On a recent outing, my wife and I attended a Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibit called “Righting a Wrong”. In the modest confines of a single room at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul, the exhibit chronicled an epic tragedy: the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants as suspected traitors during World War II. world.
The exposure made it clear that none of these people ever turned out to be disloyal. On the contrary, more than 30,000 Japanese Americans served in the US military during the war. Those who remained held in our country’s de facto concentration camps formed communities with their own newspapers, sports teams and arts programs.
The national shame of Japanese incarceration has long been recognized by a bipartisan consensus. In 1976, Republican President Ford revoked Franklin D. Roosevelt’s executive order that had authorized wartime imprisonment. Twelve years later, an even more conservative Republican president, Ronald Reagan, signed into law a bill authorizing the payment of reparations to the 60,000 formerly incarcerated people of Japanese descent who were still alive. One of the exhibits in the Smithsonian exhibit quotes Reagan at the signing ceremony:
“Yet no payment can make up for those lost years. So what is most important in this bill is less property than honour. For here we admit a wrong; here we reaffirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law.
Given these formal acts of contrition, one could be forgiven for believing that the injustice of Japanese incarceration in America is settled history. Some of us, after all, are convinced that the immorality and treachery of the Confederacy and its slave system are also beyond rational debate.
But earlier this month, a small school district in Wisconsin delivered the latest example of two intertwined threats to history: the purge of books that dare to critically look at the American experience and the mobilization of right-wing zealots in local school boards.
On June 13, a Muskego-Norway District School Board committee in suburban Milwaukee turned down a request from educators there to teach Julie Otsuka’s novel about Japanese incarceration in a middle-grade English class. advanced for 10th graders. The reasons largely boiled down to complaints that the book, “When the Emperor Was Divine,” is not impartial. This excuse reminds me of an observation by Holocaust survivor, novelist and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel: “Neutrality helps the oppressor. Never the victim.
I happen to know Otsuka’s book very well. I wrote about it in 2005, in a column about high school English teachers who studied the book. What I knew then has become even truer since. “When the Emperor Was Divine” is widely embraced by schools for the same reason books such as “To Kill A Mockingbird” are taught – it’s a literaryly luminous work that forces readers to confront bigotry and injustice.
Far from distorting or exaggerating the truth to make his case, Otsuka constructed the book from the experiences of his mother, uncle, and maternal grandparents having been incarcerated. His research is so exemplary that I have given the novel several times to my graduate students at the Columbia Journalism School.
Now, however, Otsuka’s book itself has become captive – to Republican Party efforts to literally and figuratively whitewash American history and literature. The effort began gaining momentum two years ago with the introduction and passage of state laws banning the use of the “1619 Project,” an award-winning collection of articles and essays reappraising American history, economics, public health, transportation, and other topics through the lens of black slavery and Jim Crow.
That certain legitimate historians clash intellectually with the creator of the project falls within the norms of scholarly discourse. The statewide bans were something else entirely, an eradication effort. These laws anticipated more recent laws banning the teaching of critical race theory, by which right-wing activists essentially mean anything about racism that might cause a student to “feel uneasy, guilty, distressed or any other form of psychological distress,” as Florida recently explained. legislation, often called the Stop WOKE Act, has put it.
Censorship happens so fast it’s almost impossible to keep up. Between July 21 and March 31, PEN America counted 1,586 books banned in schools serving approximately 2 million students. The overwhelming majority of banned books featured non-white protagonists, dealt with racism, or addressed the LGBTQ experience.
Back in the Muskego-Norway district, hundreds of residents have called on the school board to reverse its ban on Julie Otsuka’s book. They might want to quote the recent words of beloved “Reading Rainbow” host LeVar Burton: “Read the books they ban. This is where the good stuff is. If they don’t want you to read it, there’s a reason for that.
Samuel G. Freedman has authored nine books and is currently working on his 10th, on Hubert Humphrey and Civil Rights.