The title for this article is inspired by President Joe Biden’s statement on April 24, Armenian Remembrance Day, in which the United States officially recognized the Armenian Genocide of 1915. This moment of recognition reminds me there is a vast difference between involuntary forgetting and intentional banishment from memory.
A case in point would be the Armenian Genocide, which was the systematic murder of up to 1.5 million Armenians, Assyrians, Syrians and Greeks during World War I by the Young Turk regime of the new state of Turkey. Both the United States and Turkey have continued to deny officially this fist holocaust of the 20th century, with the exception of President Reagan, who labeled it a genocide during his presidency, and President Biden, who followed suit this year.
The Armenian Genocide is remembered widely by children of survivors, and scholars (including a handful of progressive Turkish academics). It is further documented by rare film and photographic footage. Museums have taken part in commemorating this dark chapter of history. In 1990, at the re-opening exhibition at the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration, protestors representing Turkish deniers of the genocide succeeded in having troubling images of the genocide removed, only to be replaced by even more shocking images whose veracity was proven. While some objected to the graphic nature of the images that would be seen by schoolchildren, it was determined these historically accurate photos were a crucial part of the narrative. And there they remain as aide-memoires for the hundreds of thousands of visitors the museum receives each year.
Memory is a moral issue, writes historian Peter Balakian. As Hitler confirmed at the end of his speech at Obersalzberg on Aug. 22, 1939, a week before Germany invaded Poland and thus sparked World War II, Germany would find more “Lebensraum,” or “living space,” by destroying its enemies and sending “to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language.” When questioned by those who thought this plan unfeasible, Hitler replied, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” This last phrase is inscribed on a wall of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., urging us never to forget, always remember each and every holocaust, lest we let them become precedents for future acts of terror.
For if historical atrocities are not officially recognized and at the very least not remembered, then what would stop other persecutors like Stalin, Mao, the Khmer Rouge, Pinochet, the Hutus, Saddam Hussein and the recent slaughter of Uyghur Muslims by the Chinese government and of the Rohingya by the military of Myanmar? The point is that the first genocide of the 20th century has been immorally forgotten, partly because very little physical evidence remains. But it happened, nevertheless.
Architectural historian Adrian Forty asks, “How does forgetting occur, and what do material objects have to do with it?” As we witness with regularity the teardown of monuments extolling the victors, what is emerging with deliberate frequency are the memorials for victims.
In the anonymous “Field of Stelae” in Berlin, 2,711 concrete blocks of a range of heights memorialize the victims of the Holocaust. Similarly, the hanging stelae at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, commonly known as the National Lynching Memorial, commemorate the victims of racial terrorism in the United States. Astonishing in its elegance, ease of access, yet a no-holds-barred deep dive into one of our nation’s most appallingly protracted chapters, this memorial soberly calls out and documents nearly all locations where lynchings occurred in the U.S.
Complete with a visitor’s center, educational films, and publications telling the story of racial realities in the United States, this sacred space of memory in Montgomery, Ala., also furnishes communities far and wide with a matching stela inscribed with the county and state where lynchings occurred.
There is a stela with the following:
Dougherty County, Georgia and its two lynching victims:
As other counties far and wide have done, let’s install this memorial in Albany, the seat of Dougherty County, and never forget to remember to remember, lest our forgetting sets a precedent for more racial violence tomorrow.
A stela at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., is a reminder of two lynchings that occurred in Dougherty County. Thomas Royal was murdered in 1906, and Curley McKelvey in 1920. (Photo: Andrew J. Wulf/Albany Museum of Art)