Professor Janice Okoomian (courtesy Janice Okoomian)

Rhode Island College Professor Okoomian Reacts to Presidential Genocide Affirmation on Public Radio

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PROVIDENCE – Rhode Island College professor Janice Okoomian was interviewed by Rhode Island’s public radio station, the local National Public Radio (NPR) affiliate, about her reaction to President Joe Biden’s recent affirmation of the Armenian Genocide.

Dr. Okoomian writes, “While President Biden’s declaration is important to the geopolitics of the current situation with Turkey and Azerbaijan, the focus of this interview was more about how I think the declaration might affect the psyches of Armenian American descendants of genocide survivors. I spoke about the way the declaration helps us feel visible in the U.S. and how it begins to heal some of our inherited trauma. I also expressed my hope that our Armenian genocide legacy will prompt Armenian Americans to support those who experience racism in the US. In addition to my comments about the Black Lives Matter movement, which you will hear in the interview, I also believe there are echoes of genocidal logic in the way immigrant refugees have been characterized and treated at the southern US. borders. Additionally, as I write, I am conscious of the very sad irony that I now live on land that once belonged to the Wampanoag nation, who were dispossessed of their ancestral land. A number of my students, who previously knew nothing about Armenians, have heard the interview and responded positively, many of them connecting the Armenian experience with their own experience of racism.”

The transcribed May 4 interview on the Mosaic program follows, taken with permission from the Publics Radio website.

On April 24th, President Biden formally recognized the Armenian Genocide of 1915. While the horrific events of this genocide occurred over 100 years ago, the lack of formal recognition of the violent acts has had a damaging effect on Armenian American communities. Dr. Janice Okoomian is Assistant Professor of English and Gender and Women’s studies at Rhode Island College. She’s also Armenian. Dr. Okoomian spoke with Mosaic host Ana Gonzalez about what this statement means to her.

GONZÁLEZ: Janice, thank you so much for being here with me.

OKOOMIAN: Thanks for having me.

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GONZÁLEZ: When you heard or read President Biden’s announcement that he was stating that there was, in fact, a genocide in Armenia, what did you think? What did you feel when you heard that?

OKOOMIAN: Well, I felt that this was a long time in coming. You know, this genocide is woven very, very deeply into the psyches of all Armenians. And that includes not just the survivors who most of whom have passed on, but also their descendants, people like me, who carry the weight of this past on our shoulders. It was a pretty big deal for me, sort of emotionally. And he did this on April 24, which is the day that Armenians commemorate the Armenian Genocide, because that’s the day in 1915, when 500 intellectuals and leaders were rounded up in Constantinople, and it was the very beginning of the Armenian genocide.

GONZÁLEZ: Growing up, what did you learn about the genocide? Like, how did your family talk to you about it?

OKOOMIAN: Well, when I was very little, they didn’t say anything about it, because they didn’t want me to be, you know, harmed, I think, by that terrible knowledge. So, I don’t have specific memories of like, when my parents sat me down and said, this is what happened. But I do know that my grandfather, whose sister perished in the genocide, went to his grave without telling us what happened to her, you know. And in 1915, 1920, there was no concept of post traumatic stress disorder. So the survivors mostly, many of them never said anything. And that takes a real toll on the psyche.

So to have the country that we live in now, those of us who, whose ancestors migrated to the United States to have our country affirm that what happens to us between 1915 and 1923 was in fact, not just random killings, not just for war but a planned program to exterminate an entire people – that’s what a genocide is– you know, it’s gratifying. And it and it feels like we’re being, at long last, lifted up and supported by our nation.

GONZÁLEZ: Beyond, you know that gratification and the support, are there any, I guess material impacts of this announcement? Or is that gratification, that support, good enough?

OKOOMIAN: Because I teach about gender and race in the US, as well as my work on Armenian American literature, the lessons of something like the Armenian Genocide for Armenian Americans really have to carry us towards solidarity with the peoples in the United States who are suffering now. I am thinking about, you know, the Black Lives Matter movement and the way that the treatment of black peoples by law enforcement, it’s a little bit like maybe that experience of, of the denial of the genocide, it’s like, the powers that be are denying the reality. Not all of them, but some of them. And these are acts that even though we’re not in a full blown genocide, right now, in the US, these are some of the kinds of, of tactics and characterizations of the racial other that are very similar. So I think that it’s essential for us, Armenians and otherwise, to understand that, you know, if one group is in chains, no one is free.

GONZÁLEZ: Absolutely, yeah. It’s even in the name of, like, Black Lives Matter, right? Like, that is a statement. And it’s so similar to saying it was a genocide, right? Like, these lives mattered. And it’s it’s the same mentality or it’s not. It’s not raising up a life higher than another, but it’s raising up a subjugated life to more of the plane of existence.

OKOOMIAN: Right. And it all begins with telling the truth.

GONZÁLEZ: Janice Okoomian, thanks for speaking with us today.

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