Growing up, I did not know my father was in prison. Nor my mother, my aunts and uncles or grandparents. They did not tell me about the World War II imprisonment of Japanese Americans because they looked like the enemy. My family carried a dark secret of racism, pain and shame. It made me question: What is an American?
Gradually, I began to hear about “camp” – the internment camp in Gila River, Ariz., where they, along with 10,000 others, many from the Fresno area, were locked behind barbed wire.
My father, a quiet, reserved man, quietly shared a bitter memory of feeling abandoned by America. A seemingly simple detail – mutton – became the symbol of the injustice. Mutton was frequently served to the internees. For many, the war years demanded sacrifice; for my father it was the fact he had no choice, no option, no freedom to eat something else. Mutton symbolized prison food.
I share this because it’s a simple and personal story and after I die, who will remember such a small and seemingly insignificant detail? How long does it take to forget the memory and in this case history?
For Japanese Americans, Feb. 19, 1942 – 75 years ago – marks the day 110,000 Americans were falsely accused and were denied their rights as citizens with the signing Executive Order 9066.
Today commemorates a dark moment in our nation’s history when painful memories were hidden and secluded because a people were judged by the color of their skin. Today I also hear echoes from this past as the call to isolate, discriminate and segregate rises and people are again judged by their race not by their character.
Shame is a powerful emotion. It leads to denial and silence. The pain of my family was felt deeply and personally. I’m sure many memories were pushed into dark, hidden recesses of my father’s psyche. Only gradually and through a simple act of asking questions did he begin to share some of them.
He spoke of the heat and dust storms of the Arizona desert. He shared the pain of my grandparents and especially my grandfather who was in his 50s at that time. For him, life had ended; any hope and dream of a better life in America was shattered as he witnessed his family lose everything, including their dignity.
I found a photograph of my family at a memorial service for my uncle who had been killed in France by honest German bullets while fighting in the U.S. Army for America, the same country that at that moment imprisoned his family. I asked my father about the grief on my grandmother’s face, but he found no words that could explain the emotions. Like many memories shared by thousands, only silence captured the sense of loss and anguish.
How do we keep these memories alive? Who will remember? Why is it important? Stories and memories help define what is an American. To remember is to be American.
I am not alone. Other Japanese American families lost memories. Yet for many, the memories were transformed into stories – gradually over the years and especially with redress hearings in the 1980s, when groups organized to publicly share personal histories directly to the Congress and government officials. The public sharing of painful and deeply private emotions validated the experiences and legitimized a people’s demand for restoration and redress of the injustice. A people found their voice.
Individual secrets can coalesce into a powerful force when shared publicly. When we learn of others, when they take the time to listen to strangers, we take the first steps to understanding and acceptance. Then stories can be remembered. It’s no longer just one person’s memory or a single group’s memory – it becomes all of our identity, a defining narrative about our national character.
We remember through stories. They frame events, add context to the past beyond a history of facts. Stories add rich and personal details that generate an emotional connection to what was and what can be.
We create an evolving definition of what is an American by remembering personal family histories. Collectively they become part of all our histories. We are defined by the stories we keep, by the stories we remember.
To recognize today’s stories of hate against a class of people, to demand these stories be heard is a first step to building a more democratic and just nation. To be American is to remember all our stories.
So my father’s simple dislike of mutton is no longer an isolated memory of one man. It is part of a larger story of history that can be shared with others. It’s a story that’s personalized for a universal audience.
Then my father’s experiences can find an affinity with others. The story will be amplified when another family or community or people discover common ground, a shared history. My father’s simple memories journey into the lives of others and create a bond. Over mutton. A shared pain. A memory of resilience. And call to remember.
David Mas Masumoto is an organic farmer near Fresno and author of several books including “Epitaph for a Peach.” He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.