Canadian author Margaret Atwood has a new TV series coming out based on her best-selling novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, which takes place in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in a non-specified dystopian American future. She wrote an essay which appeared in the March 10, 2017 New York Times on “What The Handmaid’s Tale Means in the Age of Trump,” in which she notes some parallels to events in history.
I couldn’t help noting some of my own…
Early in the piece, I was especially struck by this paragraph:
"I experienced the wariness, the feeling of being spied on, the silences, the changes of subject, the oblique ways in which people might convey information, and these had an influence on what I was writing. So did the repurposed buildings. 'This used to belong to . . . but then they disappeared.' I heard such stories many times."
"Having been born in 1939 and come to consciousness during World War II, I knew that established orders could vanish overnight. Change could also be as fast as lightning. 'It can’t happen here' could not be depended on: Anything could happen anywhere, given the circumstances."
Again, that familiar refrain, “It can’t happen here.” Which I’ve read over and over again in many accounts.
And then the words in the first line and last line in the next paragraph:
"Why do we never learn the real name of the central character, I have often been asked. Because, I reply, so many people throughout history have had their names changed, or have simply disappeared from view."
How many remember Fred Korematsu or even know about Gordon Hirabayashi, MinoruYasui, and Mitsuye Endo? Anyone in the 442nd?
Later she notes:
"The scene is the one in which the newly conscripted Handmaids are being brainwashed in a sort of Red Guard re-education facility known as the Red Center. They must learn to renounce their previous identities, to know their place and their duties, to understand that they have no real rights but will be protected up to a point if they conform, and to think so poorly of themselves that they will accept their assigned fate and not rebel or run away."
This brings to mind the image of school children pledging allegiance to a flag—but behind barbed-wired fences guarded by armed soldiers in watch towers.
“All power is relative, and in tough times any amount is seen as better than none. Some of the controlling Aunts are true believers, and think they are doing the Handmaids a favor: At least they haven’t been sent to clean up toxic waste, and at least in this brave new world they won’t get raped, not as such, not by strangers. Some of the Aunts are sadists. Some are opportunists.”
This can be said of anyone in the midst of war, whether it was behind barbed wire or not…
But most of all, this sounded eerily familiar:
“But there’s a literary form I haven’t mentioned yet: the literature of witness. Offred records her story as best she can; then she hides it, trusting that it may be discovered later, by someone who is free to understand it and share it. This is an act of hope.”
Although she never mentions it, as you’ve probably guessed, these words and deeds bring to my mind all the research and reading I’ve done regarding what happened to US citizens of Japanese ethnicity here in the US during WWII.
“Will their messages be suppressed and hidden? Will they be found, centuries later, in an old house, behind a wall?”
Many of the books I’ve read were not even available until recently. Decades of painstaking research into censored and impounded material has finally given credibility to those messages hidden in an old house, behind a wall. Many of the stories that have trickled out earlier were not available in most bookstores or were never published in the first place. If they were, they were often not reviewed, written about or cited. When talking about wholesale injustices in the US or around the world, the fate of these Japanese Americans was seldom mentioned or even acknowledged—despite the fact that the events happened in the most powerful country in the world, in the most written about war. Or perhaps it’s precisely because of that.
So my question is: Will it remain just an obscure and irrelevant tale that belongs in the “minority bin”? Or will it be remembered and given it’s proper place in American history along with other cautionary tales that DID happen here and that could happen again. Not just in popular fiction. But in fact.
Here’s the entire essay.
Here are some interesting links to help people better understand what most Americans didn’t know and were not taught, for most of the 20th century:
From Internee To College Student: UConn’s Enrollment Of Japanese-Americans During World War II (audio)
One East Coast College that made a difference for a lucky few, featured on WNPR’s “Where We Live”
Prisoners in their own land: 75 years after Japanese internment (video)
A brief but very informative explanation which illustrates what happened to those in Washington State
Japanese Internment and its Implications for Today
How censorship worked during WWII and beyond here in the United States, as seen through the story of photographer Dorothea Lange
One-Two-One-Seven: A Story of Japanese Internment (video)
An award-winning video which tells a very poignant story of what happened to a once prosperous Japanese-American family in California
When Lies Overruled Rights
Contrary to what is believed, many challenged incarceration and four even went to the Supreme Court, but it’s taken 75 years and a President Trump for their voices to be finally heard.
