Once you learn to read you will be forever free - Frederick Douglass

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Afro-Nikkei, Nikkei-Afro

William Hohri was incarcerated at age 15 at Manzanar during WWII
The Obsessive Reader sends her condolences to the family of William Hohri, 83, who died on November 12. Mr. Hohri was a hero, a man of integrity and independence, who successfully fought the government which forced him into an internment camp, along with approximately 110,000 Japanese Americans, during WWII.  Mr. Hohri was a writer and author of Repairing America: An Account of the Movement for Japanese American Redress; Resistance, first-person accounts from the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee; the Lim Report, on WWII collaboration of Japanese American Citizens League leaders in their own words, and; Manzanar Rites, about the riot of internees.  Of course, Mr. Hohri is mainly known as a resistance supporter and the lead plaintiff in the National Council for Japanese American Redress (NCJAR) class action lawsuit against the U.S. government for its crimes against internees.  Just months after his lawsuit was disallowed, President Reagan signed the law that led to redress.

The Obsessive Reader met Mr. Hohri through his daughter Sylvia in the 1990s.  One of my memories of him is when he graciously accepted an invitation to attend Holman United Methodist Church, mostly to hear a sermon by then-pastor, the legendary Rev. James Lawson, whom Hohri knew was an advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr., and a follower of Ghandi - indeed, Lawson, who spent more than a year starting in 1951 in Leavenworth federal prison as a Conscientious Objector, introduced King to Ghandian nonviolence and the practice of Satiyagraha.  Mr. Hohri participated in the civil rights movement of the 1960s; as a representative of his church he marched with James Meredith, protesting whites-only admissions at the University of Mississippi. .After Rev. Lawson's impassioned, intellectually challenging sermon in the large, affluent, well-appointed church, I had the pleasure and honor of introducing these two men, who had immersed their lives in service to social justice, to transform America.  In conversation with me afterwards, Mr. Hohri, the son of a Methodist minister himself, marveled at the all-black congregation, saying "Everybody should be hearing this."  It was a poignant moment, as I thought to myself of King's famous statement that "Sunday morning is the most segregated time in America."

Rev. James Lawson, civil rights activist
My memories of William Hohri and his family helped remind The Obsessive Reader that Japanese Americans and African Americans have a long history of interaction, especially in pursuit of social justice.  Here, The Obsessive Reader offers some examples from the past that have largely been left out of mainstream narratives.  

Langston Hughes

  • Beginning in 1943, African American attorney, Hugh MacBeth, Sr. defended Japanese American evacuees, counseled Nisei draft resisters, joined forces with ACLU and JACL lawyers, challenged laws discriminating against Japanese Americans and spoke out at public forums against internment.
Paul Robeson

In 1942, concert singer Paul Robeson accepted the invitation by sculptor Isamu Noguchi to join a blue-ribbon panel of prominent non-Asians to testify before Congress on  the loyalty of Japanese Americans to help prevent mass evacuation.  After the war, he gave concerts for the Japanese American Citizens League in Salt Lake City and Nisei veterans in Chicago, and worked with Nisei for Wallace to push the civil rights plank of the Progressive Party.
  • When internees returned to Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, which had become a black residential area during WWII housing shortages, Ebony magazine published an article“The Race War That Flopped: Little Tokyo and Bronzeville Upset Predictions of Negro-Nisei Battle” because both groups were able to overcome differences    with each other.
Manzanar National Historic Site
  • In 1952, the Japanese American Citizens League filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. the Board of Education, joining the ACLU, the Anti-Defamation League and other organizations in urging that segregation in public educational institutions violates equal protection under the 14th Amendment.  
  • In the 1950s and 60s, the Nisei Progressives worked with black civil rights groups, supported United Farm Workers and the anti-Vietnam War effort and worked in multiracial coalitions on issues ranging from housing, education, jobs and immigration rights.  A founder of Nisei Progressives, Sue Kunitomi Embrey, pushed to establish Manzanar as a national historic park in 1992.
Yuri Kochiyama
  • Activist Yuri Kochiyama worked with the Harlem Parents Committee in the 1960s, was a member of Malcolm X's Organization of Afro-American Unity, and held a dying Malcolm in her arms when he was assassinated in New York.  Her work in defense of political prisoners includes support for the release of Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Richard Aoki
  • Richard Aoki became one of the first members of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California and rose to Field General of the BPP. Aoki, a U.S. Army Veteran, who died last year, was a student at UC Berkeley where he helped establish Asian American Studies.  He was an instructor, counselor and administrator at Merritt and Alameda Colleges.

The old Holiday Bowl, shuttered
  • In 2000, a coalition of mostly African Americans and Japanese Americans fought to preserve the Holiday Bowl bowling alley, a longtime social center founded by Japanese Americans in 1957 where whites, blacks and Asians mingled for decades. The bowling alley was torn down, but the restaurant has been preserved as a coffee shop.

Lastly, from poet Lawson Fusao Inada's autobiographical Legends from Camp,

Lawson Fusao Inada
[T]he music we most loved and played and used was Negro music. It was something we could share in common, like a "lingua franca" in our "colored" community. And in our distorted reality of aliens and alienation, it even felt like citizenship. It seemed so very American—"un-foreign," on "un-foreign" instruments--and the words it used were English. Not "across town" or "Hit Parade" English, perhaps, but nevertheless an English that, in its own way, did the job...

On this night...he's gone outside during intermission. It's cold, foggy, and he's leaning against the wall under a streetlight. No one else is around. Except for another person, a woman...After a while, in a hushed voice, he speaks: "Excuse me--but may I have your autograph?" Her face lights up as she smiles: "Why certainly, son! What’s your name?" He tells her, and she pronounces it, somewhat "sings" it, as she writes in the book. Then, still smiling, she looks him straight in the eye and says: "You were here last night." "Yes, I was, ma'am. I've been here all week."

And you might say he never left. And what she wrote in that book, was this:
For Lawson
Billie Holiday
And before he knew it, he was writing poetry.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing...