If you follow the news closely, you may have noticed that on April 24, “Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day,” President Joe Biden recognized the starving and slaughtering of more than 1 million Armenians in 1915 in what was known as the Ottoman Empire, or present-day Turkey.
Biden became the first U.S. president to formally equate the violence against Armenians with atrocities on the scale of those committed in Nazi-occupied Europe.
To be honest, I only noticed this because my longest non-family friend is second-generation Armenian American. He must be special, for there are only between 500,000 and 2 million Americans with Armenian backgrounds in the U.S. If not for him, I would have taken my typical, dispassionate academic view and focus on the consequences of Turkey’s displeasure in Biden’s action, but I know that historical events have long-lasting personal impact, not just public national effects.
I’ve known my Armenian American friend for more than 50 years, having met in college and, by chance, gone to the same graduate school. If not for him, I may not have really understood what it means to “grow up ethnic in America.” He showed me how to spot Armenians by looking for clues in the spelling of their last names. Whenever I notice a news item about Armenia, I usually make time to read it.
I recently skimmed Samantha Power’s “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide” at his suggestion.
My family is not so aware, or interested, in our ancestry. We are “mostly Irish,” but not as Irish as the O’Sullivans or O’Malleys. We heard that our ancestors “probably came to the U.S. to avoid the 1840s potato famine” that forced thousands of Irish to leave their homeland, but specific details were seldom discussed. My older sister recalls asking our dad what nationality she should claim on a college application and he replied, “American.”
Pre-1970, my nearly all-white industrial hometown had three Catholic grade schools —Irish, Italian and German — whose heritage I was unaware of until they merged a few years after I graduated. We were aware of families who attended ethnic churches, the synagogue, and the Greek Orthodox Church. There were a couple small ethnic neighborhoods, mostly Slovak and Italian, but I cannot recall talking much about ethnicity. It didn’t seem to matter much — at least not to us at that time, but now I am curious about my classmates’ experiences.
My friend’s grandparents immigrated from Armenia in the early 1900s to escape persecution and starvation. His three-generation family lived together and interacted mostly with fellow Armenians, although they were sometimes from different sects. He spent Saturday mornings in four hours of Armenian School at the church. When his fiancee met his family in the 1980s, his grandmothers showed her photos from Armenia. In the 1970s, he told me that it was insulting to check “other” on application forms because seldom was there a box for “Armenian.”
Today, there is still no “Armenian” box but some of his friends check “Middle-Eastern,” which they are not. He believes there is still ethnic discrimination affecting Armenians often depending on their skin color tone.
My friend’s childhood experience is not unusual— according to the census, 22% of families speak a non-English language at home. To the extent that nonnative English-speaking students face additional obstacles in school and society, they may carry some form of trauma throughout their lives.
Psychologists have recognized that both individual and family experiences may be the source of lifelong negative impacts.
While my family also faced difficulties and obstacles — low income, health crises, five boys sharing one bedroom — none of them did we attribute to not belonging in America or feeling like an “other.” If people didn’t like me, I figured it was me they didn’t like.
It is easy to think about nations as groups of similar people here and now with the same national interest. But that isn’t true.
The U.S. is a collection of nearly 330 million people of differing ages, ethnic background, languages, wealth, health conditions and recollections of the past. Plus, citizens’ understanding of public policy issues may be as different as they are. Some people accept the COVID-19 vaccine, some don’t.
While most citizens are aware of the Nazi Holocaust that killed more than 6 million Jews between 1933 and 1945, they are less aware of similar tragedies involving Native Americans, Rwandans or Bosnians. Part of the lasting impact of these tragedies is the internal conflicts that continue, often not widely known to Americans, and regional conflict among what Americans think of as similar countries.
The U.S. is facing many domestic and foreign policy issues that have generations of diverse history behind them. From racial justice for Native Americans and African Americans to obstacles faced by new immigrants and refugees at our southern border and the Middle East, the notion of a “national interest” is less certain than it was in the 1950s.
“E Pluribus Unum”, translated “Out of Many, One,” was our founders’ goal and is our de facto national motto, appearing on the Great Seal of the United States. “Out of Many, One” was chosen by former president George W. Bush as the title for his new collection of portraits and stories of “inspiring journeys of America’s immigrants and the contributions they make to the life and prosperity of our nation.” It’s good we remember these successes in 2021.