As the daughter of a Tuskegee Airman, I didn’t need Hollywood to teach me its history. My dad and his friends—former airmen—taught me not only the history of their service, but the harsh truths of how they were maligned by racists here at home.
No disrespect to George Lucas, whom I applaud for his latest film production, Red Tails, but the tales of the ugliness faced by not only the Airmen, but other non-white members of our military and their families, still aren't grist for the big silver screen.
Reading some of the commentary and criticism about his film was beyond aggravating—particularly those whining, "But ... but ... but ... it's been done already!" Sure, there have been other films, like HBO's Tuskegee Airmen, but until every history book documents them, and every child in America knows the stories of the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group of the U.S. Army Air Corps (Tuskegee Airmen) and the Navajo Code Talkers, I don't care how many versions are made. I still have students who don't have a clue when I bring these subjects up in class.
I am pleased that Lucas had the courage to present the Airmen through a black lens, with an all-black cast. There is no white hero or heroine to make our history palatable and salable for "general" (read: white) viewing audiences. We have enough of that already, whether it is in The Help or Blindside.
I find myself wondering if any major producer will step up and tell the tales of the Nisei and Japanese Americans during WWII.
The history of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team is one that we should all be proud of:
The unit became the most highly–decorated regiment in the history of the United States Armed Forces, including 21 Medal of Honor recipients. The motto of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team was “Go for Broke.”
Yet it wasn't until seven decades later that they received the Congressional Gold Medal.
It is not just important to honor the service of veterans; it is equally important that we are aware of the ugly reality of the round-up and internment of Japanese Americans, authorized by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Executive Order 9066, on Feb. 19, 1942. While the motto of the 442nd was "Go for Broke", their community was broken up, dragged off and demeaned, and many internees died, broken-hearted and shamed.
Euphemistically dubbed "relocation" or "internment" camps, they were concentration camps and referred to as such by FDR, Truman, Eisenhower and Supreme Court justices. These were not the death camps of the Nazi Holocaust, but places where all the "enemy" could be concentrated and controlled. The enemy in this case was us—loyal U.S. citizens, many of whom had sons fighting in our military.
The irony of an assembly center named Camp Harmony burns. There was nothing harmonious about being forced to leave your homes, businesses, and schools, and to be vilified in your own country.
Conditions in the camps were harsh. Many people had only 48 hours' notice to pack up what they could take with them. When families arrived at the camps—some of which were located in the desert—many died from extreme temperatures, over-crowding and lack of medical care.
Meanwhile, young Japanese-Americans were fighting and dying with honor against the Axis. Not all of them came from internment camps, since many were from Hawaii, but all of them faced racism and bigotry at home in the wave of anti-Japanese (and anti-Asian) hysteria.
After the war, Hollywood did manage to squeeze out a film about the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. In 1951, they cranked out Go for Broke!
starring Van Johnson. It isn't a bad film; in fact, cast members included several veterans of the 442nd. The screenplay was nominated for an Oscar. The film is now in the public domain and can be viewed online
Since it is the only major film documenting this key piece of history, I will give it credit for doing that. But the vehicle used to tell the story, from the point of view of a white southern lieutenant played by Johnson, and the absence of scenes from the camps, is a major failing.
So when will Hollywood decide to tell those stories? I won't hold my breath.
Thankfully, there are people who are still alive to tell these stories and resources available for teachers to incorporate them into their curricula.
I am blessed to know, honor and admire a woman who survived the camps as a child, and whose entire life as a political activist was shaped by that life-changing experience. Yuri Kochiyama, civil rights activist born in 1921, is that woman. I met her in Harlem in the late '60s, and she is still fighting for human rights and dignity.
Yuri spoke of her experiences on Democracy Now (transcript):
Listen to Sandra Oh reading an excerpt from Yuri's piece on Japanese internment, "Then Came the War" (from Race, class, and gender in the United States: An integrated study).
Historically, Americans have always been putting people behind walls. First there were the American Indians who were put on reservations, Africans in slavery; their lives on the plantations, Chicanos doing migratory work, and the kinds of camps they lived in, and even too, the Chinese when they worked on the railroad camps where they were almost isolated, dispossessed people-disempowered. And I feel those are the things we should fight against so they won't happen again. It wasn't so long ago-in 1979-that the feeling against the Iranians was so strong because of the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Iran, where they wanted to deport Iranian students. And that is when a group called Concerned Japanese Americans organized, and that was the first issue we took up, and then we connected it with what the Japanese had gone through. This whole period of what the Japanese went through is important. If we can see the connections of how often this happens in history, we can stem the tide of these things happening again by speaking out against them.
I can't agree more.