Tattered Archives: On Stories That Tell Too Much–and Never Enough

This week in North Philly Notes, George Uba, author of Water Thicker Than Blood, reflects on his memoir.

My mother, were she still alive, would feel humiliated, and deeply hurt, to see it in print. I’m speaking of my memoir Water Thicker Than Blood. Even after all the years spent drafting, revising, compacting, and completing it, I cannot escape that hard fact.

That the book also offers an unflattering portrayal of me makes no difference. A cringeworthy childhood, what’s new about that? But the other depiction, she was in certain respects awful, my mom. Explosive, resentful, vindictive. Relentlessly critical. Violent in words, even in actions. And now I am pulling secrets from the family vault. To what end? Even more, at a time when the figure portrayed, the one who did soften over time and was genuinely liked by many, cannot possibly mount a defense.

The glimpse my book provides is partial, fragmented, incommensurate with the complex, wounded, charitable being that constituted my mother as a whole. This is a point I shall return to.   

But first I’d like to comment on a recent Zoom meeting in which I was asked to discuss Water Thicker Than Blood in relation to Saidiya Hartman’s concept of critical fabulation.

In writing my memoir, I was not thinking of Hartman’s groundbreaking call for a reckoning with the starkly limited archive devoted to African women in the Middle Passage—for a different kind of engagement with history, one amenable to narrative and storytelling, to imagining what cannot be verified even while respecting the limits of the knowable. I was not thinking of Hartman, but I sensed a harmony in our thinking.

One small example is that at various junctures in my book I issue a declarative statement, which I afterwards revise or correct. I use this device in part because I am stating something I may once have believed to be true (“The body is over 90% water”), but in part because I wish, like Hartman, to unsettle the authority of the “author-ized” account, whose command of the truth and of the past should be contested. I am reminded of how in Hartman’s essay “Venus in Two Acts,” the very act of quoting from a slave ship captain’s trial transcript uncovers the gaps, omissions, and questions latent within the official record.

My forays into Japanese folklore, myth, and legend constitute efforts to introduce cultural elements largely suppressed under Japanese America’s postwar imperative to mimic white Americans and downplay differences. This strategy works in concert, I think, with Hartman’s championing of counter-histories to amplify and disrupt the conventional protocols of history.    

My epilogue contains references to Emmett Till and to a racist, anti-Japanese sign appearing in a store window shortly after the attack at Pearl Harbor. While my book’s general trajectory follows my awkward climb toward political awareness and a more complex understanding of myself and others, I wanted to end by reminding readers that racial hatred, as well as racial violence, was the underlying driver behind the damaging postwar ideology of belonging, just as it was the immediate driver behind the concentration camps themselves.

The epilogue doubles back to the book’s first chapter, wherein I describe the impact of Pearl Harbor on Japanese American communities in Southern California, but also to the book’s Acknowledgments pages, wherein I decry the upsurge in anti-Asian hate crimes and hate acts since the start of the pandemic. For Hartman, writing the past is inseparable from writing the present, as well as the condition for envisioning a free future. By violating the presumed boundaries of the memoir as enclosed historical artifact, I attempt to convey a similar idea. My hope all along has been to add something original to the historical archive and to negotiate with it at the same time.         

I mentioned above that my mother could be awful. Would it be a stretch to believe that she saw herself as the exact opposite? That she saw herself as the best possible—because of her unrelenting vigilance—Nisei mother? That the ideology of belonging produced her? At least as I, in my limited capacities as a child, came to understand her?

Being accepted, being accepted specifically by white Americans, even if it meant accepting a second-class citizenship, was an idea familiar to multiple generations of Japanese in America following the war. Sometimes, as in my mother’s case, it became the foundation of their childrearing philosophy, a bedrock principle only heightened by midcentury disciplinary practices, educational formations, and harrowing life circumstances.

But what of my mother’s full story? There was more to it than the anxiety, bitterness, and rage that I dwell on in my memoir of childhood. Saidiyah Hartman tells how, on the slave ship, Venus was one of two doomed girls permanently denied a voice and a full accounting. Their stories were forever cut short, partial, unrealized.

Of my mother, Florence, her story becomes in some ways the same.

