideia—education—as a necessary component of active citizenship. A citizen works responsibly to contribute ideas to the polity, to explore and produce informed views about social issues, and to expose erroneous assumptions harming stigmatized populations. A citizen requesting isotimia for Greek America is also mindful of protecting the isotimia of other ethnic and racial groups.5
The Greek/American Citizenship Paradigm: Toward Cultural Policy
Notably, this paradigm resonates with the mission of several Greek American organizations regarding our civic role in the nation. The Panhellenic Scholarship Foundation, for example, envisions education and Hellenism as the building blocks for “a better America,” connecting in this manner our aspiration for recognition as equals with our contribution toward positive social impact.
In view of the scope of this mission, claims about access to authentic tradition, descent from a prestigious pedigree, pride for socioeconomic status, and historical idealizations are limited and limiting when it comes to articulating a broader civic vision. What we need, instead, is a paradigm that concretely defines what we mean by the idea of “better America” and how we position ourselves as participants to this project.
This brings me to the broader significance of the 2021 Paradigm Award selection as an example for cultural policy. Its recipient indeed exemplifies the citizen-centered paradigm I have just outlined. In his crime fiction, George Pelecanos frequently incorporates Greek American characters in a corpus that also features a wide range of multicultural identities and issues confronting American society. He delves into the difficult issue of interracial animosities and offers insights about reconciliation. He illuminates the interconnections between racism, exploitation, and urban poverty, undermining racial stereotypes. He writes about interracial Greek American families and speaks about Greek identity inclusively in terms of cultural affiliation, not biology. He has insightfully explored the role of filial ethnic affiliations in the making of nontoxic masculinity.
Pelecanos simultaneously represents an American, a multicultural, and a Greek American writer. His work circulates in a variety of media—books, including edited anthologies; essays; television series; interviews; and public talks, including lectures in prestigious university creative writing programs. He reaches a wide range of readers, including translations in Greece and Italy. Thanks to his fiction, audiences are invited to meaningfully explore and reflect upon controversial issues that are often difficult to articulate—or even broach—in ordinary conversation, around the family dinner table, in ethnic community gatherings, or even ethnic media.
Pelecanos contributes to Greek American self-understanding in connection to the broader multicultural fabric in the country. His work features the encounters between individuals from different backgrounds and identifies the assumptions and motivations that can make a difference in turning these encounters hostile and harmful—sometimes deadly—or, in contrast, mutually beneficial. In this respect, his popular fiction mediates across differences to create cross-cultural and interracial understanding, an essential element for the effective working of multiracial democracy. Sparking further reflection in articles, book reviews, and cultural commentaries, Pelecanos’s fiction vitalizes the conversation about issues that should concern citizens committed to bettering America. It is via this citizen-centered writing practice that he elicits broad interest, wide admiration, and a strong reputation, bringing in the process recognition to Greek America.
The paradigm (παράδειγμα) of Pelecanos offers then the template for a broad paradigm shaping our cultural policy: support the work of exceptionally qualified and highly promising Greek/American professionals and advanced graduate students in journalism, the arts, communication and media (film and documentary), fiction, letters, museum studies, scholarship, and cultural policy under the rubric of Greek/American citizenship. This policy motivates students and professionals to incorporate Greek learning in their chosen professional interests, a strategy that encourages engagement with things Greek/American as one facet among many in their multifaceted work.
Greek America enjoys distinction in the sciences, professional leadership, the business world, politics, philanthropy, and sports among other endeavors. Enhancing our cultural recognition presents the new frontier. An investment toward that direction will not only empower our civic place in the making of the nation but contribute in parallel toward cultural preservation. It will foster connections of new generations with Greek American civic Hellenism.
Two ongoing developments make this policy particularly timely as cultural investment. First, Greek America is rapidly diversifying, a phenomenon that places a considerable demographic at a distance from traditional sites of congregation and culture-making, namely the Greek Orthodox parish and long-standing ethnic organizations. The recent popularity of U.S. Greek film festivals points to the emergence of new sites for Greek cultural engagement. New venues also appear around specific life interests, such as the proliferation of internet sites by American citizens adopted from Greece. Scholarship and memoir are two vital narratives contributing to the mission of this social group seeking to document the experiences of its members and facilitate connection with the original families.
Sociologists also point to the phenomenon of highly personalized ethnic identities where individuals sustain cultural affiliation privately via reading, watching, listening, traveling, attending festivals, sampling “ethnic experiences” such as food, and navigating the internet with no necessary commitment to a collective. Or displaying only a selective group orientation, supporting a particular organization that resonates with their personal interests and preferences.
Though largely uncharted, this unfolding landscape is bound to keep diversifying as rates of interethnic marriage increase and the multicultural marketplace—from salsa to French haute cuisine, and from Irish stepdance to soul to world literature—vie for the attention of American consumers. Individuals with multiple cultural affiliations—not rigid, insular ethnic identities—seem to be in the ascendancy when it comes to positioning oneself in the world.
