A fundamental part of historical research is identifying individuals. Documenting the experiences and actions of specific individuals is often the very core of a historical text. Curiously, Greek-Americans have a mixed response to this most basic process of historical documentation. Identify specific individuals within a Greek-American publication is sometimes completely impossible. In other publications, naming names is the express purpose of the text. Two recently published books offer perfect – if essentially opposite – examples of this Greek-American historical dilemma.
Stacy Diacou’s, My Generation of Achievers: Their Social History is a compilation volume which reprints selected extracts from her 20 plus-year column in the Greek Press newspaper (Bloomington IN: iUniverse, 2013). Diacou’s column, initially titled “Grecian Social Whirl,” focused on the lives and actions of Chicagoland’s Greek-American community. This 368 page book is composed of an introduction by Michael G. Davros, four chronological sections of columns spanning 1969 to 1996, two photograph sections and a 20 page index of names.
Diacou is crystal clear about her volume’s intent: “I would like to take a moment to point with pride to all achievers in our Greek-American community that, in some cases; space did not permit me to acknowledge…We are all in a sense achievers: a mother who raised her children despite obstacles she might have faced; a teacher who instilled her students with not only knowledge, but the principles of right and wrong; a man who has struggled to support his family. And let us remember our parents, who were the greatest achievers of all. I sincerely hope that the next generation studies what the achievers in this generation have accomplished and follows in their footsteps.
“Each year, the achievers of my generation have grown in significance with all of their accomplishments. I have always been aware of these accomplishments, as were others in my generation, but I felt they had to be recorded, otherwise the pause that existed between the immigration movement and what followed would be lost forever. With the publication of this book, I hope to erase that gap and that all Greek-Americans in this great city will become aware of the achievements of this generation. Their success stories will no longer dwell in the shadows but will shine like a beacon.”
The type of column Diacou so carefully complied for so many years is found, at one time or another, in every Greek-American newspaper. Such columns offer an ongoing report of the everyday actions and accomplishments of individuals within the Greek community, most often written in a kind of telegraphic or notational style rather than a full running text. In this manner Diacou has mentioned, by name and action, literally hundreds of Greeks in the Chicagoland area.
Make no mistake about it this form of community diary is invaluable to the serious researcher. The information may be episodic and limited in content but it can serve as the baseline for any number of historical points of inquiry. Clearly this kind of approach is self –congratulatory by definition but it is rarely, if ever, factually incorrect. It is also quite obviously a response to the negative or anti-Greek environment many early immigrants were forced to endure.
Diacou does not offer us a fairyland approach to Greek-American everyday life as many a jaded or anti-Greek-American reader might impose on this kind of column. Greeks have achieved socially and economically in Chicago and all across the United States this is a sociological fact beyond contestation. That social and economic failure as well as the targeting of Greeks for attack is also part of the Greek experience in North America that must be added ultimately to any serious and balanced consideration of the Greek-American historical record.
This “struggle and success model” of the Greek-American is far from new. Aside from Diacou’s columns. I would urge those interested in her approach to look at her edited work Hellenism in Chicago (Chicago: United Hellenic American Congress, 1982). I have described this 200-page hardcover volume as a mix of highly-informative essays and dozens of captioned photographs with your standard Greek-American dinner-dance book. And again, I mean no slur against dinner-dance commemorative volumes. But they are at the same time undeniably publications that have evolved within the Greek-American community as a set genre which has expected (and accepted) content and format.
Greeks in Queens by Christina Rozeas is one of the latest collections of Greek-American photograph books issued through Arcadia Publishing (Charleston: Arcadia, 2012) (www.arcadiapublishing.com). Constantine E. Theodosiou, President, Greater Astoria Historical Society provides a Foreword. This collection of 187 documents and photographs is presented in 127 pages with an Introduction followed by six thematic chapters: In the Beginning; Old World Influences in a Brave New World; Greek Orthodox Churches and Schools; Traditions and Festivals; Celebrations and Community; and Businesses and Associations.
Rozeas’ geographic focus is the New York City borough of Queens with special attention given to the city of Astoria, as the symbolic home of all the Greeks in this metropolitan area. Just as with Diacou it is clear Rozeas wants to praise the Greeks of Queens but it is equally clear she has no idea whatsoever on how to accomplish this goal.
The most curious omission found in this volume is the failure to identify individuals by name consistently. While Rozeas is always careful to credit the individual or institution that provided each black and white photograph found in this volume many individuals are never identified. Instead Rozeas uses these photographs to represent types of persons, places or situations she attests are common to the area and its local history. For example as we hear in a photograph of three unidentified young people: Meeting other Greeks sprouted many friendships in Queens public schools. Frequently, these friendships would last a lifetime. Pictured here is a group of Greek Orthodox children outside of Long Island City High School. The Greek culture has always fascinated others (pg. 64). Undermining her own credibility, Rozeas often adds sheer speculation to the captions: This photograph shows a Greek family doing what they do best: socializing over dinner. Children were not segregated from the table. Photographed in April 1957, this family was likely talking about ways to help out their relations in Greece, or who would be next arriving in America (46). Or “Education began in the home, as is illustrated in this photograph. Mother and daughter sit outside their Jackson Heights home, toys scattered on the ground. Among the toys is a cash register, to encourage the little girl’s possible interest in business (pg. 38).” Did the unidentified Mother in this photograph tell Rozeas she had her daughter play with a cash register to interest her in business or not? As if this were not odd enough Rozeas, in her captions, often gives the impression she has no idea why, when or where (other than I suppose, Queens) the photograph was taken. Many other examples could be given.
Where is the “history” in this volume? Where is the chronology of events? Why do certain people get named and not others? To the detriment of her stated goal Rozeas gives the reader the strong impression she simply gathered a box of black and white photographs and once she had enough published this book. The Greeks of Queens and especially Astoria represent not simply a large community of Greeks in North America but one that has and continues to influence the world around them. Whether in words or just images the Greeks of Queens deserve a better historical account