Special Issue: Genocide Education for the 21st Century
The Armenian Weekly, April 2023
My first encounter with Armenia and Artsakh happened in 1986 as an elementary school child in Jamaica. My sister was a history teacher and I was an inquisitive boy always wanting to discover things. I took one of her books and began to read and found a reference to Nagorno Karabakh during the Soviet era. I could not find it on the map, but I would later discover its importance and meaning to a people of long and noble history.
December 2023 marks nearly two decades and over 60 presentations, lectures, visits and conversations during which I have advocated for and supported the just cause of reparations for the Armenian Genocide. It started serendipitously at a symposium held in Worcester, Massachusetts at (then) Worcester State College in December 2005 entitled “Whose Debt? Whose Responsibility?” I was invited by Dr. Henry Theriault, Armenian and genocide scholar. In the intervening seventeen years, I have collaborated with Theriault on countless panels, research groups and conferences. This association culminated in the founding of the Armenian Genocide Reparations Study Group (AGRSG) in 2007 that published the very important report of a comprehensive reparations scheme for the Armenian Genocide entitled Resolution with Justice. The report was published in 2014 and was the continuation rather than the end of my fight for reparations for the Armenian Genocide. To Theriault I owe the debt of introducing me to the Armenian community and supporting my work on these deeply important issues of recognition and repair.
My advocacy for recognition and reparation of the Armenian Genocide is because I believe in the truth of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” I am a justice and reparations advocate for the transatlantic trade in Africans and for the First Nations in the United States and Canada. I firmly believe that reparation is not just an attempt to “pay out monies in order to silence history.” Reparations is a comprehensive notion of repair that has five goals (5Rs): recognition, restoration, restitution, re-humanization and reconciliation.
I define reparations as a comprehensive approach of repair that seeks to respond to historic injustices, such as genocides, mass violence, torture, detainment, etc. It involves both material and non-material components whose goal is to make survivors and their families and the wider group benefit from redress for the historical harm.
Defining reparations in this manner points to more than just monetary compensation and will involve first and foremost:
- An apology/acknowledgement.
- Tangible acts of repair, such as return or possession of properties sequestered during the Armenian Genocide or restitution to the value of expropriated property.
- Historical reclamation to ensure that history is taught and education administered in such a way as to dignify the suffering of those who died and the continuing suffering of their descendants through denial.
- Public commemoration and days of remembrances.
- Public education campaigns to ensure that the historic injustice is well-documented and preserved so that denial is less likely in the future.
The goals of reparations are:
Recognition – To recognize the Armenian Genocide is to acknowledge its occurrence and to dignify the suffering of generations of Armenians by apologizing for the violence and attempts at erasure of their identity and culture. A significant part of the group culture of Armenians and other “genocide triumphers” is that their identity in both positive and negative ways revolves around the Genocide. Their reference point in both talking about resilience and suffering centers on the Genocide. Recognition must be the first act of repair.
Restoration – When recognition is achieved or done, then restoration is possible. In the reality of genocides, restoration is a psychological return to a time prior to genocide where the Armenian people thrived and contributed to Turkey’s economic and political development. Restoration is also aimed at a physical return of property, heirlooms and possessions that can be traced to the seizure of Armenian assets during the forced deportations, marches and expulsions from cities across Turkey. These must be restored to the families of survivors, and where this is not possible, these should be publicly displayed and regarded as precious possessions of Armenians.
Restitution – When the original properties or possessions cannot be returned, restitution is to be done. Both properties and possessions can be appraised, and monies should be disbursed to compensate for the initial loss in contemporary monetary value. Genealogical records of many Armenians in Turkey and the Armenian diaspora have been discovered and preserved. My friend and colleague George Aghjayan has been doing tremendous genealogical research that has unearthed many records from across Turkey, Syria and the Americas that were previously thought to have been destroyed.
Re-humanization – Any meaningful reparation scheme must aim at re-humanization. One of the continued indication of genocide is dehumanization. Those who commit genocides first remove the dignity of being human from those they intend to expunge from existence. It is an attempt of the genocidaires and deniers to lessen the humanity of victims. This strategy and its subsequent success through deliberate and elaborate denial can only be negated through a re-humanization process. Reparation must re-humanize, restoring the humanity of victims and survivors of genocides by documenting families, communities and livelihoods that were written out of existence in order to justify killings. Armenians, much like peoples of African descent before them and the Jewish nation since them, have suffered from a “victim identity” that has not been shed even with the march of time. These groups continue to be defined not by what they have achieved but what they have endured or suffered through.