For those who expressed interest in my project, I have finally made all ten images from the camps and five images of “iconic landscapes” available online for people to see. This is to acknowledge the 75th Anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066, which ordered the evacuation of all people of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast of America. You can access them from the home page on this site.
Six of my images will also be part of the FDR Library and Museum’s new exhibition called “Images of Internment” which opens February 19, 2017 in Hyde Park, NY. George Takei of Star Trek fame, who was incarcerated as a child, will be there as well as Kermit Roosevelt, University of Pennsylvania Law Professor and great, great grandson of Theodore Roosevelt.
I was on the front page of the Berkshire Eagle, the leading regional newspaper in New England: What are we really afraid of?
“Who is an American?”
Two public talks I attended this summer here in the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts addressed the question in two powerful ways. One brought a new perspective to what I thought I understood about the Founding Fathers and our founding documents. The other brought a voice from the past eerily to life as if he were talking about America today.
The first was a talk given by Kermit Roosevelt, author, Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania’s Law School, and a great-great- grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt. What he had to say about our founding documents was chilling but hopeful at the same time.
In this video, the noted constitutional scholar reveals the surprising fact that there are two constitutions – the much-vaunted document written by the Founding Fathers, and that which came about in the aftermath of the civil war, the so called “Reconstruction Constitution.”
That modern American society operates essentially under the tenets of this later constitution, while most rhetoric sings the praises of the earlier document is of profound importance, and Professor Roosevelt explains why: Here's the TedxBerkshires talk.
The second revelatory moment came with a performance called “Lincoln Speaks” in which the scholar Harold Holzer, along with professional actors, singers and local poo-bahs, raised Lincoln from the dead, reading his words from his private papers as well as from some of his most famous speeches.
The event, first performed back in 2015 for the 150th anniversary of the end of the civil war, was reprised this summer at Chesterwood, in Daniel Chester French’s studio, where the sculptor created the iconic statue of Lincoln which sits in Washington, DC.
The passage which most struck me that day was an excerpt from a letter he wrote to his friend Joshua Speed back in August 24, 1855:
I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor or degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty - to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy [sic].
Mary will probably pass a day to two in Louisville in October. My kindest regards to Mrs. Speed. On the leading subject of this letter, I have more of her sympathy that I have of yours. And yet let me say I am
Yours friend forever
So what can we conclude from these two examples? Do we revert to the Founding Fathers' document? Or do we stick to the one we have, Lincoln's version, and strive for a more perfect union, with justice for all.
[This essay aired on WAMC on July 30, 2016. To listen to the essay, click here.]
"Almighty God created the races…and he placed them on separate continents. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix."
These were the very words used by a judge in Virginia in 1965 to defend the US states’ segregation laws that prohibited interracial unions.
I was listening to the radio in my car when I first heard these words. It was a review on the BBC about a new film called “Loving,” which tells the tale of the couple who took the battle to make interracial marriage legal in America to the Supreme Court and won. I was with my husband. He is British and white. I am an American of Japanese ancestry. Immediately I thought: had we been born at an earlier time, not that far in the past, we could not be together—certainly not in Virginia, and in many other states besides.
Then I started thinking about the judge. He was a white man named Leon Bazile and unless he considers himself a Native American, he must have realized that he’s from a different continent.
And what did his God think about the fact that the judge’s antecedents had killed off and pushed into a corner many of the original peoples?
But more puzzling is why his race, having gotten rid of the Native Americans, had gone to the trouble of bringing over a third race—Black people—from a completely different continent, Africa, to join them?
