On being an Armenian-American in the Spring: Performing Identity through Genocide Recognition

April 7, 2010 at 12:53 am (Armenian-ness, diaspora, genocide, Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

I started to question the relationship between my identity as an Armenian-American and the campaign for genocide recognition last spring.  At the time, I was working with the Armenian Student Association at the University of Chicago on an event to commemorate the genocide.  I was asking myself and my fellow students: how do we, how can we commemorate the genocide?

Armenian genocide remembrance day is on April 24th, but the day is loaded with so much more than just memory.  This spring, as April 24th rounds the bend, I can outline pattern of emotion and action:

– Pre-April 24th speculation of what might happen commences after the holidays in diasporan presses, Armenian political and cultural circuits, and, in part by osmosis, the American media machine.

– There are campaign promises to the Armenian-American community be upheld or broken.  There are petitions, letters to the editor, diligent follow ups, and a huge public relations push by both the Armenian and Turkish lobbies.

– Suspense builds.  Will the committee/house/senate acknowledge the genocide?  Will my senator/president stand up for the truth?

– There is the volatile situation of the year, be it the war in Iraq, the “road map” between Armenia and Turkey, or, as is the case this year, the war in Iraq and now the delicate protocol approval process.  There is always something to be lost for American-Turkish diplomatic relations if the US recognizes the genocide – an ambassador, at the very least.

– What begins as a media simmer turns into a full boil as the big dogs make their statements by April: Christopher Hitchens, Robert Fisk, John Evans, Orhan Pamuk – non-Armenians brought into the studio or quoted in articles to balance arguments from the deep state Turkish side of the story.  That the Armenian ‘side’ is always countered with the official Turkish line adds insult to injury.

– April is the one month of the year when Armenians and their interests can be assured press coverage.  As a result, it is also the time of year when Armenians are most often referred to as a monolithic entity.  Whether we are referred to as Armenians or as ‘the’ diaspora, we are primarily portrayed in the collective, with identical interests.  Because April 24th is also the main push for genocide recognition, that collective identity, broadcasted annually, is pro-genocide recognition.

– By April 23rd, the Armenian community in America awaits the decision of its government in a dither built up from years of frustration paired with intense media coverage and, of course, the pain of commemorating another anniversary of the event that created their existence in dispersion.

– The president’s annual commemoration address creates a media event all on its own: how he phrases it is always a subject of speculation, anticipation, and, usually, disappointment.

– Ultimately, whatever is uttered on the 24th by the president or our community leaders is never sufficient to commemorate the deaths of our ancestors and, yet, year after year we go through this hellish roller coaster of pain, denial, and mourning.

Whether or not one is actively involved in the campaign for genocide recognition – by virtue of being Armenian in the United States one is subsumed into the ephemeral monolithic Armenian identity that hits the streets every April.  A combination of guaranteed, pre-April 24th media coverage and the intense efforts of diasporan political and cultural organizations creates the outline of an Armenian identity that is pro-genocide recognition.  This outline is fleshed-out by Armenian-Americans whose Armenian-ness is just one of multiple identities they wear at any one time.  The pattern of emotion and action I describe above allows ethnic, but not necessarily active, Armenians to perform their Armenian-ness through pre-organized and publicized channels.  Turkey’s utter denial of the genocide and opportunities for the United States to recognize it prompt diasporan passion and action.  Writing to one’s senator, signing a petition, or nodding one’s head at the television or church event as someone stands up for genocide recognition become moments of performance.   Through performance, one enters something bigger, if only for a moment, a month, or a season.  Threatened by assimilation, diasporans turn to performance to receive the warm embrace of an identity that is strong, vibrant, and needs them.

I point this out not to condemn the organizers or the performers, but to suggest the role that such a performance plays into homogenizing Armenian-diasporan identity in America.  By filling in this shell of Armenian-American identity, one forgoes the more challenging task of uncovering one’s personal relationship with one’s cultural heritage.  It is much easier to perform an Armenian identity in the ways expected on pre-designated dates than to explore the nature of being Armenian in the United States on, say, a Thursday in August.

The challenge with respect to April 24th is to commemorate without the hate – that is – to commemorate the event that shredded the social fabric of our ancestors’ communities without  focusing on modern Turkey’s denial or Barack Obama’s word choice.  The genocide scattered Armenians throughout the world where they established roots and raised the bulk of today’s diaspora in dispersion.  Now mature, the diaspora owes it to our ancestors to fight for justice, but not at the expense of nurturing our own, personal identies as Armenians.

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2 Comments

  1. Chant said,

    Excellent post.

    “Through performance, one enters something bigger, if only for a moment, a month, or a season.”

    Great riff, and true across many contexts.

  2. Aram Suren Hamparian said,

    Thank you for this thoughtful and thought-provoking piece.

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