I elbowed my way through afternoon L.A. traffic to begin a four-hour mountain drive that ended in a surprising thunderstorm and finally some peace and quiet. Early the next morning I drove the few remaining miles to my destination: Manzanar.
I forget exactly when I learned about Manzanar, but it should have been sooner.
Asian-Americans endured prejudicial treatment prior to Pearl Harbor in 1941 but that terrible attack brought specific ethnic hostility to those of Japanese ancestry. In early 1942, FDR signed Executive Order 9066 that authorized the military to remove “any or all persons” from the West Coast and ultimately over 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry were incarcerated in ten American concentration camps simply because of their ethnicity. Ten thousand of those Japanese-Americans and Japanese immigrants were incarcerated in California at Manzanar.
My interest in visiting Manzanar intensified a few years ago when I learned that two of the ten wartime camps were located in Arkansas—I grew up in Arkansas and taught history in Arkansas and had never been told that Arkansas incarcerated 17,000 people of Japanese descent from California, half at Camp Jerome and half at Camp Rohwer. I knew then that I needed to visit Manzanar to feel the pain of a camp and ponder this terrible connection between my two “home” states—and my native country.
Manzanar is easy to visit on one hand: It is free, uncrowded, and only takes an hour or two to see everything there is to see. But it is difficult to visit as well. For what it represents, and what it proclaims.
Out of the 110,000+ imprisoned out of fear of espionage or sabotage, exactly zero were convicted of espionage or sabotage. That unwarranted fear destroyed many lives and families and even flirted with destroying a culture. In Hawaii where 158,000 Japanese-Americans faced less prejudice and enjoyed more freedom than those on the mainland, they were still discouraged from speaking the Japanese language and practicing the Buddhist religion. Hawaii’s military governor explained why: “We must remember that this is America and we must do things the American Way.”
And what, pray tell, did this chapter of American history communicate about the American Way?
The barbed wire at Manzanar stands as a reminder of how fear and power work together. But Manzanar also reminds us of the potential resilience of oppressed people and that even when fear and power lace up on the same team that victims can band together and rise above their circumstances. Possibly my favorite poster in the visitor’s center hung outside the theater and featured a quote from Hank Umemoto: “We were screwed, but then we made the most out of it and we turned Manzanar into a community.”
May there be no more Manzanars. But in the meanwhile, may all such peoples find that kind of courage and hope.