Wednesday, November 25, 2015

I, too, am America

I could not wait to become a citizen of the United States. I filed the application practically the minute I became eligible and then impatiently waited for the letter that would provide me with the details on the swearing-in ceremony. Finally, that cherished day arrived, during the halcyon days of the year 2000. There were the usual congratulations and wishes from friends and colleagues. One gift was special—a quilt.

A friend, who was a Japanese-American, brought the gift and explained that it was her mother who made the quilt. It had red, white, and blue in the square patches, obviously to reflect the colors of the American flag. But, those colors alone did not make the gift special.

The friend’s mother was one of 120,000 Japanese-Americans who were forced to relocate from their homes to the concentration camps. She was a young child when she was forcibly moved to a camp in Manzanar, California. The quilt was, therefore, very special because she loved the country despite how she and other Japanese-Americans were atrociously and inhumanely treated by her government and fellow-citizens. Her commitment to, love for, and pride about the United States were all there in the quilt that welcomed a new citizen.

I was reminded of that quilt and the Japanese-American friend when viewing the traveling exhibit—Art of Survival: Enduring the Turmoil of Tule Lake–at Eugene’s federal courthouse. The photographs and descriptions were about the conditions of the Japanese-Americans who were forced to live in the concentration camp in Tule Lake, which is in the dry elevations of northern California’s Siskiyou County, immediately to the south of Oregon’s border.

It seems so unreal that the federal government, under the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt who led the country out of the depths of the Great Depression and instituted various programs including Social Security, rounded up its own people and sent them to camps where all their constitutional rights were stripped away. Their only crime was that they looked like the people of the country that attacked Pearl Harbor. The calculation apparently was that because Japan attacked America, Japanese-Americans were suspects.

Years later, the federal government, under the presidencies of Reagan and Bush, formally tendered its apology to Japanese-Americans. Of course, there is no amount that one can ever pay as compensation to those whose lives were so rudely interrupted, and which tremendously affected the rest of their lives after being released from those camps. 

Even though it happened seventy-plus years ago, it was chilling to look at photographs that had signs saying: “Japs Keep Moving, This is a White Man’s Neighborhood.” It was also surreal to view the images at the exhibit, and to think about the horribly simplistic thought that people had made equating Japanese-Americans with the enemy.

It is even more surreal to think that we are employing that same crude thinking in the context of the refugees from Syria and Iraq, and about Muslims in this country. Because the al-Qaeda and ISIS terrorists are Muslims, and because the recent terrorist acts in France and elsewhere are by ISIS, this country is quickly sliding into a dangerously erroneous conclusion that the Muslim refugees from Syria and Iraq are terrorists, and that even American citizens who are Muslims cannot be trusted. It was shocking, to say the least, to hear one presidential contender talk about the need for a database to track Muslims in the country.

I suppose my brown-skinned and bearded appearance, along with an accent that makes it clear that I am not from here, could make some believe that I am a Muslim who needs to be monitored. As the political hysteria gets louder, my worries about my own welfare increase, as was the case in the days and months after 9/11. If that’s how I feel, when I am not a Muslim and when I am not from Iraq or Syria, I would think that Muslim refugees and brown-skinned Muslims in this country are way more worried than I am. And then I think about the Japanese-Americans who were sent to concentration camps for the only reason that Japan had attacked America—what they experienced seems to be of a magnitude that I cannot even imagine.

The quilt from the Japanese-American mother was more than a mere gift. It was a profound statement on her love for America, with its warts and all. It was a patchwork quilt that echoed the African-American poet Langston Hughes’ line, “I, too, Sing America.”

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