Today (because it's already April 24th in Armenia) marks the 102nd anniversary of the date we have chosen to commemorate the Armenian Genocide of the late 19th and early 20th centuries – April 24th. April 24th, 1915 or Red Sunday was the night hundreds of Armenian intellectuals in the Ottoman Empire, teachers, poets, musicians, journalists, medical providers, clergy, and other spiritual, cultural, and political leaders were rounded up, deported, and most ultimately murdered by their own government. Each year Armenians gather wherever in the world they might be to remember, commemorate, and protest together. We remember because we were never meant to exist. We commemorate to connect to our lost elders and pay our respects. We protest to demand acknowledgment and even reparations.
I was born in Lebanon and grew up in Cyprus, both countries with relatively large and active Armenian communities, so for the first 18 years of my life there wasn’t a single April 24th that I didn’t spend with other Armenians, usually at an Armenian church or school or center. These places are important symbols; they signal the failure of Red Sunday’s intention – to begin the process of total annihilation and to deprive us of cultural leadership. Other than a couple of exceptions, April 24th hasn’t looked the same since 1999, the year I first came to the U.S. as an international student. I’ve lived mostly in areas with little connection to any other Armenians, sometimes intentionally staying away, and other times by sheer happenstance. I choose each year to commemorate the day in my own way – through a prayer, a meditation, a moment of silence, time alone.
One of the things I have been trying to do the last few years on this day is reflect on intergenerational trauma, wondering how it has manifested in me personally and Armenians in general today. How has the trauma of being uprooted, humiliated, deported, assaulted, of watching our kin be assaulted and killed in front of us, how has that trauma been passed on and how does it live within me? I wonder about the ways the genocide lives on – in the narrow sedimentation of what it means to be Armenian, what Armenian people do, say, dress, believe, who we do or don’t associate with, and what or who we consider threats to our literal and rhetorical existences. It is the culture of perpetual fear that I actually am most afraid of that I have witnessed and experienced in the diasporic environments I’ve been in. I believe it is that fear that motivates the very distinct and clear boundaries drawn around the word Armenian; boundaries that close us in rather than open us up, that wall us not just from others but also from each other, that reject vulnerability.
I wonder what it will take for us to name and process our pains and our traumas. Maybe some of that will happen through the activism for recognition and reparations. But I don’t think that alone will do it. Because I don’t think external validation and acknowledgment by themselves gets us to talk about the harm we cause each other. The energy and effort that goes into building those walls amongst ourselves, to keep out undesirables, has resulted in many in my generation at least and perhaps after, from disengaging and letting go of Armenian-ness. Constrained and limited by what is permissible and expected, many of us have dropped the -ian/-yan from our last names or changed our names entirely. My initials, T.J., stand for Trent Jackson. There is nothing Armenian about either of those names, but they chose me at a time in my life when I wanted nothing to do with other Armenians (including having fairly superficial relationships with my relatives) and most Armenians wanted nothing to do with me (including I suspect some of those relatives). I have chosen to hold onto T.J. as a reminder of the contexts of its origin, but also because that relationship generally hasn’t dramatically shifted. I want to re-engage with my people, but not on the terms delineated by the “Armenian community,” the dominant narrative of what those two words together means. Iris Marion Young wrote about the word “community” back in the 1980s and the deleterious effect its implementation has on difference, pushing for sameness and a homogeneous identification for the purposes of “unity” against or maybe in relation to others who don’t belong.
I totally get that. And I think many of us get that. The decisions we have to make about whether or not we cover parts of ourselves to be a member of whichever community, the impacts of either side of that decision being weighed against each other. And yes, we all perform at some point in our lives. But some performances just feel more draining than others, cause us to question our very being, bring with them shame and guilt and yup, trauma.
So when I commemorate Red Sunday, as I do each year, my insides are burning with the pain of that trauma. And while the genocide itself did not have the perpetrators’ desired outcome of complete annihilation of the Armenian people, 102 years later, it continues to – painstakingly slowly and oh so quietly – violate, extinguish, and kill us. We just don’t have the Young Turks around to blame anymore. We would need to look at each other and ourselves closely and honestly to find the perpetrators, and begin our healing in earnest.
It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society - Jiddu Krishnamurti
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