This situation obviously calls for Greek America to diversify the cultural resources it makes available to the public as a strategy to maximize its relevance. Given the power of cultural expressions—music, song, storytelling, photography, dance, film, theater—to engage human beings, the making and dissemination of compelling Greek/American narratives presents itself as an inevitable cultural choice. I am taking a cue here from my Greek American students who crave interesting narratives exploring bicultural identities, linkages with the historical homeland beyond tourist tropes, differences between Greek Americans and Greeks in Greece; cross-cultural and interracial dating; cultural ambivalences among the second generation; food; family and ethnic history; and intergenerational connections, tensions, and conflicts. As a 2021 PHSF scholarship recipient majoring in Art and Media studies put it, “I often think my art is a way to bridge my two cultures and countries. I have learned to record memory, eyes and heart and camera wide open.”6
In capable artistic and scholarly hands these issues and interests could be translated into exciting projects and products—books, music, museum exhibits, films, performances—cultivating interest in things Greek American as well as Greek learning and identifications.
There is an added benefit to the policy I propose. As the Greek American community keeps diversifying, this multimodal storytelling creates a shared space for community-making—both virtual and interpersonal—around interests in history, society, and culture. The aim is not to impose ethnic homogeneity but create communities of learning for the exploration of and conversation about Greek American worlds. In this endeavor, storytelling—in its broadest sense of narrative-making—and insightful commentary—in open access online journals, blogs, reviews, essays, and analysis—go hand-in-hand.7 This cultural production creates an inclusive space that reaches deep into the social fabric, shares new knowledge, explores issues, cultivates interest, generates public exchange. A policy empowering Greek America supports this kind of culture-making and sets in place dense networks of dissemination.
Second, a cultural policy empowering Greek/American citizenship coincides with an emergent phenomenon: a highly promising Greek American college-student cohort has been majoring in film and media studies, the arts, urban education, psychology, sociology, and anthropology. Though the scale of this demographic is unknown, there is a discernible professional interest beyond the conventional professional aspirations for careers in law, business, the hard sciences, and medicine. This humanities- and social sciences-centered cohort represent a potential cultural capital to harness, should Greek American history and culture speak to them as objects for exploration and narration in addition to their existing interests.
The Greek/American citizenship paradigm enters the conversation about the present and future Greek America. On this question it shares several points of intersection with the binational paradigm proposed in 2004. The importance of developing robust Greek American studies and the making of Greek American identity as a creative and dynamic process of becoming is where the two paradigms meet. They both view identity as a process of reinvention and redefinition, not regression to a static parochial Greekness. On the issue of the Greek American future, the paradigm I propose further connects the question of cultural identity with the ethos of the engaged Greek American citizen.
We are quickly moving toward a Greek America peopled by third-, fourth-, and fifth-generation demographics removed from the intensity and density of their family’s immigrant experience and increasingly pulled by cosmopolitan tastes and preferences. An imaginative policy in tune with an ever-changing social environment is therefore necessary. Multiple calls in the recent past for supporting systematic Greek American learning at college has not generated the hoped-for institutional interest. In this writing I refresh and reframe this call. I underline the civic importance of setting in motion a policy that will deliver Greek America’s historical yearning for meaningful biculturalism, and responsible citizenship, and via this route, much-coveted cultural recognition.
Yiorgos Anagnostou is the editor of Erγon: Greek American Arts and Letters.
1. Hendin, 2001.
2. Ward, 1912.
3. Peristiany, 1966, 188.
4. More recently, the global celebration of the Mediterranean diet injected added cultural value to Greek America. Food and dance translated into cultural recognition, as testified by the vast popularity of Greek festivals in the country.
5. This cannot be achieved if we continue to hold on to simplistic explanations of socioeconomic mobility in terms of the bootstrap ideology. We now know all too well that hard work and cultural values alone do not necessarily translate into mobility for all equally—both within and outside the group. Let us not forget that acceptance of formal and informal Jim Crow policies by many in the community played a key role in our mobility.
6. Vassiliou, 2021, 40.
7. See Leontis, 2003.
Hendin, Josephine Gattuso. 2001. “The New World of Italian American Studies.” American Literary History 13 (1): 141–57.
Leontis, Artemis. 2003. “‘What Will I Have to Remember?’ Helen Papanikolas’s Art of Telling.” Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora 29, no. 2, 15–26.
Peristiany, J. G. 1966. “Honour and Shame in a Cypriot Highland Village.” In Honour and Shame: The Values of Mediterranean Society, edited by J.G. Peristiany, 171–90. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1966.
Vassiliou, Zoe. 2021. “Exceptional Statement.” In 2021 Virtual Awards Gala: Beyond a Scholarship. Panhellenic Scholarship Foundation.
Ward, Robert DeC. 1912. “Our Immigration Laws from the View-Point of National Eugenics.” The National Geographic Magazine XXIII (1): 38–41.