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Black History Month and the Greeks

By on March 6, 2013
Demetrios Rhompotis

Demetrios Rhompotis

February was Black History Month and paying tribute to this very special group of Americans should not be just an opportunity to sympathize, get inspired, or hone our skills in political correctness, but rather also look for the connection of real people with real stories that could make this time of the year a venue to share experiences.

For Greek Americans, examples abound and offer real life lessons to remind us that humanity becomes a virtue only when it’s applied on the “battlefield.” As tests in school prove our grasp of various subjects, life and its collective challenges are there to prove our valor and dignity as human beings.

Yvette Jarvis

Yvette Jarvis

This piece is not an attempt to offer a eulogy to Greek American contributions to the Civil Rights struggle, but more a reminder of our responsibilities today as citizens. Besides, as many were the Greeks who supported Civil Rights in America, many did not and some even opposed them. However, many stood out and united their voices with those of the oppressed. In many instances, not only did they unite their voices, but they led the effort–as with Anthony J. Constant, a civil rights advocate and restaurant owner in Baltimore, who was a catalyst in desegregating eateries in his city. And of course, the most visible case of all was Greek Orthodox Archbishop Iakovos marching along Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama; a scene immortalized on the cover of Time Magazine. (In a kind of reciprocating way, Yvette Jarvis, an African-American artist from Brooklyn, New York, was the first black candidate to be elected to the Athens’ City Council, in the ‘90s.)

Aleck Gulas

Aleck Gulas

There were other Greeks – some of them still live in our midst – who proved themselves as Hellenes and courageous human beings during one of the toughest periods in the American History. Aleck Gulas, father of the former AHEPA Supreme President Ike Gulas, was the first—in Birmingham, Alabama, of all places–to open his jazz supper club (“Key Club”) to African-American musicians! (Talk about courage.)

AHEPA (American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association), the biggest Greek American organization, was founded in Atlanta, Georgia, early in the 20th century with the aim to help Greeks assimilate and advance in the US, but more urgently, to organize Greeks against the Ku Klux Klan criminal activities that were targeting them as well. In old black and white photos you can still see the “No Dogs, No Greeks” signs on the doors of many establishments in the deep South.

Lafcadio Hearn

Lafcadio Hearn

Even earlier, in the late 1800’s, Lefkadios Hearn, born in my home island of Lefkada, came to the US, worked as a journalist in Cincinnati and caused a social uproar by marrying to an African American woman Alethea (Mattie) Foley! The marriage didn’t work out in the end and he later moved to Japan, where he changed his name to Koizumi Yakumo and became the country’s national poet (now, that’s a story!). But in his way, and thanks to his revolutionary spirit, he actively challenged a society that could not tolerate interracial unions. Marrying an African American then wasn’t just socially unacceptable, but also illegal!

In the ‘50s a Cephallonian by the last name of Bekatoros, helped the young Charles Rangel to find his way in life and pursue his dreams and later become a long serving congressman from the great state of New York. Mr. Rangel always pays tribute to his most unusual mentor (when he speaks to the Greeks, at least).

These and many more examples of individual courage still serve as examples to all of us–not to “glorify” our community and make us feel good about our collective contribution to civil rights, but rather inspire us to become more sensitive and equally active when it comes to modern day challenges. A society is always a work in progress and nothing can be taken for granted: we must be vigilant of our freedoms and of our dignity as human beings. The best way to accomplish this is to make sure that all our fellow citizens enjoy the same rights and quality of citizenship as we do. Unfortunately, in the US this is still not the case …

And not just in the US. In Greece, too, due to the economic crisis and the collapse of an unsustainable life style (subsidized by loans and state corruption), we have witnessed in the last three years the emergence of ultra right (and ultra left) groups that preach hatred, intolerance, violence, fascism, and all the nightmarish versions of hell from which the country suffered immeasurably during the Nazi occupation from 1941 to 1944.

Another tragic irony is that some of those groups are openly embracing KKK and its practices! Maybe it’s time to start celebrating Black History Month in Greece as well, in schools at least, in order to realize that not long ago our people too were …black (as were the Irish, the Jews, the Italians and many more)!

One World – Two “Infallibles”!

I have a question for my Roman Catholic friends, with all due respect: now that Pope Benedict resigned (not of age as he claimed, but his consciousness might be unbearably burdened because while he was head of what once was the Inquisition, he kept in his draw the names and files of the pedophile priests and he didn’t disclose them. As a result they were transferred to other parishes, actually more than once, to continue their …mission) and a new one is about to be elected, will both be …infallible? If yes, whose infallibility will be more …infallible? If no, why should the old one will loose his?

If the privilege works only ex cathedra (literally “from the chair”), it’s the chair that has the real power not the person (anyway, “persona” in Latin is the “mask”, not the face) who occupies it. But isn’t that …idolatry? A chair however holy or magical, it’s still a chair! And the pope turns out to be like a device which is plugged and unplugged to a charger or source of energy!

by Demetrios Rhompotis

P.S.

  1. And those bright red shoes with the all white, Elton John style, cassock! I’m sorry, but Benedict looked like …a Turkish Airlines commercial!
  2. The Archbishop of New York Timothy Dolan has been mentioned as a possible successor to Benedict, but I don’t think he has a chance: he’s American and he has a great sense of humor, elements that render him unqualified for the …chair!

About Demetrios Rhompotis

Demetrios Rhompotis is Publishing Committee Chairman at NEO Magazine. E-mail: dondemetrio@neomagazine.com. Phone: (718) 554-0308