“I Have a Dream” is the American Dream

by Alexandra Kostoulas

My father was a Greek immigrant who was born into poverty, and survived war, who saw a car for the first time at 13. He was discriminated against in Greece for being a poor villager and half Vlahos (a nomadic minority in Greece) and could not advance there, so he came to the United States on a physics scholarship to University of Alabama in 1969 as an English learner to pursue a PhD. My mother, a dark-for-a-Greek who grew up in a working-class family in a rough-back-then part of San Francisco, was the first in her family to go to college and then became a doctor. She has been discriminated against by lighter-complected Greeks, by Anglos, and is often thought to be the member of any hated category that people feel like putting her in.

My parents met at a political protest in Berkeley in the 1970s speaking out against the Turkish occupation of Cyprus. When I was five, they taught me who Martin Luther King was and I proudly told my kindergarten teacher when she unfurled the flag—who looked surprised. Dr. King’s struggle represents something beautiful and liberating to me personally, and it’s hard to articulate my respect for him because it seems obvious.

But, after the recent racist riots and attempted coup in the U.S. Capitol on January 6—the same day the Greek Orthodox celebrate Epiphany—Dr. King’s legacy and our country’s struggle for justice and equality have become more important than ever, and King’s warnings against tyranny and silence have become even more dire.

Greek Americans, who have carved our own narrative and secured a provisional “whiteness” for ourselves over the past few generations, are now faced with a dilemma. What do we say to those Greek Americans who support the racist Trumpian policies and stand on the wrong side of history?

We do well to remember that many of our own parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles who came here penniless, were escaping Nazis, juntas, famine, communists and/or bloodshed. We do well too, to remember that Greeks were massacred on American soil at Ludlow for organizing in coal mines against exploitation, and that we survived our own anti-Greek race riots and anti-Greek immigration policies. The KKK burned crosses on our lawns in the South and targeted Greek Americans to the extent that our own AHEPA organization formed in order to combat this aggression.

One cannot fully honor MLK today without confronting the ugly junta of hatred that has taken over this country, demonizing immigrants, putting kids in cages, making a mockery of the truth, supporting police killings of Black people, weaponizing the bodies of the ignorant to spread false information along with a deadly virus.

To me, honoring Dr. King’s legacy means, we must denounce the lies. We must denounce racism too.

I believe strongly that as Greek Americans, we must lift up our voices in support of all oppressed people across the earth. We must find the courage as Archbishop Iakovos did in 1965, to stand in solidarity with Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama, and as the new Archbishop Elpidophoros did this summer with the Black Lives Matter protesters.

We must not identify with the aggressor in order to buy passage on that illusive ferry of whiteness and hide inside our own relatively newfound privilege. We must find our voices and speak up, turning away from those who wish to divide us, standing up to the arrogant, ignorant, racist, homophobic, and anti-woman.

I have been exhausted by all the lies for the past few years and have been shouted down for daring to have a voice and to call out injustice within my own community. At times, it makes me want to hide. It is exhausting, but we must stand up and we must speak up.

We must find the hope and vision as Dr. King did to dream up a world that is better than this one moving forward.

We’ll have our work cut out of us.

Alexandra Kostoulas is a writer based in San Francisco. She founded and runs the SF Creative Writing Institute.