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Guest Viewpoints

A Letter to the Late Dan Georgakas

April 19, 2022
By Υiorgos Anagnostou

Dear Dan,

It is now more than four months since the news of your passing. Despite your age, I was in disbelief when I found out. I supposed you would be with us forever.

Once the news of your death sunk in, I made it my habit to revisit your work, rereading your scholarship, about Greek-American studies mostly, a subject that was dear to you. I also reread excerpts from your memoir, some poems, and listened to some of your interviews. I plan to study your seminal work, Detroit I Do Mind Dying.

As I reread your work, I try to take the measure of what you have left us, our inheritance. And I grapple with the question, what to do with this inheritance? What should each of us individually, and all of us collectively, do with what you have left us? What is our responsibility to your work?

As I reread your work, I realize, more than ever, how much the immigrant past mattered to you. You cared about the past, you wanted to direct our attention to it, particularly those aspects that have been neglected, or forgotten, discarded as irrelevant, or tossed aside as uncomfortable. You wanted us to know about the working class; the exploitations that it suffered, its involvement in the labor movement for a better America. You wanted us to understand the power of racism, in an interview, in 2018, you called it “the cancer of American society”; you wanted us to understand how it shaped our place and the place of others in the United States. You also wrote about women from a unique angle; unconventional, creative, bold Greek-American women in the 1960s. Your poetry also spoke about the experience of young Greek immigrant widows, who had no other options but marry much older men.

You wanted us to understand the past, to grasp its complexities, to note its contradictions. You were a historian committed to documentation and determined to speak historical truths, even if those truths were taboo and made some in the community uncomfortable. It was, you felt, your responsibility, the right thing to do, the ethical thing to do. You had no patience with sugarcoating of the past. You witnessed it and you knew how unfair––one might say how violent––it is to try to cut the past down to size, to fit idealizations and serve triumphalism.

As a historian and a person who eye-witnessed immigrant life you knew better than to simplify immigrant lives. You refused to caricature Greek-Americans. You knew that immigrants struggled, worked hard, enjoyed some success, experienced failures. That is why you were impatient with the narrative of struggle and success. Life is not a linear highway leading to the Eldorado of the American Dream. Your perspective, your words, resonate with me deeply. I started my life as a working-class immigrant who achieved some things but failed in others. It is refreshing––viscerally refreshing––to hear you speak about the humanity of Greek-Americans. To recognize their limits, their failings; which is to say, their humanity. In this you are in good company with Helen Papanikolas and Harry Mark Petrakis who also eye-witnessed much of 20th century Greek America and did the same

This passion of yours to humanize Greek-Americans connects to another passion of yours: to develop Greek-American studies. You saw academic research as a venue to understand Greek America’s complexity. You recognized it as one of the few remaining venues–– along with literature, poetry, and film–– to learn, to reflect, to speak about difficult topics and new ideas. This is the reason you never tired of advocating Greek American studies. You saw the value of high quality, committed, rigorous Greek American research. You were calling for its institutional growth for a long time.

But this call remains unheeded. Our institutions have not taken the necessary initiatives. At least, not yet. In our conversations we often pondered this question: Why is it that Greek Americans, who take such a great pride in their educational achievements, do not invest in Greek-American humanities and social science? Why are the names of our poets, novelists, and labor heroes unknown? Do we know who George Economou was and why his work matters? Do we know why Louis Tikas was murdered? Do we know about the work of Nikos Petropoulos and why it is important? Do we know what a Greek American author meant when she wrote of her family’s “heritage of fear”? Do we know what Dan meant when he was referring to the ethnic “third eye” and its significance?

Dear Dan, I read the praises of your person in Greek-American obituaries. There is exaltation about your contributions to secular Greek-American Hellenism, praise for promoting Greek-American studies. I wonder what your feelings and thoughts would have been had you read this overwhelming approval. Perhaps you would have cracked your wry, knowing signature smile. Perhaps you would have said, “nice words, but will action follow”?

You have left us with a legacy of many words and actions, Dan. The question we should be asking, I believe, is what we do with what you have left us. Do we know, as a community, what we have inherited from you?

I am thinking a great deal about your non-academic intellectual work, your work as an editor of the American Journal of Contemporary Hellenic Issues, for example. Your numerous talks sponsored by Greek-American organizations and communities. I am trying to understand your major shift, as I see it, from radical politics in the 1960s and 1970s to a kind of mainstream cultural activism in Greek America in the post-junta years. During our interview, in 2019, when I last saw you in person, I got the feeling that you wanted to bring change by working from within, as an insider. And you accomplished much. You managed to feature Greek-American poetry in a Greek-American policy journal! You published essays by Greek-American college students. You kept inviting me to submit work for broad, non-academic audiences. You wanted, it seems to me, to gradually open up Greek-American institutions to the humanities and social sciences. But I wish you were here with us to disclose, did you feel there were limits to what one could or could not say in these settings? Was there something radical you felt the need to say, but for some reason you didn’t? This question preoccupies me, and I believe it was on your mind too: is there room in Greek America for an inclusive, open dialogue which includes critical self-reflection? At some point in your life, you were struggling for a Greek-American success––an alternative success–– we rarely if ever talk about. Success in sustaining an exciting and yes agonistic conversation about Greek-American issues, the ways we represent the Greek-American past, the kind of cultural policy we practice, the Greek-American future. It seems that we need to harvest our best democratic impulses to make this happen.

Dan, it is time to bid farewell. This is my second farewell, the first was my tribute to your work in the journal Ergon. Dan, you kept working–– working until your very last days––to enrich our understanding of Greek America. You spoke about taboo topics, you insisted that academics should also learn to speak for a broad Greek-American audience, you advocated that we create spaces–– journals, blogs, webinars–– to foster an exciting Greek-American conversation. This is the inheritance I embrace, and feel the responsibility to keep alive.

I do not believe the journey ahead will be easy. After all, we have been building these spaces of learning for some time now. We have been building it, but will people come? What will it take for people and organizations to support our projects?

Dear Dan Georgakas, son of Detroit, of New York City, of Anatolia and the Peloponnese; Dan of Cineaste, of Detroit I Do Mind Dying, of Black Mask, of anti-junta activism: We will not only remember you; we will keep you informed of our news. We don’t know what the news will be. That depends on us.

Αιωνία η μνήμη.

Υiorgos Anagnostou

April 9, 2022.

Υiorgos Anagnostou is the Miltiadis Marinakis Professor of Modern Greek Language and Culture and the Director of the Modern Greek Program at The Ohio State University.


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