Is “American concentration camp” an oxymoron?

This week in North Philly Notes, Rachel Schreiber writes about the legacy of the pioneering Jewish activist and subject of her new book, Elaine Black Yoneda.

In June of 2019 Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez set off a firestorm when she described Fort Sill army base in Oklahoma as a “concentration camp,” while decrying the Trump administration’s use of that site to detain children crossing into the U.S. from the southern border. It was not the first time Fort Sill had been used this way — the Obama administration had used the site for the same purpose in 2014. Earlier, in the last century, over 700 Japanese Americans were incarcerated at Fort Sill after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In response to Ocasio-Cortez’s use of the term, Representative Liz Cheney tweeted, “6 million Jews were exterminated in the Holocaust. You demean their memory and disgrace yourself with comments like this.”

            The usage of “concentration camp” has been disputed since the end of World War II, when its meaning became overdetermined by the Nazi camps in Europe. When I tell people that I have written a biography of a Jewish woman, named Elaine Black Yoneda, who spent time in a concentration camp in California, they often express surprise. In the U.S., we like to believe concentration camps belong to a distant, fascist, and genocidal regime. Elaine’s story, more than simply producing dissonance, pointedly crystallizes the hypocrisy of the U.S. claim for the need to exclude and incarcerate a population of U.S. citizens based on a racialized designation, at the very same time as fighting a European war to oppose an analogous system of classification. Elaine was married to a Japanese American man, Karl Yoneda, and at the time of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, their son Tommy was three years old. When Elaine learned that Tommy would be incarcerated at the Manzanar War Relocation Center, she insisted on going with him. (Karl had arrived at Manzanar a few days prior. He had been led to believe that he would have paid work there, but upon his arrival, quickly realized that he was a prisoner.)

            Cheney prefaced her comments on Twitter to Ocasio-Cortez by saying, “Please @AOC do us all a favor and spend just a few minutes learning some actual history.” But it seems to be Cheney who requires the history lesson. In his essay, “Words Do Matter A note on the Inappropriate Terminology and the Incarceration of the Japanese Americans,historian Roger Daniels demonstrates that, during World War II, various high level public figures used the term “concentration camp” to describe sites of Japanese American incarceration. (Daniels further explains that “internment” is a legal term that is not appropriate to the history of Japanese American incarceration, as a country cannot intern its own citizens.) Yet after the Allied Forces’ liberation of the camps in Europe and their full horror was revealed, there was a shift in favor of euphemisms including “evacuation” or “relocation” centers, and “internment camps.” (See Andrea Pitzer’s One Long Night for more on this.) Even today, most people speak of the “internment” of Japanese Americans during the war (and indeed, it is the accepted usage in the New York Times articles cited here).

            Scholars now distinguish between Nazi concentration camps and death camps – the former could include forced labor camps, for example, while the latter had one purpose. Pitzer defines them as spaces that “house civilians rather than combatants” or prisoners, and most often are established by state policy. And yet, not all concentration camps are alike. Even in a 1942 interview, Elaine Yoneda insisted that “we couldn’t equate [Manzanar] to the Hitler camps and their ovens; they weren’t anything like that.” Indeed, Elaine held an optimistic view of life at Manzanar, writing cheerful letters to friends describing her jobs and her social life there. Meanwhile, the privations were real, and her son’s health deteriorated significantly while there. But it wasn’t until internecine political divisions within the camp resulted in a full-scale violent revolt, Elaine and Tommy’s lives were threatened, and Karl had left to enlist in the U.S. Army that she insisted on returning to San Francisco with her son.

            After the war, Elaine and Karl participated in the effort to designate the site of the Manzanar Relocation Center a memorial. In 1971, the California State Department of Parks and Recreation agreed to post a plaque at the site. The Committee proposed the following language:

In the early part of World War II, 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry were interned in relocation centers by Executive Order 9066, issued on February 19, 1942.

Manzanar, the first of ten such concentration camps, was bounded by barbed wire and guard towers, confining 10,000 persons, the majority being American citizens.

May the injustices of humiliation suffered here as a result of hysteria, racism, and economic exploitation never emerge again.

The officials from the State Department objected to the use of “racism” and “concentration camp,” but eventually the Committee succeeded in obtaining approval. It is notable, however, that “internment” and “relocation” are also included.

