When Johnny Otis (1921-2012), a legendary rock & roll musician, eloped to Reno, Nevada, in 1941 with Phyllis Walker, his high school sweetheart, they were fleeing a California law preventing their love. From the perspective of the state, Otis, born Ioannis Veliotis to Greek immigrant parents, was considered white. Consequently, he was prohibited to marry Phyllis, of Afro-Samoan ancestry, because of the infamous miscegenation laws barring interracial marriage at the time. The couple somehow managed to get around this problem in Reno.
We know how this scenario played out within the Veliotis household, thanks to Otis’s autobiography. Objecting the union, his mother dispatched her husband to Reno to annul it. Otis was underage, and she claimed she was exercising her parental right. But his father objected to his wife’s objection. Upon meeting the couple, he took Phyllis “in his arms, hugged her and kissed her. ‘Your mother sent me to annul the marriage, but I came to meet my new daughter,’ he said in Greek, with tears in his eyes. ‘And besides, I don’t want to get God on my case.’” “I never loved that old man more than I did at that moment,” Otis exclaimed. Bridges were built across the “color line,” and across generations.
Otis became a civil rights activist. He opted for active citizenship committed to advancing American ideals and opposing those who violated them. The drama of the Veliotis family offers an apt introduction to the broader story of the interactions between Greek and Black Americans. There can be no generalization. One is either antiracist or racist. No in-between.
Our contemporary moment calls upon us to take a side on civil rights and the Black Lives Matter movement. Vested in civic principles, American ethnic groups have joined the national conversation decisively. “Every Jew must decide which side they’re on,” the Jewish American media calls. Secular Greek American organizations and the Greek Orthodox Church have also taken a position. In a must-read essay in the online journal Public Orthodoxy, scholars of Christian Orthodoxy recognize the existence of systemic racism and how European Americans, including Greek Americans, have derived benefits from it.
The idea of active citizenship is important for our community to foreground. To be an active citizen is more than to vote and wave the flag of the country or a party. Citizenship, among other things, means to educate oneself about history and society. To exercise critical self-reflection.
How much do we know about the interactions between Black and Greek Americans? To what extent do we understand each other? The topic is underexplored and misunderstood. One wonders about the reasons for this neglect.
There have certainly been enduring friendships, fellowship, intermarriage, collaborations and political alliances. But also distrust, ambivalence and resentment, often fueled by stereotypes and cultural myths that encourage, out of political calculation, divisions and animosity between white Americans and people of color. To understand these issues, it is necessary that we move beyond our personal experiences and assumptions, and read widely about the place of race in U.S. history.
One of these myths is that of equal opportunity. If one wishes to learn about, say, how the Post-World War social structure privileged white European American males at the expense of white women and Black Americans, I recommend Karen Brodkin’s very accessible “How Jews Became White Folk, and What That Says about Race in America.” A significant corpus of books addresses how systemic racism favored immigrants from southeastern Europe and their descendants. In the long list of books contributing to this historical understanding I will single out David Roediger’s superb, “Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White,” and Matthew Frye Jacobson’s “Roots Too: White Ethnic Revival in Post–Civil Rights America.” There is much more, and obviously still more to learn. Educating ourselves is part of our obligation as citizens.
Active citizenship is achieved through speaking and doing. There are notable examples about Greek Orthodox leaders as well as Greek Americans writers and scholars who have openly addressed the issue. They have done so at considerable professional and personal cost, particularly when it was dangerous or unacceptable to speak up against racial and social injustices.
Our Greek Orthodox iconic figure of interracial solidarity is, of course, Archbishop Iakovos. His legacy continues to shape Greek Orthodox and Greek American civic activism today. Various initiatives cultivate civic bonds with Black Americans.
I will never forget a particular instance of Iakovos’s acting as a citizen. It was when he did not mince his words refuting the vocal opposition he heard from within his own community about his civil rights stance. Though on an individual level there were instances of both cooperation and friendship between the Black and Greek American communities, there were also displays of racism as well. And Black Americans were also aware that groups of the southeastern European American community internalized and perpetuated American racial hierarchies, often for their own gain. That was their Faustian deal for acceptance–often out of fear–and that was the reason for their reticence to rock the Jim Crow boat. Iakovos boldly spoke a sociological truth.
His example could serve yet another a lesson on how to express Greek American citizenship today: the value of speaking about our history and social realities truthfully. This is what confident American ethnic groups do. Promote knowledge, reflect and debate. This openness is part of the Jewish American ethos. Italian American institutions are also active along these lines. If American society scrutinizes its past and present, why not us? We are devoted American citizens after all. We pride ourselves for our high educational achievements.
I value history and sociology for helping me understand the social world beyond my personal experience. When it comes to our topic, it matters to examine how individuals navigate the relationship between Greek and Black Americans. But it is also necessary to consider the wider social structure within which this relationship plays out.
It’s true that many Greek Americans were discriminated against and humiliatingly excluded from sectors of white society. Our businesses were boycotted by the Klan. Yet it is now a truism in mainstream scholarship that the experience of southeastern Europeans cannot be compared with the systemic racism that Black Americans were subjected to throughout America’s history.
To return to the Johnny Otis story, Otis grew increasingly alienated from the community because of their lack of support of his civil rights activism. How do we speak to the next generation, particularly those who seek greater racial and social justice in our union? We need a new language.
In the days after the killing of George Floyd, I have been following the rigorous manner in which Jewish Americans have mobilized their educational resources to confront head-on the issue of institutional racism. The quality of the conversation is astonishing. Intellectuals, scholars, authors, journalists and leaders produce a sophisticated self-reflection on the community’s values and future direction. I greatly admire and respect this accomplishment, and I am inspired to work even harder to continue bringing to the public a historical and sociological understanding of Greek America.
But for us to accomplish this new direction, it is necessary a broader participation to repurpose our public conversation. We have found comfort and purpose in a popular narrative, one that links ethnic socioeconomic achievement with pride, and via this pride cultural preservation. We often revert to idealizations, at the expense of a historical understanding of our community. This is convenient, but does not advance our civic consciousness.
Opening up a conversation about what it means to be a Greek American citizen—one who is knowledgeable, and one who fights to uphold justice for all—is necessary, and it’s linked of course with the kind of America, and Greek America, we want to help shape.
We cannot possibly achieve this orientation without promoting the understanding of Greek America in the humanities and the social sciences, whose value we have not always appreciated. This is a new purpose to inspire institutions and individuals who at this very moment advocate a Greek American civic consciousness. Citizenship is about saying and doing, as I have mentioned. This investment in Greek American studies will provide us with the new language we so urgently need to shape our civic and cultural future.
About the author
Giorgos Anagnostou serves as the editor of Ergon, a peer-reviewed journal that promotes the arts, letters and scholarship of Greek America. Anagnostou is a professor in the department of classics at Ohio State University and his areas of expertise include modern Greek culture and identity, the Greek diaspora and American ethnicities.
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