Crimes Against Humanity and Civilization contains this quotation from psychologist Ervin Staub:
"The intense need of the Armenians as individuals and as a community to have the genocide be acknowledged and known by the world teaches us something about ourselves as human beings.
First, our identities are rooted not only in our group, but in the history of our group. For a complete identity, we must be integrated not only with our individual past, but also with our groups’ past. Perhaps, this becomes especially important when our group is partly destroyed and dispersed; our families and ourselves have been deeply affected; and in a physical sense we have at best fragments of our group.
Second, we have a profound need for our pain and suffering, especially when it is born of injustice, to be acknowledged, known and respected."
The recognition I felt when I saw Gorky’s painting cannot be overstated. Every Armenian in America has experienced meeting someone who doesn’t even know that Armenia is actually a country, never mind that an unrecognized genocide was committed against their people in 1915. Along with those who are simply unaware, there is the denial that continues to this day. For all of the beauty and richness of my Armenian culture that survived, I’ve come to learn that it’s profoundly difficult to heal as a people and as individuals in the absence of recognition.
In 1996, eminent genocide scholar Gregory Stanton defined the eight states of genocide. And though “extermination” is one of the stages in his framework, it is not the final stage as one might expect. On the contrary, the final stage in Stanton’s framework is denial. This illustrates so well that without recognition of the incalculable violence and losses faced by Armenians, the physical process of extermination begun in 1915 continues in nonphysical forms.
Being told again and again that our losses have not been profound and that the violence done to us is not worthy of the label “genocide” denies our humanity as a people and pushes our chance for collective healing onto an ever-receding horizon.
My uncle is no longer with us, nor is Arshile Gorky, but we remember--especially on April 24. However, our remembering is always complicated. This month, Azerbaijan has built a “park of trophies” and their President was photographed amidst the helmets of murdered Armenian soldiers from the war in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020, which was backed staunchly by their ally Turkey. How do we process what has just happened without true acknowledgment of the past?
However, the announcement that President Biden may formally recognize the Genocide this month, comes as an important potential milestone in a century-long struggle. As then-Presidential candidate Biden said last year on April 24th:
“It is particularly important to speak these words and commemorate this history at a moment when we are reminded daily of the power of truth, and of our shared responsibility to stand against hate — because silence is complicity,” he said.
“If we do not fully acknowledge, commemorate, and teach our children about genocide, the words ‘never again’ lose their meaning,” he said.
Indeed, how can we really ever say “never again”?