A controversy recently erupted (“Portland mayor’s proclamation accidentally opens old wounds,” by Staff Writer Randy Billings, Feb. 26, Page A1) over Portland Mayor Kate Snyder’s proclamation of last Friday as “Khojaly Remembrance Day.” The proclamation was in response to a request by Portland-area residents of Azerbaijani descent. In turn, the proclamation set off a controversy with some in the local Armenian community, who objected to, among other things, the use of the word “genocide” to describe what was admittedly a massacre of Azeris by Armenian and Soviet forces in 1992. Armenians are understandably angry about the fact that Turkey and others refuse to recognize the massacres and actual genocide against the Armenians in the early 20th century. They seem to see the acknowledgment of the killings of the Azeris as a kind of politically motivated moral equivalency, perhaps aimed at Armenians in general.

“Conflicts, past and present, in the rest of the world reverberate here. They represent our views of our past and also shape our landscape,” retired USM historian Eileen Eagan writes. Voronin76/Shutterstock.com

The mayor, or her staff, apparently didn’t look into the facts or context of the case. Perhaps they did not know anything about it, as sadly many people don’t. They simply approved the proclamation, unaware that it would stir a controversy. The lesson here is that it would be well if the mayor or her staff and the City Council and other governmental bodies here and elsewhere would consult historians about historical issues. However fair a request may seem – and massacres, however you describe them, are horrible – well, facts matter, as does context. There is a whole history department that is about a mile away from City Hall, and it is ready, and I assume willing, to be consulted. Some historians in particular could speak to these events and issues about what constitutes genocide.

The issue of proclamations, monuments, statues and historical commemoration can stir up deep feelings – and, yes, sometimes be used for political purposes or lead to fights. However, these controversies can also broaden our views and understanding of the past, including conflicts here and in the rest of the world. People who came to the United States and to Maine, whether freely or forcibly, did not leave their past and hearts at the door. Native Americans did not get amnesia when their lands were taken over.

Memories last, though sometimes change, especially collectively. Conflicts, past and present, in the rest of the world reverberate here. They represent our views of our past and also shape our landscape. In addition to the Armenian Genocide memorial on Cumberland Avenue, mentioned in the Feb. 26 article, Portland is home to a Holocaust memorial and an Irish Famine memorial. The Freedom Trail, and public art about Black history (and the Women’s History Trail and immigrant and ethnic-based walks) also reflect ties to the world and its conflicts.

As these new views of Portland’s history develop, they are an increasing visual reminder of our ties to the rest of the world and its and our past. This inevitably reminds us of conflicts and our different views of history and experiences. This may lead to conflicting interpretations, but this, after all, is why we have new books about old subjects, classes and historians and scholars who try to find the truth. And yes, right in Portland, at the University of Southern Maine (and at other local institutions), there are good historians and other scholars who the city could consult – not instead of talking to the relevant communities, but in addition to doing so.

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