Reconciliation – The last stage of reparation is reconciliation. It is intentionally last because you cannot reach reconciliation before you have accomplished the four previous steps. Reconciliation is long term, cannot be forced and is only likely when justice is evident. This is the most important lesson I have gathered in my two decades of studying truth commissions around the world. No matter what the names of these commissions indicate, reconciliation does not happen because truth is excavated; it only happens after a sense of justice is rendered. This is why the Turkish Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC) was destined to fail. There was no agenda of truth (not even in its formal name), and therefore not justice, for the genocide.
This theory of comprehensive repair for the Armenian Genocide was first (publicly) presented when the Armenian National Committee of America-Western Region (ANCA-WR) invited me to be their keynote speaker at the 100th commemoration of the Armenian Genocide in Glendale, California in April, 2015. I outlined then, and continue to advocate eight years later for, an understanding of reparations that is above and beyond financial disbursements and rather focuses on the whole experience of Armenians, including psychological repair.
Genocide education has a dual purpose. First, it is about trampling the denial of the Armenian Genocide by those who think that erasure is in the power of the deniers. The second purpose of genocide education is to plant seeds in the fertile ground of advocating for public knowledge transfer to a wide cross-section of people who can ensure that the weed of denial cannot choke the justice of reparations. Genocide education advocates must make information accessible that provides everyone with ways to support resolution for historic injustices.
Genocide education is not simply talking about genocides across history. It is the dissemination of information and the encouragement of a consciousness to learn about historic injustices and to act on this knowledge to advocate for repair. Genocide education is difficult because it often involves “unlearning” stereotypes and shedding misinformation. Genocide education is preparing the next generation to advocate for justice for all oppressed and victimized groups that have suffered from genocides and their continuation.
I have travelled from Worcester, Massachusetts to Glendale, California, from Toronto to Quebec, Canada, and from Armenia to Cambodia presenting and teaching on genocides and reparations for the Armenian Genocide. I have educated Armenians and others not on the pain and legacy of continued victimization but also resilience. I have taught and worked on widening the understanding of reparations as not just one act or disbursement but rather as a comprehensive package of repair that addresses not just the monetary obligation of perpetrators but also their moral obligations.
However, I have also been taught. As a lifelong learner, I am well aware that even after seventeen years I cannot know all there is to know concerning the Armenian Genocide and the Armenian people. So with these visits I have listened to my Armenian sisters and brothers about their understanding of the justice struggle for reparations.
Genocide education is also about concerted efforts to become more aware and sensitive to the requirements of justice. One of the roles for genocide education is to not apply “broadbrush” solutions but to situate justice in the specific realities of the genocide about which we are educating others.
As a Black man researching on and advocating for reparations for the Armenian Genocide, I have served up many gasps and stunned stares to audiences across the world. I have been asked about why I would be working on reparations for the Armenian Genocide when I am not Armenian. I have never responded with just one sentence. Rather, I have pointed out the importance of alliances and cross-group advocacy for justice. As the descendant of enslaved Africans transported to the Americas, I completely understand a history of oppression and victimization that has attempted to erase an even longer history of development, civilization and greatness. Both peoples of African descent and Armenians can therefore find common cause and common ground on which to stand and from which to build a justice framework.
Genocide education is exactly what I have described above, educating peoples of African descent, Armenians and all peoples about supporting both causes for reparations for historic injustices and the cause of justice, in general.
Justice Advocacy and Transformative Genocide Education
My work on justice advocacy would not have been possible without the many Armenians and organizations dedicated to fighting for reparations for the Armenian Genocide – organizations important to acknowledge, as there would have been no Jermaine McCalpin working on reparations for the Armenian Genocide without their support and welcome.
September and October 2019 were critical steps in the advocacy journey. In September, I was asked by the ANCA to give the Raphael Lemkin Lecture on Capitol Hill and used the opportunity to articulate a vision of justice for the Armenian Genocide that built on the 5Rs. It was also a reminder of the work that had already been done on reparations for the Armenian Genocide. In this lecture, I also argued against denial and its consequences. A month later, I was presenting at Columbia University under the auspices of its Armenian Center. There, my presentation was about the commonalities of the African American reality and the Armenians relative to how avoidance and denial shape the treatment of justice claims for both groups.
In the end, genocide education is both retrospective and prospective. It reaches back to the past as a way to ensure that denial does not win and that justice is worked on. It stretches to the future ensuring that the generations to follow will remember to do justice as an obligation of those who seek to do the right thing.
My work continues for the realization of reparations as the right step towards resolution of the Armenian Genocide. The longer Turkey takes to recognize this grave injustice, the longer the Armenian Genocide persists. A genocide denied is a genocide continued.
Ultimately, genocide education is transformative, moving the educated from inertia to advocacy; and it is moral, moving us from being neutral against injustice where it is found to doing what is right. Finally, genocide education should be mandatory, moving us from an optional knowing about the past to it being a requirement for all who love humanity.
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