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What We Forget in Memorializing

Out of the whirlwind of statements that have come out from the President’s mouth over the past couple days, I could not wrap my head around the fact that Trump doesn’t understand what a Robert E. Lee statue means or its significance. He threw George Washington and Thomas Jefferson into the same category, accusing and questioning if people will start calling for the takedown of monuments of them.

But not everything can be black and white, or how Trump wants things.

To gain some perspective and to start understanding, I first looked at myself and where I was.

I looked at myself. As a fourth generation Japanese American, my family is no stranger to a history of racial injustice. My paternal grandmother and great-grandparents were incarcerated at Gila River and Tule Lake. Before that, they were detained at Santa Anita racetrack where they slept in horse stalls. They sacrificed their home, their possessions, and had to question their identity and loyalty to the US through two questions on a survey that inevitably decided their fate and if the family would be able to stay together.

Author as a baby in her grandma’s arms, with cousins.

I looked at where I was. I am currently a fourth-year student at UC San Diego. I was on my way to study at our famous Geisel Library, named after Dr. Seuss (and all the donations the Geisel family has contributed).

But before Dr. Seuss became the beloved children’s writer, he drew political cartoons during WWII. While mostly condemning fascism and commenting on other aspects of the war, he also drew a famous cartoon depicting all Japanese Americans along the West Coast as traitors, getting handed TNT and waiting for “a signal from home.” I am not saying that Dr. Seuss single-handedly caused the incarceration of Japanese Americans, but it’s more than fair to say that he at least contributed to the fear that Japanese Americans were dangerous and would betray the US and the racist idea that since they looked like the enemy, were inherently not “American”.

Including his past, I generally perceive Dr. Seuss as a positive figure and a writer whose books I loved when I was younger. But I won’t let myself forget about that cartoon, it is an undeniable part of his legacy. And I have always found it troubling that most historical societies, and even UC San Diego very rarely admits to this.

What is often lost when monumentalizing someone is forgetting the fact that not everyone is perfect. And when you put up a statue or name a library for most people in our history, both the accomplishments and the incapacities must be put on the forefront. A revisionist history that glosses over the bad and only the highlights the good not only lets us forget essential elements of our history but also diminishes the existence of the oppressed.

No one is calling for monuments of George Washington or Thomas Jefferson to be taken down because most people, and especially people of color, understand the contradiction that although they founded this country on the value that “all men are created equal,” they did own slaves. But unlike Robert E. Lee, slavery is not the entirety of what they represent or what they fought for. They fought for unity of the thirteen colonies, not for secession rooted in slavery. And slavery is never what they killed for. So much killing that they are now present-day symbols of white supremacy.

In monumentalizing the Founding Fathers or Dr. Seuss, it is necessary to acknowledge their shortcomings as well as their forthcomings. But it is also imperative that we understand that symbols like statues of Robert E. Lee are exceptions. What these statues represent is now bigger than the person. Confederate monuments now symbolize oppression, systematic racism, bloodshed, nationalism, violence. And that is so important to white supremacists and Neo-Nazis that they felt the need to protect it unashamedly, without hoods and tiki torches in hand.

Based on his comments, Mr. Trump clearly does not understand this. For the better of our country I can only hope that he will soon.

I also hope that Japanese Americans understand that although recent events have not attacked us specifically as a community, that not speaking up or feeling prompted to do something can almost be just as harmful. While there are plenty of issues that could be improved for not only Japanese Americans but Asian Americans in general, it is also important to check our privilege. We need to acknowledge more that what our grandparents and great-grandparents went through in the incarceration camps has allowed us to rise and now we are on a platform and possess a voice to be able to speak out about their experience, to make the necessary connections, and to fight for our brothers and sisters. We need to do what people were too scared to do in our grandparents’ time and share their experiences. And we most definitely cannot gloss over the shameful parts of our history and pretend like it never happened.

 

Editor’s note: Discover Nikkei is an archive of stories representing different communities, voices, and perspectives. This article presents the opinions of the author and does not necessarily reflect the views of Discover Nikkei and the Japanese American National Museum. Discover Nikkei publishes these stories as a way to share different perspectives expressed within the community.

© 2017 Stephanie Adachi

Dr. Seuss japanese american monuments racism Robert E. Lee Trump World War II