Black in Armenia
“Where are you from?”
“No, like where are you really from?”
“What’s your nationality?”
“I mean where are your parents and grandparents from?”
Maya Killingsworth, 26-year-old Peace Corps Volunteer in Armenia, recalls the countless interactions with Armenian host country nationals, in which the preceding dialogue has taken place, concerning her ancestry and heritage. The concept of national identity and its preservation is of utmost importance for Armenians, which is mostly because of the slaughter of millions of Armenians in 1915, during World War I. As a result of this, Armenians scattered throughout the world and many Armenian diaspora communities around the world came into being.
So even though for the Armenian people there is usually no distinction between race, ethnicity and nationality, these questions usually cause this common and confusing miscommunication. Maya has chosen to take these challenging discussions and turn them into teachable moments and positive interactions, allowing her to talk to the Armenian people about her history and the many similarities that exist between the two. This creates understanding and empathy, and dismantles the common misconception that America lacks diversity.
Imagine a young African American woman walking through the streets of Armenia, a country that is 98.1% homogeneous. “I was automatically ‘exotified.’ It felt like I was being looked at as a spectacle – not as a human being,” says Maya. “Even now people stare at me and take pictures of me left and right. It is very jarring for me. Although my school prepared students for my arrival, there were some students in my English clubs who were asking me why I wasn’t white, and how I can be American if I am not white.”
When Maya began her service, she realized that it would not be a piece of cake, and this new blank page of her life was going to be covered by obstacles. Nonetheless, Maya embarked on this journey, and soon witnessed the daily struggle of her fellow Black volunteers. In response, Maya and her friend Jacqueline Grant created A.C.T. (African-Americans Challenging Traditions), which aims to give voice to African-American experiences and perspectives.
“We started working on trainings, educational tools and curriculum that teaches Armenians about the diversity that exists in America, about our struggle in America and how that translates into our experiences as volunteers in Armenia,” she says. Along with fellow Peace Corps Volunteer, Alicia Easley, Maya led a discussion series in Yerevan, entitled “Black in Armenia: Bridging the Gap,” which discussed topics such as identity, race, stereotypes, cultural appropriation, and Black history. A.C.T. plans to spread these discussions to other regions throughout Armenia in order to contribute to the creation of a more pleasant and open environment for all foreigners.
With all its ups and down, Maya’s Armenian experience continues to be a valuable lesson that she uses to persevere through ongoing challenges. “Being here in Armenia has allowed me to recognize and acknowledge how similar Armenian and African American cultures are, because of our shared histories. It has also allowed me to live out those similarities in a way that I’d never have been able to in America; it’s allowed me to get in touch more with my ancestry and my roots. Without Armenia, my host families, or the Armenian community, I would not have been able to recognize these cultural and historical similarities. Armenia has allowed me to grow and find myself in ways that I didn’t know were possible” says Maya.
It is hard to fight against reinforced perceptions and years of education with textbooks that teach children to use the “n” word while addressing African Americans. But not for Maya; she’s determined to win both the battle and the war. “Every day I am not just fighting for African-American rights, but my own rights, and I’ll never get tired of that or consider giving up. I hope to dismantle these misconceptions and stereotypes of my people, our history and our culture through positive interactions and impactful discussions,” concludes Maya.
Sipping her Armenian coffee, which is now her favorite, Maya looks out of the window and smiles to passersby who give her the “what are you doing here” look. To these people, Maya has only one thing to say, “our histories, cultures and traditions, are more alike than they are different, but it is our differences that create this common thread, and ultimately unites us.”
- Gayane Aghabalyan
A.C.T. Flex Alumni Leader