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Tuesday, January 19, 2016

January 19, 2016: King’s Colleagues: Yuri Kochiyama

[Each year for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I share a special post on better remembering the many layers of one of our most important and inspiring figures and voices. This week I’ve followed it up with a series AmericanStudying some of King’s colleagues in the Civil Rights Movement. Add your thoughts on King, the movement, or any related histories and issues for a crowd-sourced civil rights post, please!]

On the inspiring life that pushed way past racial binaries and categorizations.

Scholars and activists associated with a number of 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 too often ignore or minimize 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, issues, and moments through which they intersect, intertwine, and become inseparable parts of the time period and of American communities and histories more broadly.

One American whose amazing life and work force us to push beyond those concepts is Yuri Kochiyama. Kochiyama’s life certainly highlighted 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 continued into the 21st century and was still very much ongoing at the time of her passing in 2014 ) 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 yesterday’s MLK Day post delineated) we don’t remember even the most prominent Civil Rights Movement histories 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!
Next King colleague tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Civil Rights figures or responses you’d share?

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