Friday, January 24, 2014
January 24, 2014: Civil Rights Histories: Yuri Kochiyama
[Following up my MLK Day post, a series on some of the crucial complexities of the Civil Rights movement and related histories and stories. The weekend will feature another crowd-sourced post, so please share both your takes on these posts and some of the histories and stories you’d highlight. Thanks!]
On the inspiring life that has pushed way past racial binaries and categorizations.
Scholars and activists associated with ethnic American communities and identities—Asian, Hispanic, Native, and others—have long critiqued our national tendency to treat race as a binary, to focus solely (or at least centrally) on the (already complex and unstable) categories of black and white. The same could be said of our dominant narratives of the Civil Rights Movement, which similarly focus largely (if not exclusively) on those racial categories, and ignore the era’s concurrent movements for Chicano, Asian, and American Indian equality, among others. What’s more, even if we recognize those multiple communities and movements, it’s far too easy to treat them as separate and distinct, rather than to engage with the ways, issuse, and moments through which they intersect and intertwine and become inseparable parts of American communities and histories.
One American whose amazing life and work force us to push beyond those concepts is Yuri Kochiyama. Kochiyama’s life certainly highlights the evolving histories of Asian American identity, community, and civil rights, from her childhood years in a Japanese internment camp through her role as a mentor for young Asian American activists in the 1960s and 70s and up to her central role in advocating for the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which awarded $20,000 to each internment survivor. But Kochiyama’s activism (which continues to this day) has crossed well beyond one race, culture, or community: in 1977, for example, she joined a group of Puerto Rican activists in their takeover of the Statue of Liberty in support of Puerto Rican independence; and, most famously and compellingly, in the early 1960s she became friends with Malcolm X (with whom she shared a birthday), joined his Organization of Afro-American Unity, and was present at his Febraury 1965 assassination, holding his body in her arms as he died.
Given that (as I’ve argued all week) we don’t remember the Civil Rights Movement nearly as fully or with as much complexity as we should, it might seem crazy to argue that we should also be trying to push our narratives past the central focal points of that movement. But the truth, as I see it, is that those two efforts—remembering the movement more accurately, and pushing beyond it—go hand in hand. As Yuri Kochiyama illustrates, better remembering a single Japanese American life means also better remembering the dark histories of the internment camps, the burgeoning Asian rights movement, forgotten Puerto Rican activists, and Malcolm X’s evolving and tragically unfinished final years and work, among many other things. Similarly, the Civil Rights Movement, while hugely significant and inspiring on its own terms, also connects to numerous other American histories and stories, communities and identities, tragedies and activisms. I say we go ahead and remember it all!
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
BenPS. So what do you think? Responses to any of the week’s posts? Other Civil Rights histories or stories you’d highlight?