On Being Greek in America

-Privilege and Responsibility


Leonidas Petrakis*, PhD

“Greece is the cradle of Western Civilization”, we Greeks proudly remind the world, claiming a special kinship (ownership!) to the achievements of ancient Greece (“A rocky promontory in the Mediterranean, it has nothing to distinguish it but the efforts of its people, the sea, and the light of the sun”, in the words of George Seferis, Greece’s first Nobel Prize winner).

What does it mean to be Greek? The Ancients had a simple answer -they divided the world into Greeks and the rest, the Barbarians. The latter uttered incomprehensible “bar, bar” sounds, did not speak Greek, and therefore were incapable of understanding the revolutionary, sophisticated ideas that the Greeks were advancing in philosophy, literature, music and the other arts, medicine, mathematics, the sciences. The achievements of the Ancients impact the determination of Greekness even for the Greeks of the Diaspora, for the Diaspora has been an organic component of the Greek people, and a significant contributor to the fortunes of Greece, Hellenism in all its manifestations, and our Western Civilization. Greece separated from its Diaspora would be but a diminished amputee.

Does our claim as Greek Americans to this rich and unique cultural inheritance amount to anything more than a vacuous boast? Or does it impose on us responsibilities for preserving, expanding, and disseminating this inheritance? These questions continue to concern intellectuals, politicians, and common people alike. In Greece, the recent tumultuous political and economic developments (“We belong to the West”, the Eurozone controversy) illustrate this search for identity, while for many Greek Americans Greek identity is limited to syrtaki and moussaka.

Greekness is an overarching theme in the work of George Seferis. His seminal Mythistorema -a blend of Greek myth and history, populated with mythical and historical figures and events, its people ever searching on foreign lands and high seas, ever waiting for the “Angel” to point the way to renewal following the catastrophe that befell Hellenism in 1922- reflects the ages-long search for the meaning and attainment of Greekness. In a most sobering segment of the poem, Seferis writes of the contemporary Greeks trying to deal with their extraordinary heritage:

“I woke with this marble head in my hands;
it exhausts my elbows and I don’t know where to put it down. ”

How “heavy” is really our inheritance?

The ever-restless Greeks had a presence in Ionia in the Bronze Age, and in the eighth century BC they burst from their “Promontory” en mass and established colonies, from the Black Sea to Italy and Sicily (Magna Graecia) to the shores of North Africa to modern day France (Marseilles). In these enclaves of the Greek Diaspora unprecedented developments in the history of mankind took place that lifted us from the primitive darkness and ignorance, when the pre-Socratic natural philosophers brought reason to bear on the consideration of nature, founded philosophy, and laid the cornerstones of modern science. The great mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell has written, “Philosophy and science, as we know them, are Greek inventions. Western Civilization …. is built on an ethic of mental enterprise which is essentially Greek”.

Some of the most important advances of modern science have antecedents in the work of those philosophers -the atomic theory (Democritus), and the duality of nature and the so-called “superstring” theory (Xenophanes).

Ancient Greek science, with its emphasis on conceptual principles and mathematical foundations, has been criticized as overly theoretical, not particularly concerned with technology. Three recent archaeological discoveries belie this contention.

One is the Antikythera Mechanism -a first century BC analog computer remarkable for the sophistication of its fabrication, miniaturization, and complexity. Another is the Archimedes palimpsest, now at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, revealing that Archimedes had invented the branch of applied mathematics known as integral calculus. Finally there is the prototype of the pipe organ -a mainstay of the West’s musical heritage- that was invented by Ctesibius, a third century BC Alexandrian barber.

During Hellenistic times and beyond intellectual achievements continued coming from the Diaspora, with two especially notable that shaped our modern world. The first was the dissemination of Greek knowledge and values following the successful campaigns of Alexander the Great with the flagship of that effort being the Alexandria Museum and Library. The other was the miraculous achievement of the Church Fathers in overcoming the apparently irreconcilable opposing world views of Christianity and Hellenism and thereby creating the Hellenic-Christian ideal, the foundation of the Byzantine Empire that flourished for a thousand years.

Greek scholars from Constantinople helped bring about the Renaissance when they brought their knowledge and valuable manuscripts to Florence and Venice and established schools and libraries. The most notable was the brilliant and learned Bessarion, who participated in the Council of Florence that sought to reunite the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, stayed on in Italy as Cardinal (coming close to being elected Pope), and his library became the foundation of the famous Biblioteca Marciana in Venice.

Finally, before, during, and after the War of Independence the Greek Diaspora played a huge role in the fortunes of the enslaved Greek nation.

Where do the Greeks of America stand in the edifice of the Greek Diaspora?

The Greek Diaspora in America has a much longer and stronger presence than often is appreciated.

The distinguished Greek American scholar Dimitrios Constantelos has written about the beginnings of the Greek saga in America -the establishment in 1768 of a substantial colony (New Smyrna in Florida) by five hundred Greek Orthodox immigrants under the aegis of a Scottish physician and his Greek wife, Maria.

