What Do We Do With a Difficult Past?

Posted by Mary Hendra on April 23, 2014

History shapes our identity. Our own history - of course. But, "our own history" is also the history of our family, our ethnic heritage, our country, and perhaps also our world. One of the histories I came to know as a Facing History teacher, and have come to love teaching as a staff member for Facing History, is that of the Armenian genocide. This incredibly difficult history has so many lessons for us today, and lingering legacies with which we must continue to grapple.

AG Cover 300 dpiOn April 24, 1915, the religious, political, and intellectual leaders of the Armenian people were rounded up and killed, marking the beginning of what is now identified as the Armenian genocide.

It is from the case of the Armenians, that the seeds were planted for the word "genocide." It is from the Armenian genocide that Hitler learned that a genocide during wartime could be overlooked by others. It is from the Armenian genocide that Americans learned they could mobilize a massive humanitarian campaign - the effort during World War I remains one of the biggest efforts in our country's history.

And so, though I am not Armenian, this is my history, too.

We often begin our seminar on the Armenian genocide with a poem. In observance of National Poetry Month, I offer it here for you as well. There are some beautiful poems in our book, Crimes Against Humanity and Civilization, which are specific to Armenian American identity. But, I also like to start with this one, "The Past" by the Chinese American Ha Jin (found in our Becoming American study guide):


I have supposed my past is a part of myself.
As my shadow appears whenever I'm in the sun
the past cannot be thrown off and its weight
must be borne, or I will become another man.
But I saw someone wall his past into a garden
whose produce is always in fashion.
If you enter his property without permission
he will welcome you with a watchdog or a gun.
I saw someone set up his past as a harbor.
Wherever it sails, his boat is safe--
if a storm comes, he can always head for home.
His voyage is the adventure of a kite.
I saw someone drop his past like trash.
He buried it and shed it altogether.
He has shown me that without the past
one can also move ahead and get somewhere.
Like a shroud my past surrounds me,
but I will cut it and stitch it,
to make good shoes with it,
shoes that fit my feet.

What do you do with a difficult past? In this month full of genocide remembrances, how do we help our students acknowledge, identify the legacies, and choose to participate in creating the kind of society they want to have? What histories will you claim as your own? And, what will that past mean to you?

To learn more about the Armenian genocide:

  • DOWNLOAD our resource book (for free) by clicking here.
  • CONSIDER lessons, videos, and other resources to teach this history by clicking here.
  • VISIT the local memorial to victims of genocide or PREVIEW it from our blog post last year by clicking here.
  • REGISTER for our 2-day seminar on the Armenian Genocide and International Justice by clicking here.

Topics: Armenian Genocide

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