“Education is the first place where you hear the lie.”
– Professor Tanya Washington
As a history major in college, I am keenly aware of the way important events in history, especially those of discrimination and oppression, are remembered, historicized and eulogized in US history textbooks, which is often where we as children first learn of our country’s racist past and the systemic violence that America has inflicted on people of color. I firmly believe that textbooks are guilty of two things: 1) that they are “neutral” under the guise of being objective, and 2) that they do not even mention some events in the first place, sometimes only giving one or two paragraphs to events that merit much more than that.
So how should we teach history, if the current method of history education is not working? Our approach here then becomes twofold: we need to drastically expand our curriculum to create a much more comprehensive narrative of oppression in this country, and we must do so in a way that is compassionate and inspires empathy. How do you teach empathy? How do you get people to feel the suffocation felt by the fifteen Black girls held at the Leesburg Stockade? How can you connect the War on Drugs to mass incarceration in a way that is understandable to recent Americans? How do you get people to feel the sadness and trauma of a community they don’t identify with?
How should we teach history, if the current method of history education is not working?
These are questions that I have struggled to answer during the course of this Fellowship. While we are lucky and privileged to have been in spaces that have given us access to incredible speakers, programming and excursions that have allowed us to viscerally feel history, many in America do not have the opportunity to access these spaces, whether it is through a shoddy public education or they just never learned because of the early polarization of our history. I think of my own mother, who emigrated from Japan to the US in 1992 in search of a better life for herself. She has never heard of the US Constitution or the Founding Fathers. Because she has never naturalized, she claims that she has no stake in our country’s politics, but I’d argue the opposite – she is very much a part of the American fabric. She pays her taxes, she is an immigrant, she has experienced statelessness, discrimination and racism, and she is a woman of color (even though she’d never identify as such). My mother is able to articulate her own experiences with these “isms” yet cannot connect them to larger systemic policies that not only affect her but other people of color. When I think of how I plan to engage people after this program, I think of her and other Asian immigrants in the US who harbor the same mentality. I want people like my mother to know this history and understand that she will continue to be affected by these “isms” unless we stand up with all minorities. None of us are free until all of us are free.
None of us are free until all of us are free.
In this creative piece I have highlighted events that I did not learn about in US history growing up that I have learned about in the various spaces that I have been a part of – through my pilgrimage to Manzanar, my college courses, and now, the John Lewis Fellowship. The first part contains actual full text in a US history textbook dedicated to the event, while in the second part I aim to retell these stories through letters to my mother, which I plan to translate into Japanese. My end goal is to tell a narrative that is not only educational but also inspires compassion and empathy – while imagining new ways in which history can be remembered.
Writing these letters was very difficult. As many of us have noted during the program, it is easy for us to intellectualize many of the issues that we have discussed throughout these four weeks. There is a shared baseline of understanding amongst progressive people and therefore we are able to move onto questions like, “what is justice?” or “how do you mobilize?” But what if some people don’t even have the vocabulary or the means of conceptualizing justice or liberation? We have to meet communities where they are – even if that means having to explain things all over again.
Chinese Americans and the Transcontinental Railroad
July 24, 2018
Today, Professor Natsu Saito (yes! She’s Japanese American and she went to Yale Law School) talked about settler colonialism, which is when people take over another country, kill the natives, and take all their resources. That’s what the white Americans did to the Native Americans many centuries ago. We immigrants and children of recent immigrants are living and occupying stolen land. We live on the land of the Lenape people, Mama.
We live on the land of the Lenape people, Mama.
Saito-sensei said that the white people who came to control the land then decided who could come and who couldn’t. She mentioned the Chinese Americans who built the Transcontinental Railroad, which connected California to the Midwest. She didn’t talk much about it, but I want to share with you what happened. White people brought Chinese Americans to the West Coast, made them build some railroads for low pay that no one even uses anymore, and then tried to deport them because they were simply disposable labor. They built the economy and the landscape of the West Coast but were treated like second class citizens. When they didn’t get what they demanded – which was shorter work days, equal pay with whites, and better working conditions, they staged one of the largest strikes ever in that era, until the boss cut off their food supply. (1)
They use Asian Americans as a wedge against other minorities in the case against affirmative action.
Even though she only mentioned this briefly, it made me realize that white people have never cared about us Yellows. Throughout history they have passed numerous exclusion laws so that we wouldn’t come in, incarcerated us, and continue to inflict violence on us today. They use Asian Americans as a wedge against other minorities in the case against affirmative action. They don’t care about Asian Americans being “discriminated against” in college admissions; they just don’t like seeing Black people thrive in higher education. The reason you were able to come to the states was be- cause national sentiment towards Japanese people was more favorable than to other ethnicities. Japanese people – we’re docile, right? We don’t make trouble. There’s not enough of us. But Mama, all the pain that you felt when you came here and your constant feeling of not feeling welcome or at home here stems from something much larger. There’s a whole history behind it and it persists even today. And I don’t want you to keep taking out your frustrations out on me. Let’s tell your story to the world, because the world needs to hear it.
Japanese American Incarceration
June 10, 2016
We spent the whole day today at Manzanar and now on our way back to Los Angeles. I’m still trying to process how I feel being here. It was maybe 100 degrees and very dusty. We were surrounded by the beautiful Inyo Mountains to the east. How awful it must have been for the Japanese Americans to wake up every day to this view and know that they were trapped inside these barracks with guns pointing at them.