Listen Up! Temple University Press Podcast, Episode 4: Rachel Schreiber, author of Elaine Black Yoneda

This week in North Philly Notes, we debut the latest episode of the Temple University Press Podcast, which features host Sam Cohn interviewing author Rachel Schreiber about her book Elaine Black Yoneda, the first critical biography of this pioneering Jewish activist.

The Temple University Press Podcast is where you can hear about all the books you’ll want to read next.

Click here to listen

The Temple University Press Podcast is available wherever you find your podcasts, including Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and Overcast, among other outlets.

About this episode

Elaine Black Yoneda is the remarkable story of a Jewish activist who joined her incarcerated Japanese American husband and son in an American concentration camp during World War II. Author Rachel Schreiber deftly traces Yoneda’s life as she became invested in radical politics and interracial and interethnic activism. Schreiber illuminates the ways Yoneda’s work challenged dominant discourses and how she reconciled the contradictory political and social forces that shaped both her life and her family’s. Highlighting the dangers of anti-immigrant and anti-Asian xenophobia, Elaine Black Yoneda recounts an extraordinary life.

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.

Announcing Temple University Press’ Spring 2022 Catalog

This week in North Philly Notes, we are pleased to present our forthcoming Spring 2022 titles (in alphabetical order).

Africana Studies: Theoretical Futures, edited by Grant Farred
A provocative collection committed to keeping the dynamism of the Africana Studies discipline alive

Beethoven in Beijing: Stories from the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Historic Journey to China, by Jennifer Lin, with a foreword by Philadelphia Orchestra Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin

An eye-opening account of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s unprecedented 1973 visit to the People’s Republic of China

Before Crips: Fussin’, Cussin’, and Discussin’ among South Los Angeles Juvenile Gangs, by John C. Quicker and Akil S. Batani-Khalfani

A historical analysis of South Los Angeles juvenile gang life as revealed by those who were there

Elusive Kinship: Disability and Human Rights in Postcolonial Literature, by Christopher Krentz

Why disabled characters are integral to novels of the global South

Ethical Encounters: Transnational Feminism, Human Rights, and War Cinema in Bangladesh, by Elora Halim Chowdhury

Illuminates how visual practices of recollecting violent legacies in Bangladeshi cinema can generate possibilities for gender justice

Exploring Philly Nature: A Guide for All Four Seasons, by Bernard S. Brown, Illustrations by Samantha Wittchen

A handy guide for all ages to Philly’s urban plants, animals, fungi, and—yes—even slime molds

If There Is No Struggle There Is No Progress: Black Politics in Twentieth-Century Philadelphia, edited by James Wolfinger, with a Foreword by Heather Ann Thompson

Highlighting the creativity, tenacity, and discipline displayed by Black activists in Philadelphia

It Was Always a Choice: Picking Up the Baton of Athlete Activism, by David Steele

Examining American athletes’ activism for racial and social justice, on and off the field

Just Care: Messy Entanglements of Disability, Dependency, and Desire, by Akemi Nishida

How care is both socially oppressive and a way that marginalized communities can fight for social justice

Letting Play Bloom: Designing Nature-Based Risky Play for Children, by Lolly Tai, with a foreword by Teri Hendy

Exploring innovative, inspiring, and creative ideas for designing children’s play spaces

Loving Orphaned Space: The Art and Science of Belonging to Earth, by Mrill Ingram

Providing a new vision for the ignored and abused spaces around us

Model Machines: A History of the Asian as Automaton, by Long T. Bui

A study of the stereotype and representation of Asians as robotic machines through history

Public Schools, Private Governance: Education Reform and Democracy in New Orleans, by J. Celeste Lay

A comprehensive examination of education reforms and their political effects on Black and poor public-school parents in New Orleans, pre- and post-Katrina

Regarding Animals, Second Edition, by Arnold Arluke, Clinton R. Sanders, and Leslie Irvine

A new edition of an award-winning book that examines how people live with contradictory attitudes toward animals

School Zone: A Problem Analysis of Student Offending and Victimization, by Pamela Wilcox, Graham C. Ousey, and Marie Skubak Tillyer

Why some school environments are more conducive to crime than safety

Warring Genealogies: Race, Kinship, and the Korean War, by Joo Ok Kim

Examines the racial legacies of the Korean War through Chicano/a cultural production and U.S. archives of white supremacy

