This Black History Month in the US, transformation is in the air as the climate crisis and COVID-19 vaccinations unfold, and spring flowers take root.
There is growing awareness that Black history is an integral part of US history, and that honoring and celebrating the lives and stories of African Americans must, therefore, go beyond the month of February. Diversity, too, is flowering in political representation across race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and religion, and more voices are calling for Earth-honoring ways. The Poor People’s Campaign is empowering and uniting those living in poverty—with heightened urgency in COVID time—and the new presidential administration is taking significant steps to reverse harms wrought over the past four years.
It’s a good start. What about the past 400 years? The next four, the next 400? Buddhist teacher Lama Rod Owens, co-author of Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation and author of Love and Rage, advises that those who are marginalized are closer to the truth than those closer to the center. So, let’s get to it.
The Movement for Black Lives states unequivocally, “Despite constant exploitation and perpetual oppression, Black people have bravely and brilliantly been the driving force pushing the US towards the ideals it articulates but has never achieved.” As an Armenian in the US, I believe it is our duty and our right to stand with all those who are targeted, and as settlers in this land, to recognize our own accountabilities with our Black, Indigenous and Latinx siblings.
My beloved 89-year-old Bolis-born gunkamayr recently advised me not to judge the US too harshly for its failings. We were discussing the patterns of erasure and distortion of history and lived experience which play out on repeat here and in our ancestral home. From her perspective as an Armenian elder in Los Angeles, the US is such a young country, it is like a toddler with stumbles and tantrums and no sense of history or impact. I appreciate her reminder to take the long view, and I note that the US is not a toddler. Expansion needs accountability, respect and reciprocity to bring real growth and progress. Yet, her words encourage me to see with the eyes of compassion and to watch for the light, with and beyond our people.
Intersectional Armenian activism, instrumental in raising awareness and humanitarian aid for Artsakh, had already been growing before the war. In particular, it flourished widely in the spring and summer of 2020, in response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many other Black lives stolen. In the midst of grief, rage and righteous uprising, I was humbled and grateful to see Armenians standing up for racial justice on the ground and online via articles, classes, panels and social media. Through co-curating art for an Armenians for Black Lives project which the war brought to a pause, seeing beautiful works of solidarity from our people kept me believing in a brighter future. Learning and growing together, little did I know just how much I and we would need help watching for the light in the months which followed.
Last July, the same day I learned of the first attack on the Armenian school in San Francisco, a Japanese friend told me she was afraid for her family because anti-Asian hate crimes were rising during the viral pandemic. Recently, our conversation came flooding back, due to the sharp increase in violence against Asians, including elders. My heart breaks anew, the same heart still aching over the repetition of violent dispossession of our people in Artsakh, and the media manipulations on the global stage even as Azerbaijan’s attacks have continued in Syunik.
Within the heartache, there is a quiet joy. Seeing Armenians and many other groups in the US and around the world continuing to organize, build coalitions and lift one another’s spirits reminds me of radiant and hard-won wisdoms from the struggle for Black liberation: do your inner work, build a beloved community and be a voice for truth.
Back in 2015, legendary author, abolitionist and Black civil rights icon Angela Davis was invited to give the Hrant Dink Memorial Lecture at Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University, currently a site of daily protests since January. In her powerful lecture “Transnational Solidarities: Resisting Racism, Genocide, and Settler Colonialism,” she highlighted the critical interconnections between past and present struggles in the US, Turkey, Palestine and beyond. Invoking the role of the imagination in bringing change, she spoke of envisioning and believing in the brighter world we are working to build as we seek peace and justice together.
Though we may not see the fruits of our labors in our lifetimes, imagine what could happen if we believe they are growing on trees with world-shaped roots. The US House of Representatives recently held a hearing on H.R. 40, a bill several decades and 400 years in the making, which would set up a commission to examine the impacts of slavery and make recommendations on long-overdue reparations.
This Black History Month, reckoning and repair are in the air. Can you feel it?