            The plaque invokes the theme “never again,” a phrase commonly used in relation to Holocaust remembrance. Unfortunately, though we repeat that phrase often, it seems that “history repeats itself” is the more true statement. The U.S. history of blaming a racialized other in moments of crisis is longstanding and continues today, as evidenced in myriad ways, from the treatment of those crossing our southern border in search of safety and security, to anti-Asian violence during the pandemic. At the time that Ocasio-Cortez denounced Trump’s use of Fort Sill, over 200 people gathered to protest at the base, among them Japanese Americans who had themselves been incarcerated there, as well as Indigenous Americans who were there to remember and honor the Chiricahua Apache were held at Fort Sill in the nineteenth century. Elaine Yoneda spent eight months at Manzanar in 1942. She was one among the estimated 127,000 Americans who spent a portion of the war in concentration camps in the U.S. The unconstitutional and illegal violation of all of their civil rights serves to remind us of the dangers of anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy, and our imperative to be ever vigilant to recognize and oppose such xenophobia.

Observations on the anniversary of the Partition of India

This week in North Philly Notes, Kavita Daiya, author of the forthcoming Graphic Migrationswrites about global media representations of migration on the 73rd anniversary of the Partition of India.

What do the Google commercial “Reunion,” the Bollywood film Raazi (Agree), Shauna Singh Baldwin’s award-winning novel What The Body Remembers  and the oral history project 1947 Partition Archive all have in common? They all do transnational memory work and remember the mass migrations of the 1947 Partition of India.

This past weekend marked the 73rd anniversary of the decolonization and division of India, and the end of British colonialism. It also marked the creation of two independent nations: Pakistan came into being on August 14, 1947, and India became a new secular democratic nation on August 15, 1947. The partitioning of India in 1947 generated the world’s largest mass migration in under nine months: between 12 and 16 million people migrated across the newly etched borders.

Graphic MigrationsIn my forthcoming book Graphic Migrations, I describe the legacies of this pivotal moment in British and South Asian history, with a focus on migrant and refugee experiences. As such, this book uncovers the effects of this Partition on both India and the South Asian diaspora in North America. I am especially interested in how different media represent the precarity of migrants’ and refugees’ lives, as well as their descendants. I map how this precarity is memorialized across media, in ways that create empathy and solidarity for the shared humanity of migrants and citizens.

For example, I analyze South Asian American fiction by writers including Shauna Singh Baldwin and Bapsi Sidhwa as well as Hindi art films like Shyam Benegal’s Mammo; Bollywood cinema, as well as the new genre I call “border-crossing” advertising. In addition, I discuss graphic narratives from Vishwajyoti Ghosh’s This Side, That Side: Restorying Partition, the Digital Humanities oral history project 1947 Partition Archive as well as photography by Margaret Bourke-White and Annu Palakunnathu Matthew. This book’s archive is thus eclectic and cross-media, capturing how the Partition migrations are inscribed or erased in public culture in India and its diaspora.

Graphic Migrations is poised at the intersection of Asian American Studies and Postcolonial Studies. It draws upon and extends new directions in Asian American Studies, especially Critical Refugee Studies.  These new directions take a transnational lens to understand how twentieth century conflicts and displacement in Asia have shaped Asian American history. My book’s feminist orientation means that gender is a central part of the story I tell. Talal Asad’s influential theory of the secular in Formations of the Secular is also central here, given that the Partition focalized religious difference. Central to this book’s story is the inspiration of the noted political philosopher Hannah Arendt’s brilliant analysis of statelessness, which, as she argued in The Origins of Totalitarianism, was the defining feature and product of the twentieth century.

My book considers several issues that emerge out of the 1947 Partition and its transnational impact. It explores the complexities of statelessness in India as well as South Asia, and asks: Why has this momentous displacement not been widely memorialized, until recently? How did refugees’ stories, labor, and losses shape ideas about religion, secularism, and belonging in public culture? How were female refugees’ experiences different, and with what consequences? What alternative modes of imagining community and planetary cohabitation, including ‘the secular,’ do stories about statelessness offer us today?

Graphic Migrations is timely and relevant now. More people than even before are migrating or displaced because of war, conflict, poverty, environmental devastation, and other reasons. By one estimate, there are 10 million stateless people, and there are 272 million migrants in the world today. This raises urgent issues about human rights and social justice for nations around the world, who must work together to end statelessness.

My book is a profound reminder of the contemporary stakes of studying the experiences and impact of decolonization and nation-formation in 1947 South Asia, in a transnational feminist mode.

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