But wait, there’s more. In the mid 1800’s his people decided not to bring any more Black people over and instead invade Asia and brought over a bunch of yellow people from a fourth continent.
So if they’re the ones who engineered it all, why are they so upset? And why did they want to leave their own God-given continent in the first place?
And there’s the rub. Who is to blame for this messy American situation? It seems pretty obvious that it’s the indigenous people’s fault for always getting in the way by being wherever they are first. Then the Blacks are guilty of allowing themselves to be forcibly brought to a continent to which they don’t belong. And then those Asian arrivistes whose plans to isolate themselves on their own continent didn’t work and have the nerve to complain after being generously invited to work as contract laborers.
What did they expect? Equal rights and justice for all?
While I say this tongue in cheek, the true story of America has always been in conflict with the story of America that we like to tell ourselves and the world. It’s the one where we point to our Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, which says all men are created equal and have inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
But a quick look at one of the first laws passed by the newly formed continental congress—The Naturalization Act of 1790—which gave rights of citizenship only to Free White Men, will tell you that while I may joke and jest about the judge’s version of the world, it is a closer approximation of how race and justice has always worked in America.
From the very beginning, race mattered. It determined who was eligible to become a citizen. Who could vote and who could buy land. And as the story of the Lovings will tell you, race also played a role in who can court and marry.
While much has changed and each group (including many minority white populations) has had to fight for their rights, if you’re white, you can eventually blend. This doesn’t necessarily hold true for people of color.
So the question is, does race matter?
We wish it didn’t. But it does.
So the real question is what do we do about it?
One, celebrate the differences?
Two, create zones and build fences?
Or here’s a more “modest” proposal: Take the judge’s words literally, honor what he believed to be God’s plan and have all races return to their respective continents and leave this place to its original peoples.
Or build on what’s already started. America is a work in progress. The message the world hears is that in America, whatever our responsibilities to the collective, the rights of the individual also matter.
Rather than retreating into our tribes, building walls and hoarding weapons, I would hope that humans can find it in themselves to see beyond the superficial matters of skin color and find instead the essential humanity in us all. To find our capacity for peace, for harmony and indeed for Loving.
Weasel Words…that’s what my wordsmith husband calls euphemisms. He became a US citizen in 2011. In the citizenship test, they ask “What is the Rule of Law?” The answer is, “Everyone is equal under law.” Or put another way, no one is above the law.
Well, in law, words matter and that’s where euphemisms come in.
And the weasel words/euphemisms I’m talking about are the ones the government and the news media of the 1940s employed to turn the public against Americans of Japanese ancestry and their immigrant parents or grandparents.
Terms like immigrant became “enemy alien.”
Citizens were “non-aliens.”
Forced exclusion was called “evacuation” or “relocation.”
Incarceration or imprisonment called “housing.”
Which comes to the controversy over the use of the word “internment” rather than “concentration” to describe these camps where US citizens of Japanese ancestry were held. This is a legalese kind of euphemism.
First of all, the term “concentration camp” was the original term used by FDR and his cabinet to describe the ten War Relocation Authority (WRA) sites where Americans of Japanese ancestry were incarcerated in mass during WWII.
Two, the term “internment” is the legal detention and imprisonment of foreign nationals at time of war. As it is a legal process, those interned must face charges and be given a hearing.
The term “concentration camp” according to the American Heritage Dictionary means: "A camp where persons are confined, usually without hearings and typically under harsh conditions, often as a result of their membership in a group the government has identified as suspect."
Because Japanese who were US citizens were never charged or given a hearing, and confined merely for being identified as part of a targeted group, the camps used to incarcerate them were by definition “concentration” camps.
“Internment” was used to describe the legal imprisonment of non-U.S. citizens, aka as Issei*, in Department of Justice camps. These camps were where the Issei, who were the first to be rounded up along with individually charged German and Italian immigrants, were held. Ironically, these camps were protected by the Geneva Conventions, whereas the concentration camps for the US-citizen Nissei* were not.
