As a leading voice for genocide recognition, Peter Balakian faces the traumas of a violent history, unceasing assaults on truth, and a continuing struggle for justice and restitution.
“The struggle for a just world is an ongoing human enterprise, there’s no doubt about that,” said the prize-winning author and poet during a public lecture on Friday, April 13.
Balakian was awarded this year’s Alice and Clifford Spendlove Prize for Social Justice, Diplomacy and Tolerance for his conscientious works about the annihilation of a million and a half Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Turks. As the seventh recipient of the prize, Balakian joins a list of prominent figures such as former President Jimmy Carter and former California Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso.
Sherrie Spendlove, founder of the Spendlove Prize, introduced Balakian as the “American conscience of the Armenian genocide” to an audience of students, faculty, staff and community members.
In poignant statements ex plaining the history and aftermath of the 1915 Armenian genocide, Balakian repeatedly reminded the audience that understanding history is crucial to a commitment to social justice.
“Action guided by knowledge and conscience is a necessary thing if we’re going to help the human species survive in the coming epic,” said Balakian.
A descendant of survivors of the Armenian genocide himself, Balakian spoke of the “open wound” that lives on to this day among the surviving Armenian population. He mentioned his renowned memoir, The Black Dog of Fate, which recounts his experience learning about his family’s dark history.
“Peter Balakian’s work is helping to bring this important and tragic story to the forefront to affect the healing process necessary for survivors and perpetrators alike, and the descendants of both,” said Spendlove.
Balakian said that he is honored to have been awarded the Spendlove Prize and is especially moved by the fact that the issue of the Armenian genocide and the Turkish government’s attempts to expunge it from world history are recognized as pressing social justice issues.
As the template for the modern-day form of genocide, Balakian focused his lecture largely on the relevance of the Armenian genocide to the world’s current understanding of modern age.
Apart from giving the audience a rundown of the horrific events of 1915, Balakian called attention to the ongoing campaign of the Turkish government to deny the massacre of countless Armenians.
“The denial of genocide is the final stage of genocide, because it seeks to demonize the victims and rehabilitate the perpetrators,” said Balakian. He noted that the nine decades-long campaign of denial is “an ongoing traumatic reality” all Armenians face today.
Addressing the students in the audience, Balakian said that he is glad to see that students are concerned about social justice issues. He reminds the audience that social justice and tolerance “begin in daily life.”
“The existence of this prize here on this campus,” said Balakian, “calls all of you as a community…to an ethical concern and a commitment to thinking about social justice.”
Anthropology major Michael Lane called Balakian’s work inspring. “Putting events like this into proper context and studying their implications is vital to understanding our current world,” he said.
“I think Professor Balakian’s effort to educate people about the Armenian genocide is a noble thing,” said CSE major Ricardo Morillon. “His coming here will help to inform the campus about it, too.”
Asked to comment about the campus’s cultural diversity, Balakian said that he was happy for the UC Merced. “You get educated well just by being in it, just by talking to people from other cultures, other histories, other threads to the planet.”