***EDIT (October 2020): Button Poetry just posted a NEW, higher-quality video of this poem***
The Japanese American Citizen’s League asked me to write a piece for the 2017 Day of Remembrance (the day in 1942 that Executive Order 9066 was signed, requiring internment of all Americans of Japanese ancestry), connecting it to current issues regarding xenophobia and anti-immigrant hate.
Check out this story for a bit more background; there are a ton of other resources online as well. As the poem talks about, this is the kind of story I feel like a lot of people know about in a general sense, but that few internalize and really grapple with. And we need to be thinking about it, especially right now. Full text below.
Finally please support organizations working to build immigrant power and/or fight xenophobia, Islamophobia, and hate of all kinds. Locally, that might mean MIRAC, Navigate MN, CAIR MN, the Young Muslim Collective, or others. Find more at the MN Activist Project’s database.
Also relevant, I have another new video up this week on Button Poetry’s channel. It’s called “How to Explain White Supremacy to a White Supremacist.” A few extended thoughts (plus the text) on it here.
“Asked what the infant city was like, those first residents might have, with some justice, summed it up with one word — dust.” –Journalist Taro Katayama, writing about Utah’s Topaz internment camp.
The Japanese side of my family settled in Hawaii. And of course, during the war, they couldn’t intern all of the Japanese there; that’d be a third of the population. But still, decades later, I grew up hearing about the camps. For every story about one of my great uncles fighting for the US against the Japanese Empire, another story, about a different empire, an empire of dust.
There was a kind of distance, of course: hearing the echo, of the echo, of someone weeping. It was subtle, like, for every Packer game, to make room for snacks, I’d have to move those three huge coffee table books: one about Hawaii, one about Ireland (for some reason), and one about Manzanar. This is where the “less” of my more-or-less whiteness lives. Not so much a waving flag as a map hidden in the sole of my shoe.
I learned very early that ghosts are not just the disembodied spirits of the dead. They can be, but they are also more, in the same way that water is more than just rain, that history is more than just the history we are taught. Ghosts appear, like dust, everywhere, from nothing, they multiply. They swim in the ink of newspaper headlines, smile in the background of photographs seized by government censors, burst by the thousands from a grandmother’s single tear. They create patterns in the dust; we breathe them in, when we breathe in the dust. And I learned very early, that ghosts don’t just haunt houses. They haunt history. And that knowing your history, determines: whether you learn to live with your ghosts, or are devoured by them.
Tennessee legislator Glen Casada calls for the National Guard to “round up” all Syrian refugees, despite constitutional protections. He says: “you have to ask yourself, which is greater: life or due process?”
As if that were the choice. As if our history, if we listen to it, does not curse and condemn those who offer these kinds of choices– life or your freedom, life or your culture, life or your property, life or your language, life or your child’s life. Just do the math. How much can you carry, as you leave your home, unsure of your return? What do you leave, what can you not live without? Do you plan to return? Do you hope? What year is this? Is the distance disappearing? And suddenly it isn’t math anymore.
Question #27: “Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?”
Question #28: “Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, or other foreign government, power or organization?”
Is answering yes an admission that you, at one point, would not have answered yes? Will you be loyal to that which is not loyal to you? When uprooted, will you still reach for the sun? Will you grow here, in this dust? Will your children? How will you protect your children? You have to ask yourself, which is greater: one grain of dust, or all those ghosts? You have to ask yourself: which is greater: that weight on the conscience of a nation, or all those ghosts? I learned very early, that you have to ask yourself: which is greater: your commitment to order, or your commitment to justice?
Before he died, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia gave a talk at the University of Hawaii Law School about the Korematsu decision, the legal rationale for the internment of 120,000 innocent people of Japanese descent, most of whom were US citizens, born here, half of them children. He invoked a Latin phrase: Inter arma enim silent leges: “in times of war, the law falls silent.”
And evolution is slow, slower than the sun crawling across the desert sky, slower than the fading of memory. The only real difference between who we are now and who we were in 1942 is our history, and what we choose to learn from it. I learned very early that it is always a time of war. That they will always find a scapegoat. If not our people, someone’s people.
There are still people living, who witnessed lynchings. There are still people living, who survived the Holocaust. And of those Japanese Americans still living, who lost time to the camps, to the dust, we must hear them. And those who are not still living: we must hear them too.
Fred Korematsu said: “… No one should ever be locked away simply because they share the same race, ethnicity, or religion as a spy or terrorist. If that principle was not learned from the internment of Japanese Americans, then these are very dangerous times for our democracy.”
Mary Hirata said: …we have to make sure it’s never done again. It’s so easy, and the more I read about it, the more I know that this was already planned way before the war… it’s a terrible thing to happen. Of course, I don’t think they’ll ever do it again, they couldn’t. I think. But that’s what we thought, too.”
Yuri Kochiyama said: “Remember that consciousness is power. Tomorrow’s world is yours to build.”
These words, these stories, are my family’s only heirloom. And we must listen. Through the dust storm of history, through the wailing all those ghosts. We must hear these voices.
…But they must hear us too.
Because when the law falls silent. We must not be. When the law falls silent. We will not be.