The process of creating the “Other” often starts with words, and while Freedom of Speech is important, it’s when speech turns into government policy that targets or benefits a specific group rather than all individuals equally, it can slowly erode confidence in the rule of law.
*Issei were immigrants from Japan. Unlike Europeans, immigrants from Japan and China were not allowed to be naturalized, thus were prohibited from owning land or voting.
*Nissei were second generation born in the US and thus were US citizens according to the 14th Amendment. They were supposed to have all the rights and privileges of citizenship.
The terms Issei and Nissei do not exist in Japan. They were invented in the US to distinguish the difference in status among Japanese individuals within American society.
A majority of the those incarcerated in the concentration camps were US citizens. One third were children 17 years and younger.
For more detail on the controversy over “internment/concentration” camp, Barbara Takei, a long time scholar on Tule Lake, recommended this link.
Several friends sent me a link to this article that appeared in the Guardian: click here
For those of you who think that one cannot take what Mr. Trump says seriously, here is an example of his influence.
In November of 2015, I began my visits to all ten concentration camps, before the Republican primaries began in earnest. I was able to get to six of them.
In May of 2016, I went to visit the last four.
In between the two trips, both Donald Trump and the Mayor of Roanoke, VA, invoked FDR and his administration’s use of mass incarceration during WWII.
There was a distinct difference in attitude regarding the topic, before and after I went.
Before, there were just a handful of people who knew, cared and were working to make a difference. It seemed to me that the majority either didn’t know, didn’t care or just never thought about it. There were also the vocal few who believe that “Japs” deserved it and needed to tell you so.
But, after Trump’s suggestion, there has been a clear increase in the level of interest. More people were writing about it, talking about it. People were finally asking, “Was it truly American to incarcerate thousands of innocent citizens and take their homes and businesses away simply because of their race?” In fact, in January and February of this year, I was joking to friends that Mr. Trump may be the best thing to happen to the story of Japanese incarceration in a long time. His candidacy was raising awareness about the topic. But that awareness had a dark side it turns out — as I discovered on my visit to Tule Lake Camp in Newel, California.
Tule Lake, the most brutal camp of all, was where those who questioned the whole policy and said so in a “loyalty” questionnaire, were labeled troublemakers, segregated from those who were considered “loyal” and sent to a prison inside the prison.
When we arrived at the infamous jail, we found a group of students from a nearby Klamath Falls, Oregon, high school. As I approached the building to decide where I would place my bowls, I could hear voices from the group — boys saying “Jap” this and “Jap” that, “hashtag Jap” for a Twitter feed. The boys were making the girls laugh and clearly enjoying the naughtiness of being politically incorrect. I couldn’t hide my hurt, but made my way into the jail building where a park ranger was giving a tour of the inside.
When I came out, the students’ teacher came up to me with four or five boys in tow to say, "These boys would like to say something to you." One white boy stepped forward and said, “We are very sorry. We didn’t mean to be hurtful or disrespectful. We will not do it again.” Of the group, there were two who appeared non-white, one ethnically Mexican, the other perhaps south Indian. One of them stepped forward and said, “I, of all people, should not be saying things like that and I am deeply sorry.” I said I really appreciated it and gave the two a hug and went on to do my project.
Later, I talked more to the teacher. She said her students were not bad boys. She said she thought what they said was wrong and hurtful but that bringing them here was part of trying to teach them something different. “I really don’t think they meant any harm,” she said. I said I agreed.
However, there was something else more disturbing. Ranger Kenneth Doutt said that since mid-December, there has been a clear increase in the number of visitors trying to find out about “internment.” The problem he said was that they weren’t coming to uncover this dark part of US history. Rather, they were coming because “they wanted to know how internment worked” — and they were doing so “because they heard Trump and some mayor say it was an example the government might re-think to solve the Muslim-American problem.
My Yellow Bowl Project hopes to spur discussion around these questions: Who is an American? What does citizenship mean? How long do you have to be in the US to be considered a bonafide member of this group?