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an homage for Yuri Kochiyama - read at the Los Angeles Memorial for Yuri on August 31, 2014

an homage for Yuri… 

— 

You were 


the first stamp on the letter for the least likely to receive 

the last one to forget a face 

first finger at the light switch

the last one to leave



countless many hold their

“first time I met Yuri”

story

as if it happened yesterday

before meeting her

i didn’t understand

the meaning

of Star Struck


until my bones shook and

the skin on my arms shrieked

the day she walked in

from a sweltering J-Town afternoon

to rest at Alison’s desk


i was 20 years old

an intern for Karen at the museum

trying to swallow a gasp

the first time i saw her face


“YOU’RE YURI!”

my excitement couldn’t help itself

It shifted my eyes toward her hands, her little legs,

and fixated on her teeth

until

she did what i came to learn

she did for everybody

she broke out her notebook

she wrote down my name, my hometown and my school

she asked which camps my parents were in

she mentioned all the people i should meet

she forgot she had come inside to rest

 

she was a conversation in pendulum form

a swift switch with steadfast passion

from politics to grandchildren

she made me lose track of the clock

the temperature

and even the fact that i had been

trying to memorize her face

 

she let me see an awesomely regular lady

 

i watched her become ordinary

in

the

most

extraordinary way



You were

the rebel with a mission

the perpetrator of Talk The Talk, Walk The Walk

the surprise on the other side of the bull horn

the nation’s most dangerous in disguise



when someone doesn’t recognize

her name

i find myself telling them


of the Japanese American woman

in cat’s eye glasses

pictured next to Malcolm X

in his final moments


i say she was an activist from Harlem to Redress

a mentor to the Asian American Movement

an advocate alongside political prisoners

i mention her

Nobel Peace Prize nomination

i quote the Blue Scholars:

“When I Grow Up, I Wanna Be Just Like Yuri Kochiyama”

 

but those are just my lead-ins

 

what people really get is

when i say she

was equal parts water and fire

speech so fluid

that the same love flowed in her words

to Free Mumia

as

it did to surface in gratitude for those

who gave to her beloved teddy bear collection


And on the day she died

i combed through every news channel

for a glimpse of her


Public radio and internet got it right


But the passing of a Revolution was not televised


i only felt sorry for the news stories

They missed out on but one cycle our

Extraordinary Yuri

 

 

You are

water hose to the crooked warden

flood light to the invisible prison

earthquake underneath the gatekeepers’ feet

 

 

i imagine Yuri

sitting at a chair nearest the front door

leaning forward to tie her shoes

notebook and pen

in the fanny pack

already secured around her waist

checking off yesterday’s list in her head

tabs spilling off the sides of today’s schedule

 

i think of the times

she sat on panels and

we saw her eyebrows get twisted

at the question

by activists decades her junior

on the issue of burn-out

 

i heard her say in one way or another

that there is so much to do

there isn’t time left

to

think of herself

getting tired



i imagine Yuri again

and see


humility

excusing itself

and

revolution reflecting on

its future

 

i see

no wasted motion

a kind of Zen

without the stink of religion


i see

no rest for her weariness

no ego to prove

 



For a collection of her selected speeches

students at UCLA were keen

to include her handwritten notes

for a talk she gave on Malcolm X

to students in the 2nd and 3rd grade


In it, she shared an autograph

Malcolm wrote

to her daughter:


“Audee. Please help to

make this a better

world for all people.”


Yuri goes on to say:


“This is probably the

message he would give

to you—if he were here

today.

And he is here in

spirit.

 

‘To live in hearts that

are left behind is not to

die.’


Remember that—should

you ever lose someone

dear to you…

We, who loved Malcolm,

keep him alive in our

hearts.”



Yuri

who

tossed the cells of the ivory tower

in

open-ended questions

iron-clad ideals

and principle that didn’t flinch

 

You are


happiness in the pursuit of freedom

justice at the hands of peace

 

the way the walk sprints

 

the way the talk chants in the streets


the way social justice dresses itself every morning

the way self-determination decides to breathe

the all ways affirmative action

visitation that refuses to leave

the metal cup clanging across the prison bars

harbinger to the fire alarm


theory in motion

articulation in practice

hammer to clock

blowtorch to burnout

bridge to the bridges


i quote from You in honor of You


Yuri,

You are the fire

who reminds us

to

make this a

better world

for all people


This is the message

we would give to you

if you were here today


And you are here in

spirit


“To live in hearts that

are left behind is not to

die”


Remember that—now that we have lost a giant

 

We, who love you, honor you,

 

keep you alive in our hearts

forever

in every single

extraordinary

and

ordinary

way

 

*This tribute was originally published on Traci Kato-Kiriyama's blog.

© 2014 Traci Kato-Kiriyama

activism activist civil rights community malcolm x memorial women yuri kochiyama