MERCED, Calif.—Peter Balakian became the 7threcipient of the Spendlove Prize for Social Justice, Tolerance, and Diplomacy on Thurs., April 12. The ceremony was held in the Kolligian Library on the University of California Merced campus. The prize, endowed by Sherrie Spendlove in honor of her parents Alice and Clifford Spendlove, has been awarded to distinguished figures including President Jimmy Carter; Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., the director of the Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard University; and Sara O’Meara and Yvonne Fedderson, founders of Childhelp.
In her introduction, Spendlove said, “You may know that President Jimmy Carter was our 5th prize recipient two years ago. No less important to the Spendlove Prize is our 7th prize recipient, Peter Balakian, ‘the American conscience of the Armenian Genocide.’ As the template for 20th century genocide, including the Holocaust, Poland, Rwanda, Cambodia, and Darfur, to mention only some, it is especially important that the Armenian Genocide be restored to our national and international history and social conscience. Peter Balakian’s work is helping to bring this important and tragic story to the forefront to affect a healing process necessary for survivors and perpetrators alike, and the descendants of both. Knowledge and understanding of how genocide happens can help prevent future genocide.”
Spendlove also paid tribute to the contributions of Armenians, noting, “Turkey’s loss has been our gain both in our region and in our nation, as so many Armenian American children of survivors have become distinguished in their chosen fields and have thus moved the consciousness of our civilization forward. The descendants of the Armenian Genocide have not just survived, but thrived. Armenians have flourished and blossomed wherever they have been planted. As you do today, your forbears before you distinguished themselves and added to the communities and nations within which they found themselves. In spite of this fact, present-day Turkey bears a heavy karmic debt that can only be discharged with amends made with an open heart and mind. The recognition of the Armenian Genocide is essential for the healing of survivors and perpetrators alike, their descendents and observers then as well as now. What happens to one of us, happens to us all. Genocide in any part of the world in any epoch is an affront to humanity everywhere in every time.”
In his acceptance speech, Balakian noted, “While I’m happy and honored to be accepting this prize today, I accept the prize with many others in mind who are working for social justice around the world and often giving their lives for ethical commitments and causes, and with all those who have made such essential contributions to the scholarly study of the Armenian Genocide. I also feel that as you honor me, more importantly, you honor the issue of the Armenian Genocide as an ongoing history that embodies various and profound dimensions of tragedy, human survival, resilience, and affirmation; a history that carries with it an open wound that still haunts its legacy because of the Turkish government’s continued, multimillion-dollar campaign of denial.”
Balakian went on to discuss the need for bystanders to act. “I hope all of us here and on your campus and in all our communities make a lifelong pledge to step up, step in, act—when you see a circumstance of cruelty, injustice, or abuses of power happening. We can all be active bystanders whether it’s standing up to governments that deny responsibility for human rights crimes, or to individuals who are abusing or bullying innocent people in our own daily lives. It makes a difference if we all get involved as citizens in social justice issues in one’s community, state, nation, or wider world. Action guided by knowledge and conscience is a powerful thing.”
Balakian gave two lectures at UC Merced and then completed the prize ceremonies on April 13 at Fresno State University, where he gave two more lectures and was hosted by Prof. Barlow der Mugrdechian, Prof. Sergio La Porta, Isberian Chair in Armenian Studies, and Fresno community leader Larry Balakian.
Peter Balakian is the Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor of the Humanities in the department of English at Colgate University and the author of many books, including Black Dog of Fate, winner of the PEN/Albrand Prize, The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response, winner of the Raphael Lemkin Prize, and six books of poems most recently Ziggurat.