Famous words spoken by Jamaican orator and entrepreneur, Marcus Garvey.
So what do you know about yours? You know, your history.
Are you one of those people who reaches for the computer every time they see an Ancestory.com commercial, but then chickens out? You wanna know, but kinda don’t? Do you get a sense of cultural pride when the World Cup draws near? Or maybe you go to your favorite little spot in New York City and draw yourself closer to your roots?
I remember my mother teaching me all the traditional dishes her mother used to cook for her and her great-grandmother before that, centuries ago.
Are you like me and look into your child’s eyes or stare at their nose and ask “whose does that remind you of?”
There is no doubt that in this Internet age the earth has become a much smaller place. We’re only a click away from being in somebody’s living room across the ocean.
My grandparents came across that ocean to this country in the first great migration from Europe at the turn of the century. Yes, via Ellis Island the gateway to the “Great Melting Pot,” where between 1900 and 1920, more than 350,000 Greeks immigrated to the United States. A particularly large Greek community formed in Lowell, Massachusetts. That’s where my father grew up.
These days, if you ask the average person on the street what they know about Greeks, it’s safe to say they’re either going to reference the movie 300 or My Big Fat Greek Wedding. I gotta admit, kind of sad, but funny as well I suppose. My American husband (of Scottish descent) loves to tease me about using Windex in excess (which we don’t) or how to properly say the word Gyro (it’s yee-ro)! Or the worst, making John Stamos references. (I wish they’d stop running Full House reruns.)
But obviously that’s not what I want my girls to know about their bloodline. I want them to know about strong Greek women like Hydna of Scione, an expert swimmer who dove beneath the Persian ships in the battle of Salamis, cutting their moorings, causing the ships to drift and run aground and damage other vessels. Or Agnodice of Athens, who disguised herself as a man in order to study medicine at a time when it was forbidden by women. She was outted only to be saved by her female patients who shamed the court into acquitting her.
Ever heard the saying, “I trace my family history only so I know who to blame?” I must admit, there are a few nuts on my family tree who I’d like to see cracked. But in my heart of hearts, I know that my dear mother, who recently succumbed to cancer, always wanted for me to be true to my roots and carry on the legacy, traditions and name of our Greek ancestors. And like many of you, who have probably had the best intentions and still feel a sense of pride in your last name, I’ve failed.
My ability to speak the language has faded more than I like to admit (although I still dream in it at times) and the traditions are still so close to my heart yet so far from my daily life. It’s very sad. I long to hold onto them, but it seems only so when the world slows down just enough for me to actually think of it.
But all is not lost.
Perhaps by coincidence, although I’d rather think of it as the doing of my parents watching from above, I was recently introduced to a modern American couple, both of Greek heritage. And by my husband, of all people, who now prides himself of being a connoisseur of Greek last names (as if that’s hard?).
They invited us over to their house for a barbecue and instantly I felt a peace and a love that only those of us who come from strong ethnic communities might appreciate. There were Yia Yias and Papous throughout the home and spanakopita, the kind of which you could only get from a true Greek. There were Nicks and Spiros, Dimitris and Katerinas. It was a little slice of heaven for me and I only wished my mother and father would have been alive to be there.
I admired this family because they held their history and their culture so dear to their hearts, cultivating it while still acclimating to the best of America. I marveled at the language being spoken, most of which was very familiar still. And all the stories and inter-family dialogue which, even when it sounds more like arguing to the American ear, is still music to mine.
My friends, my message to you is this; we are a globe that is getting tighter in space. We are a melting pot that no longer is taught to see race. But your blood, your roots, your genealogy is what made you YOU! Coming together does not mean allowing your past to fall apart. If you think iPhone pictures and a good memory will keep your past in tact, it won’t. Cherish your personal history. We have to make a deliberate and concerted effort to listen to our oldest family members, ask them their stories and write down their answers.
Perhaps it’s a family name you pass on to your new son or daughter. Maybe it’s a traditional dance or even a simply story about the region you come from. Hold on to those things that need to be held onto. Archive those stories that beg to be told. And most importantly, honor those people, regardless if they are in your family or not, who represent a link to your past.
No matter what part of the globe you are from, there is a rich history as old as the earth your town or village stands on. By caring for it, you will preserve it for future generations. You will thank yourself.
And ironically, even though everybody knows the Greeks have the best philosophers in the world (it’s kinda what we do), I’ll leave you with a quote from a Spaniard.
“To know your future you must know your past.” ― George Santayana