Water Thicker Than Blood: A Memoir of a Post-Internment Childhood, by George Uba

An evocative yet unsparing examination of the damaging effects of post-internment ideologies of acceptance and belonging experienced by a Japanese American family

What Workers Say: Decades of Struggle and How to Make Real Opportunity Now, by Roberta Rehner Iversen

Voices from the labor market on the chronic lack of advancement

On the anniversary of the McCarran Internal Security Act of 1950

This week in North Philly Notes, Masumi Izumi, author of The Rise and Fall of America’s Concentration Camp Lawwrites about the McCarran Internal Security Act, which was enacted on September 23, 1950. 

Four years ago in late September, I spoke to a small attentive crowd and many indifferent passersby in a street protest held at one of the busiest intersections in the city of Kyoto. We were protesting the passage of the national security related bills that were steamrolled the day before. The overwhelming majority of constitutional scholars considered that the bills violated the nation’s pacifist constitution because they allowed the government to send its Self Defense Force troops abroad to take part in military actions unrelated to the defense of the territory of Japan. Tens of thousands of citizens gathered in protest in major cities. Thousands surrounded the Diet building every evening. I took part in a rally in Tokyo, joined a couple of demonstrations in Osaka, and walked with my daughter in several marches in Kyoto.

Over many years as a historian, I had interviewed Asian North American grassroots social activists. I wrote papers about political and cultural activism in the postwar Japanese American and Canadian communities. But I was not an activist myself. On that day at the protest rally, I asked the crowd and the passersby: “After the 9/11 attack, the U.S. government passed the Patriot Act and told people that everyone needed to be under surveillance because terrorists might be hiding among them. Then the U.S. government attacked Iraq on an accusation that later turned out to be a lie. Today, the Japanese government is telling us that we are threatened by our neighboring countries, that we need to remilitarize, and that we need to give up our liberties because excessive freedom jeopardizes our nation. But isn’t it our freedom that protects us, because it is our inalienable human rights that hold our government accountable?”

Since the return of a conservative cabinet led by an ultra-nationalistic Liberal Democratic Party prime minister in 2012, I have found myself living under a reactionary regime that imposed a series of repressive legislations. The LDP-Komei Party coalition passed the Specially Designated Secrets Act in 2013, steamrolled the National Security Acts in 2015, and made “conspiracy to commit a crime” a criminal offense in 2017. When the Security Acts passed, it felt as if the protective shield for our land and our people – our pacifist constitution – lost its effect.

Rise and Fall of America's Concentration Camp Law_sm_borderIt was around this time that I restarted my effort to publish the book based on my Ph.D dissertation. In The Rise and Fall of America’s Concentration Camp Law: Civil Liberties Debates from the Internment to McCarthyism and the Radical 1960s, I chronicle the passage and repeal of the Emergency Detention Act, or Title II of the McCarran Internal Security Act of 1950 (hereafter Title II). I elucidate how Japanese American wartime mass incarceration provided a legal precedent for this law. Through discourse analyses, I show how Japanese Americans were discursively placed outside the constitutional protection of civil liberties. The analyses requires a revision in historical interpretations of Japanese American incarceration that it was not only important as an example of mass incarceration of a racial minority but it also was a sinister legal precedent for preventive detention of individuals considered potentially dangerous for national security. I do not mean that Japanese Americans posed threat to national security. In reality they did not. But the Executive Order 9066 granted the military a sweeping power to designate any part of the U.S. to be a defense zone from which it could exclude anybody in the name of national security. This expanded the government’s war power, and it led, in the Cold War period, to the authorization of the government to detain any person whom the government considered might engage in acts of espionage or sabotage. The book also depicts how a Japanese American grassroots movement to repeal Title II, or the “concentration camp law,” led Americans to reflect on their nation’s past and present racism and political oppressions in a critical light in the late 1960s.

When I wrote my dissertation, I meant to write about the past in a foreign country. Now, as I see my book come out in print, I am engaged in an actual struggle to halt the governmental efforts to undermine civil liberties and human rights in my country. I am also witnessing intense protests in the United States against immigrant detention, and I see global movements arising against neo-liberal economic policies and calling for actions to stop the climate change. If I had a choice, I would rather be a historian chronicling activisms in the past, because it feels much safer to study what happened in hindsight. I realize how scary it is to be active when we do not know the consequences of our actions or inactions. But perhaps only through our own struggles, we can understand the fears and hopes experienced by the past activists whom we write about.