Four families slept together in cabin – it’s hard for us to live together under the same roof; can you imagine what it’d be like to live in a small cramped cabin with the Suzuki’s, the Nagase’s and the Komaki’s?
We saw where they lived – dilapidated cabins built overnight by the Japanese Americans themselves. They slept on mattresses filled with straw. The cabins weren’t even well-insulated, so dust would come in uninvited – I know you’d hate that. Four families slept together in cabin – it’s hard for us to live together under the same roof; can you imagine what it’d be like to live in a small cramped cabin with the Suzuki’s, the Nagase’s and the Komaki’s? We’d be fighting all day for space and privacy.
I think what makes me the most upset is the Loyalty Questionnaire that the War Relocation Authority made all the Japanese Americans fill out. There were two questions in particular that threw me off and I know would’ve thrown you off too. Question 27 asked if incarcerees would be willing to serve in the army (even though they would be fighting for what, exactly? Democracy abroad when there’s just no democracy here in the States?) Question 28 also asked if Japanese immigrants would be willing to renounce their Japanese citizenship, but if they did so, they couldn’t become American citizens because that wasn’t allowed at the time. You were undocumented for a few years when you first came to America. You would have been stateless even then.
You were undocumented for a few years when you first came to America. You would have been stateless even then.
I don’t know why we didn’t learn about this in our history class. It feels unfair to me that our whole history has been erased. Even in the most progressive spaces that talk about civil rights violations throughout history the Japanese American experience is swept under the rug, not to be talked about in this supposed white-black binary that we exist in.
Mama, I know you don’t consider yourself American now and you don’t feel like you have a stake in this country, but if we were alive in 1942, you wouldn’t even be given a choice to decide whether you were American or not. The government would have decided for you. Mama, I know this doesn’t feel like your history, but this is our history. And we have to make sure that we take this history with us and remember it.
July 26, 2018
Imagine you are twelve years old. You wake up in the middle of the night, only to find your- self not in your cozy bed but on the damp concrete floor of a 10×10 cell with puddles of muddy water. There are fourteen other girls in there with you. Mosquitoes and spiders are everywhere, and you have to swat at your cheeks every few seconds. The toilet is overflowing with feces and the stench is too much to handle. The only light comes from a dirty window that is barred from the outside. Every few hours, a man comes by with some undercooked hamburgers that you don’t even touch.
I hope I can take you here one day, Mama, so we can see it and honor these girls together.
You cry out to your mama, but you are only met with the sleepy groans of the other girls. How long has it been now since you’ve seen your mother, your father and your brother? Has it been two hours, two days, two weeks? It is July 1963 and you’re locked up because white people don’t like your existence. They don’t like seeing you advocate for your right to live. They don’t see you as human.
This actually happened at the Leesburg Stockade, in Leesburg, Georgia. Fifteen girls were arrested for protesting segregation ( ) in Americus, Georgia, and were imprisoned here for two months. We went to go visit the stockade – it was a three-hour drive to get there. It was so hot, and as soon as we stepped foot into the cell we were accosted by mosquitoes. I think I got bitten six times, mostly on my legs. I couldn’t even stay in there for more than five minutes, so I can’t even imagine being enclosed there for the same time the girls were in there.
This history is horrific and there simply is no justification for this. I hope I can take you here one day, Mama, so we can see it and honor these girls together.
The Eugenics Movement
July 16, 2018
Today I met an incredibly selfless woman whose heart is so big I cannot understand how she possibly has so much love for others after what she went through. Her name is Elaine Riddick. She was raped when she was thirteen and gave birth to a baby. She was forcibly sterilized ( ) because they thought she was too feebleminded. What that really meant was that they didn’t want Black women having more Black babies. She was dehumanized ( ) and had no control over her body. Even then, she has decided to dedicate her entire life to advocating ( ) for young girls who have gone through similar trauma, as the Executive Director of Rebecca Project for Justice. She said, “I want to take all the children in the world and protect them after what they did to me.” I have no words. How can someone have so much love after so much trauma? I aspire to be like her and give myself selflessly to others.
It is not their fault. President Nixon did not like Black people.
The War on Drugs
Back when we lived in 11C we always had NY1 on, and we’d see all these mugshots of Black people who were arrested for various drug charges around the city. You’d always comment, “well it’s their fault for having drugs. They deserve the jail time.”
It is not their fault. President Nixon did not like Black people. We had Eddie Conway, who was imprisoned for 43 years before he was released, come speak to us. He said that there was a lot of unemployment after the decline of industry post-World War II. Instead of investing in these working- class communities and giving them jobs, Nixon decided to criminalize ( ) drug usage instead. His former policy chief, John Ehrlichman, said,
“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” (2)
Even though this happened in the 1970’s and 1980’s, this is why a disproportionate number of Blacks and brown people are in jail for the most minute crimes. Meanwhile, rich white people who commit bank fraud are not in jail. The impact of their actions is felt more widely around the world. Don’t you think they should be in jail, instead of poor Black people?
- 12 Chris Fuchs, “150 Years Ago, Chinese Railroad Workers Staged the Era’s Largest Labor Strike,” NBC News, June 21, 2017, accessed August 3, 2018, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/150-years-ago-chinese-railroad-workers-staged-era-s-largest-n774901.
- Tom LoBianco, “Report: Aide says Nixon’s war on drugs targeted blacks, hippies,” CNN Politics, March 24, 2016, accessed August 3, 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2016/03/23/politics/john-ehrlichman-richard-nixon-drug-war-blacks-hippie/index.html.