Along with the centennial anniversary of the Asia Minor Catastrophe, which must be commemorated to ensure that appropriate homage be paid to the victims of the genocide committed by the founders of modern-day Turkey, that the ancient cradles of Hellenism in Anatolia remain indelibly enshrined in our collective memory, and to learn from the mistakes of the past, the Greek-American Community is celebrating two more important anniversaries this year. Both the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and AHEPA celebrate their centennials this year.
A 100-year anniversary is remarkable in its own right, but all the more so when those celebrating have a national presence, contributing to the organizational cohesion of the Greek-American Community and shaping policies and practices in our community life.
This article will focus on AHEPA’s centennial and its relationship with the Greek language, as well as its prospects for the future. AHEPA was founded in 1922 in Atlanta, GA with the aim of advancing the integration of newly arrived Greek immigrants into mainstream society, defending their civil rights, and protecting them from racist attacks by organizations like the Ku Klux Klan.
Early on, in an attempt to expedite immigrants’ acclimatization, as well as combat xenophobia that was particularly rampant in the south, AHEPA was criticized for displaying excessive zeal in promoting ‘Americanism’ at the expense of its members’ Hellenic identity.
This led to reactions within the Community, which, along with the defense of its members’ civil rights, was concerned about the preservation and propagation of the Orthodox faith, the Greek language, and other elements of the Hellenic identity.
By 1923, AHEPA faced competition from GAPA (Greek American Progressive Association), which was set up to operate as its Hellenocentric ‘rival’, focusing on the preservation and use of the Greek language. In 1929, a manifesto addressing the officers and members of AHEPA was sent by the self-styled “great conservative part of our race throughout the United States of America,” criticizing the marginalization of the Greek language in AHEPA. It proposed major reforms aimed at rendering Greek equal to English both in the Order’s constitution and meetings. This document argued that these reforms were necessary to dispel the notion that AHEPA was overlooking Hellenic identity, as well as to secure greater inroads within the Community and better serve the new generation.
Nonetheless, these proposals were not adopted by the General Assembly of 1929. Instead, AHEPA’s then president published an article in its official magazine dismissing claims that the Greek language was being overlooked, noting that AHEPA’s constitution makes no mention of an “official language” and that any decision regarding the exclusion or use of a language at meetings are decided locally at the prerogative of the chairperson. He justifies the General Assembly’s decision not to include reference to Greek in the constitution, calling the proposal superfluous.
Much has changed over the nine decades that have since passed. Following American society’s conscious espousal of multiculturalism from the 1960’s onward, along with the transition of the Greek-American Community from largely transient migrants to permanent citizens, Greek-Americans have long ceased being targeted due to their ethnicity. It is fairly certain that members of the Community presently face a greater threat from reverse racism and wokeism than they do from the racism that their pioneer Greek immigrant forefathers encountered in the early to mid-20th century.
Therefore, AHEPA must also evolve and shift its priorities. Today, the role it is called to play has much more to do with preserving and advancing the Hellenic cultural legacy than it does with shaping solid mainstream American citizens.
Although its constitution now does expressly state that English is the official language of the Order, it also includes a reference regarding the perpetuation, study, and advancement of the Hellenic culture and traditions in the United States.
By all accounts, the Greek language represents an integral part of this culture and operates as its ‘ark’. Hence, with an eye toward the future and its bicentennial, AHEPA should devote greater attention and resources to the critical issue of the Greek language. The issue of Greek education in the United States concerns the entire Community-at-large, not just the parish communities left to operate Greek parochial schools all by themselves up until today. Addressing AHEPA’s Region 7 Conference in Connecticut, Mr. Antonis H. Diamataris, Advisor the Publishers of TNH/Ethnikos Kirix, was spot-on when proposing that AHEPA should undertake to “build a Greek school in a major city.” Its history and deep roots in the Community make it too seminal to sidestep this important responsibility.
The Greek language remains a signature showpiece of the Hellenic cultural legacy. This is easy enough to discern from the sentiments of admiration – even envy – that one receives from non-Greek speakers. For example, the ability to understand the Bible in its original language is something that fascinates many Americans from all different racial and ethnic backgrounds, and is something that shouldn’t be overlooked… by the local Church or other major organizations shaping the Community’s ‘soft power’ approach.
A recent tweet by the world’s richest man, Elon Musk, featuring the word ‘διαλεκτική’ (dialectics) in the original Greek serves as yet another example of the status and importance of our ancestral language. As does the response tweeted by a Greek user to someone who asked Mr. Musk why he was tweeting in “a dead language,” only to receive the zinger (loosely translated here): “whaddya talking about, you unwashed pair of drawers?!”
To avoid any similar comparisons to underpants, we must not allow ideological ankylosis and complexes to stand in the way of exercising effective cultural diplomacy. Large organizations like AHEPA should be playing a leading role in the effort to propagate the Greek language in the 21st century. Aside from everything else, the mid- to long-term relevance of these organizations warrants it; but even more importantly, the survival of Hellenism in America.
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