Yes, I’m a little bit obsessed with World War ll. I don’t even like war movies or war anything; the human drama is what compels me. For obvious reasons, as a Black Caribbean woman, the British Empire Atlantic Slave Trade, the trade in people from the continent of Africa over hundreds of years and the lives affected across the continents of Africa, Europe, and most impactfully the Americas (speaking of the hemisphere as a whole) is my key historical point of interest. For example, the excerpt I read recently of the found, now re-issued, manuscript by Zora Neale Hurston, the narrative of the last surviving formerly enslaved man who had been captured and shipped to America after the end of the trade but while slavery still existed (interesting and heartbreaking reading). The story of the exploitation and in some cases extinction of native American populations also pulls my interest. But a good WWll documentary will hook me – not the big dramatic heroic tales necessarily, though I like a good heroic tale as much as the next person, but not if only one type of person is centred as the hero (Black Caribbean and Black Americans contributed to the war effort too; there were Indians at Dunkirk too; the war on the Eastern front was pivotal etc., little as Hollywood cares) but the lesser known ones (e.g. the Navajo Code talkers who played such a decisive role in the Pacific theatre during the war). So when I came across the PBS documentary Time of Fear recently, it hooked me.
It was about a period I knew about sort of second hand but had never sat to really study, the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWll, specifically after Japan bombed Pearl Harbour (in Hawaii) drawing America decisively in to the war. The war at home, for Japanese Americans included having their homes searched (and communications devices confiscated) – prompting some to preemptively burn all their family pictures, letters, and other memorabilia; detained (1200 community leaders and prominent business men, initially, without charges); and ultimately more than 100,000 confined (prison/camp/reserve whatever you want to call it, with armed guards and fences, they weren’t free to come and go; some children were even born in confinement). It’s the little details that hit you like the way family dynamics changed when family units no longer ate together but adults ate with adults, teens with teens, children with children, barracks style.
Bottom line is that without evidence, Japanese Americans (who already had the burden of being other in a predominantly white society) were seen as enemies of the state. The past is present in many ways (hard not to think that with what’s been happening at the US southern border in 2018). I think this all the time with issues of race and gender, but it’s particularly true of how fear and hate, and possibly most dangerous of all, indifference, can re-shape and compromise our basic attitudes to the human rights of others. Forty percent of the Japanese-Americans interred were children, according to the documentary, and 70 percent were American citizens – and yet their property was taken, they were taken from their home, were put on trains (think about who else was being put on trains during that time), and without trial were interred.
One man (boy) said that when he went to say goodbye to his friends at school, only one person, a teacher, stopped him, and what she said stuck with him, war is between countries not people. But it’s the people and the choices we make that shape the direction of a country, and it is the people and the choices we make that always compel me – as a writer, obviously, but also as a human being, in terms of my own choices. The thing that the points in history that draw my attention have in common is probably my interest in understanding not necessarily the extremes but the choices made by all the ‘good’ people in the middle when circumstances which history will in time judge as shameful and extreme – like slavery, like interment – are normalized.
The particular camp that the doc focused on was outside an Arkansas town. The townspeople, well practiced in discriminating against Black people (some of whose voices we hear in the documentary) looked on the interred with extreme prejudice – they were only allowed to stay if they were kept under military guard, were not allowed to work (though some did for a token wage after a time), were not allowed to own land, and were to leave as soon as the war was over (though a handful stayed). They did get to ride at the front of the bus though, so there’s that (plus the fact that they have since been paid reparations when enslaved and oppressed people of African descent still have not been), I guess. The town people were afraid of their presence, overwhelmed with each train load that arrived, and reacted accordingly.
And yet, some of those same young Japanese American men when given the chance (like Black Americans) fought for America (like Black Caribbean people, people from India, and others fought for the British Empire) – or it could be argued fought to prove that they too were America.
Something that I think would resonate with any colonized community, any community re-shaped by colonization, is how it potentially affects the way you see yourself and how that becomes something you hand down and down and down so that even though generations removed from the experience, you still act out certain instincts from that time without realizing it. This is a bit apples and oranges given the time span and depth of impact but when one man said in the documentary, “There have been times when I said to myself, I wish I did not have the face I have. That has to do something to a young Japanese-American person. I thank God that I have reached this point in life when I am proud of who I am,” it sounded familiar.
There’s lots to go through, too much to sum up, so look up the doc and that point in history (and the various points in history touched on in this piece if interested like I am in being better than the worst of our past selves). But in the meantime, there’s this story I found by a young writer that might make for a good introductory read: History is Worth Preserving.