The US has been founded on the Greek ideals of democracy, freedom of speech, tolerance, and concern for our fellow man -ideals intimately familiar to the Founding Fathers. Thomas Jefferson prided himself that he read the classics in the original, and while serving as Ambassador to France befriended the classical scholar Adamantios Koraes. During the Greek War of Independence Koraes corresponded with Jefferson aggressively seeking his support for the “Greek Cause”. Jefferson’s enthusiastic support proved important, even with President Monroe expressing sympathy for the Greeks, although he had to contend with his Secretary of State John Quincy Adams’s real politic.

How many Greek Americans, when visiting the US Capitol Building, realize that the magnificent fresco, The Apotheosis of George Washington, in the Rotunda, and other works in the House of Representatives Chamber, the Senate Reception and elsewhere were painted by the Greek-Italian artist Constantino Brumidi?

Greeks time and again have found themselves in the midst of pivotal events in US history. Zeese Papanikolas has detailed the leadership role of Louis Tikas during the bloody 1913-14 Colorado coal mines strike, a milestone in the American labor movement. The March 26, 1965 issue of LIFE magazine showed on its cover Archbishop Iakovos with Dr. Martin Luther King at the head of the Selma March for Civil Rights. And fourteen years after the 9/11 terrorist attack at Lower Manhattan the Greek Orthodox church of St Nicholas is being rebuilt both as the parish church but also as a nondenominational bereavement center. For its rebuilding the architect Santiago Calatrava uses marble from the same Pentelic vein as for the Parthenon, and will duplicate features from Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, a recognition of, and tribute to, the continuity of Hellenic culture and its ecumenical reach.

These brief sketches are but a small reflection of the many contributions made by Greeks to the making of America. Their achievements as individuals are myriad -in politics; film, theater and music (from Elias Kazan to the divine Maria Callas, and so many others); the magnificent Jaharis and Costopoulos wings of the Metropolitan Museum, and the many Greek American artists in leading museums; literature luminaries (Harry Mark Petrakis hailed as America’s leading story teller, Jeffrey Eugenides, David Sideris); in medicine and the sciences (Papanikolaou’s “Pap test”, the L-Dopa for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease by Cotzias at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, Michael Dertouzos’s contributions to the World Wide Web); MacArthur Foundation Genius Awards, endowed chairs at major American universities, senior researchers at National Laboratories and the private sector, the impressive presence in Silicon Valley and biotechnology, universities presidencies, National Laboratories directorships, nominees for Nobel prizes; CEO’s of major corporations, high finance and real estate.

When the Greeks first arrived in large numbers at the US at the turn of the 20th century, they faced the hardships and prejudice experienced by all newcomers. Their hard work and organizations helped them overcome these adversities quickly. Greece gaining the first Allied victory in WWII had a salutary effect on the image of Greek Americans. Eventually being Greek came to be “cool”!

However during the last several years we are witnessing a continuing erosion of that glowing image. Particularly troubling is the looting of our cultural heritage -Martin Bernal’s and the Afro-Centrists’ “black Athena” (challenged most forcefully by Mary Lefkowitz); the Skopja nationalists’ claims on Alexander the Great; the banalities of Turkey’s President Turgut Ozal (Homer, the “Turkish poet” Omar); grotesque inaccuracies in American newspapers (St Nicholas, a “Turkish Bishop”).

Then there are actions that not only tarnish the Greek image but also have adverse economic implications. Prior to the 2004 Athens Olympics rumors of impending terrorist attacks influenced, sadly, even Greek Americans who canceled trips and conventions in Greece, something that the Jewish Diaspora, for example, would have never done, as they showed in visiting Israel even at the height of the Intifadas.

The greatest success of the Greek American community as such has been Eugene Rossides and his coworkers persuading Congress to uphold US law and deny (temporarily) the sale of weapons to Turkey after its invading Cyprus. Yet, Cyprus remains partially occupied; the US Government ignores the violations of Greece’s airspace by Turkish aircraft, and recognizes FYROM as “Macedonia”; scurrilous attacks in the German press demonizing the entire Greek nation have been picked-up and repeated by US media and political figures. Greeks have become an easy target for stereotyping and ridicule in popular American television programs. Even in the tragic affair with the war refugees Greece remains isolated, receiving almost three quarters of a million refugees while her European partners are sending to Turkey billions of euros and (many of them) closing their borders.

The Greek American community has been unable to stem these negative developments, protect our cultural heritage, and help Greece. There is a plethora of testimonials in the activities of our regional and fraternal organizations, but a paucity of effective responses to the serious challenges. There is much that we could learn from other lobbies, e.g., using “truth squads” and social media to correct false claims; facilitating Greek venture capital investments in Greece based on the cutting edge science being developed at Greek universities and by Greeks of the Diaspora; taking advantage of the Modern Greek Studies programs at major universities, potentially a critical agent for preserving Greek culture, yet many of them languishing with only a handful of students.

Claiming ownership of the rich Greek heritage entails a responsibility. The Greek American community -its potential rarely matched in the annals of the Greek Diaspora- can and should take the lead in the noble task of defending and preserving this heritage and also helping Greece in its present predicament. Our challenge is to make our performance as a community commensurate with our individual stellar achievements.

* Leonidas Petrakis holds a PhD in Physical Chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley; has taught at various universities in the US, France and Greece; was Department Chairman and Senior Scientist at Brookhaven National Laboratory; and worked in the private sector. He divides his time between Oakland, CA, and Athens.



E-Mail: IHAHellas@gmail.com