Ethnic Identity and the Art of the Memoir
Various complexities revolve around the publication of a book. Some of them involve the notion that a book’s publication is a literary and cultural event, but publication also is a social and political event. This is the nature of Dan Georgakas’ My Detroit: Growing up Greek and American in Motor City. It is a captivating text, of about three hundred pages, divided in twelve chapters, which eloquently displays both the literary virtues of the author and the craft of the social researcher. One the one hand, it is very easy to recognize the obvious writing skills of the author, since he has been contributing for years to many Greek American and American publications. On the other hand, the author also has been involved in a wide range of studies of ethnicity, community, politics, labor history, and film.
What is essential in My Detroit is the author’s voice. At first, the book may be characterized as a memoir that seriously discusses immigration, ethnic identity and Greek American communities in America, but also it is about American culture – marginal and mainstream. In this sense, we come to the realization that if My Detroit is a memoir, then it is a different kind of memoir. The term “memoirs” is used to describe something closer to autobiography than this essay-like literary narrative. “Memoirs” are usually preceded by a possessive pronoun: “my memoirs or, his/her memoirs. “Memoirs” often are a kind of scrapbook in which pieces of a life are pasted. My Detroit must be read as an essay, since by following the track of the author’s thoughts and struggles one achieves some understanding of a plot and an adventure.
In My Detroit, Georgakas does not simply tells us the story of his life, but muses upon it, trying to unravel what it means in the light of his current knowledge. Georgakas offersretrospection as an essential part of the story, and we as readers are lead to be entertained by the story. Moreover, we are invited to enter into dialectic with Georgakas himself about how to understand the present through this past. The past presented is one that the author brings across with a great level of familiarity from the personal to the collective by frequently swapping “I” for “we” and vice versa.
From the very beginning, he states that this is a book is about change. That change canbe geographical, or cultural, as in the case of his family immigration from an agricultural and more traditional Greece to an industrialized and more modern part of the New World. His comments range from the relationship of Greek mothers to their sons and the problematics of “dating Greek girls” to confronting racial segregation in high school and forming friendships with Arab Americans. In short, he deals passionately with sociopolitical conflicts and the desirefor ethnic identity, community and continuity in America. Always, it is a narrative of change that is both “desired and not desired, anticipated and unforeseen” (p.11)
Georgakas, who has written and edited a number of books dealing with the American labor movement, also has published a monograph titled Greek America at Work (1980). In My Detroit, as in Greek America at Work, he goes beyond the stereotype of Greeks as basically diner owners and waiters to examine Greek involvement in the American labor movement and history,which is not widely known, but significant. Georgakas’ My Detroit sheds light to the hidden history of working class Greek America, and puts in context the relationship of immigrant’shistories and the larger American society.
For several decades now, Dan Georgakas has been an editor at Cineaste and a commentator on Greek and Greek-American cinema. However, the current film critic and film historian that he is remembers the mysticism of the Greek films he used to watch growing up in Detroit, and how films, actors, music, and images of Greece played a great role in shaping and influencing his Greekness, as an individual but and to the general Greek American community, as well. In like manner he speaks of the impact of reading C.P.Cavafy for the first time and in various chapters speaks of various forms of Greek music played in the community.
Another important theme, which he deals with in the book, is the race issue. He situates his parents’ immigration experience, and their personal settlement within the Greek community of Detroit, and at the same time he draws upon social and political developments that occurred on the main stage of American society. For example, he makes references to the Civil Rights Movement, and the McCarthyism of the 1950s that led to the deportation of a number of Greek immigrants. And he carefully reminds us, that there were periods when Greeks have suffered serious racial and ethnic discrimination. Always the national realities are given local reference. He writes, for example. of the, anti-immigrant and violent Black Legion, Detroit’s version of the Ku Klux Klan and Detroit’s intensely anti-immigrant Father Coughlin who had a radio audience of some five million listeners. He also writes of an ethnic rating system highly slanted against Greeks who wished to reside in Detroit’s prestigious Grosse Pointe suburbs. These and other examples document how a community that had suffered discrimination and prejudice was generous and politically correct in racially difficult times. The Greek immigrants were congenial with almost all of Detroit’s ethnic groups and even had a surprisingly proper relationship with African Americans. Moreover, Georgakas goes a step further, and actually turns things around. From the term xenophobia he creates the term xenophilia, to describe the attitudes of the Greeks toward minorities in America. “Xenophilia, a friendship or regard for those of other cultures, was far more evident in the ethnic homes I frequented and certainly dominant among the Greeks I knew best.” (p. 178)
I want to highlight Georgakas’ capacity to express the experience of Greek immigration to America in its entirety, from the moment of initial immigration to the present establishment of the Greek American community, into the future phase of possible disappearance of this community: “We children of immigrants have never doubted that our elders were more Greek
than American, but as we went into the world and interacted with other ethnics and mainstream Americans, we began to appreciate that more of their Greekness had been transferred to us than either they or we had imagined.” (p.65)
My Detroit, however, is not a celebration of struggle and success. Georgakas seeks to raise social awareness that the present community is not as stable as it presents itself. Without theunderstanding or concern that social dynamics are always in flux, the community will lack the political will to shape or alter the processes now in progress. Statements already quoted appear in the following context: “Being a story of America, my narrative is one of changes, changes desired and changes not desired, changes anticipated and changes unforeseen. We Detroiters of various origins lived in a city that in our time was the hub of an auto industry that produced half of the automobiles of the planet. We thought we would always be the spiritual and industrial arsenal of the world. That was not to be. In like manner, the Greeks who emigrated to America thought their citizenship would change, but not their basic culture.” (p.11). And then in the last page (310), “Without some factor not now visible, it is likely that Greek America will disappear before the end of the twenty-first century.”
Published in the Journal of Modern Greek Studies