History Lessons: Henry Sugimoto’s Art on the Japanese American Experience

This week in North Philly Notes, Edward Tang, author of From Confinement to Containment, describes the art and life of Japanese American artist Henry Sugimoto, one of the subjects featured in his new book.

In light of the current debates about immigrants, border walls, detention centers, and travel bans, I often think about the Japanese American artist Henry Sugimoto (1900-1990), one of four cultural figures I examine in From Confinement to Containment: Japanese/American Arts during the Early Cold War. Along with his family, Sugimoto was incarcerated in the camps at Jerome and Rohwer, Arkansas, during World War II, solely because of their racial and ethnic background. When the Japanese Imperial Navy attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, many Issei (Japanese immigrants in the United States, including Sugimoto) and their American-born Nisei children were suspected of being loyal to Japan. Pressure from various political and farming interests intensified on the federal government to oust Japanese Americans from the West Coast. As a result, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, which mandated the removal of over 110,000 of them to detention facilities located in the most desolate environments in the nation’s interior. That two-thirds of these civilians imprisoned without trial were U.S. citizens (the Nisei) hardly mattered to the rest of the country. Sugimoto painted many heart-rending scenes of what mothers and fathers, the elderly, single folks, and even infants experienced during their removal and confinement, as evidenced in one striking composition, Nisei Babies in Concentration Camp (circa 1943). But the artist also made sure to portray a subordinated community’s endurance, creativity, and love for one another in the midst of such trying conditions.  

fig 1_nisei babies
After the war, Sugimoto continued to paint scenes of the mass confinement and also became interested in the broader history of Japanese Americans in the United States, rendering muralist portrayals of their immigrant past. Some depicted episodes of racism and other obstacles faced, a theme initially explored in his paintings about the wartime incarceration. In an untitled piece featuring the words “STOP PICTURE BRIDE” (circa 1965), Sugimoto takes note of the immigration bans at the turn of the twentieth century. Japanese men first came to America as much-needed agricultural laborers, but white fears of a growing “yellow peril” instigated several legislative acts that restricted their further entry. These included limits on “picture brides” — Japanese women who came to marry those immigrant men and thus establish families and communities in the United States (a development to be averted, in white nativist eyes).
In the image, Sugimoto juxtaposes two symbols of America: Uncle Sam (state power) and Lady Liberty (the ideals of freedom and democracy). The artist transforms Uncle Sam’s “I Want You” finger-pointing, derived from the World War I recruiting poster calling on Americans to make the world safe for democracy, to an “I Don’t Want You” glare and gesture directed at Asian immigrants. Yet the Statue of Liberty, representing the cosmopolitan embrace of the world’s incoming peoples, stands above Uncle Sam and alongside the Japanese picture bride, which reveals how Sugimoto felt about the compatibility between the nation’s principles and the newcomers appearing at its shores.

fig 2_stop picture bride
Sugimoto himself journeyed from Japan to America in 1919. His parents were already in the United States before the 1907 Gentlemen’s Agreement that curbed Japanese entry, so he was able to join them through a chain migration process. His first love was for French Postimpressionism and other European styles of art. He gained an international reputation in the 1930s with his artistic promise and traveled widely. But the wartime imprisonment of Japanese Americans quashed his public visibility and pushed him to a muralist sensibility that conveyed subtle, and often outright, political protest. During the early Cold War era, however, Sugimoto continued to labor in obscurity. Few wanted to address the injustice of confining Japanese Americans, especially when this population was now seen as a new “model minority” to promote a benevolent, multiethnic America and when Japan became a new U.S. ally in the fight against communism and Soviet expansion. With the advent of increased Asian American activism in the late 1960s and the growing movement for reparations for the Japanese American confinement, critics and audiences began to pay more attention to Sugimoto’s efforts. In 2001, the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles hosted the largest retrospective of his work. What is important to remember is that between the 1940s and 1960s, before this renewed public notice emerged, Sugimoto was detailing scenes of war, racism, immigration, and incarceration as intimately entangled issues that still resonate to this day.

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