Woke-Awake-Alive-Paying Attention – Call it What You Will.

On page 187 of the Ken Burns book OUR AMERICA: A Photograph History, is a photo taken in 1942. Like every photograph in the book, this one is also stunning. A man of Japanese descent is sitting outdoors in a wooden chair. Neatly dressed, his hands rest on his lap. There is sadness and resignation etched into his face. Just behind, and to his left, another man holds an infant girl. To his right, two young boys stand on a platform, both with downcast eyes. On the ground sit several boxes tied with string. The picture was taken by the famous photographer Dorothea Lange at the Japanese internment camp in Centerville, California.

Included in the photo’s description is a copy of a letter written by 23-year-old Kimi Tambara who was at the time interned at the Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho. His words–“I can now understand how an eagle feels when his wings are clipped and caged. Beyond the bars of his prison lies a wide expanse of the boundless skies, flocked with soft clouds, the wide, wide, fields of brush and woods-limitless space for the pursuit of LIFE itself.”

Seeing Lange’s photograph and reading the caption explaining it, I looked deeper into the history of internment during World War II. I learned that there was an internment camp fifteen miles from the Idaho town where I lived for more than a decade. The camp Tambara wrote about became a National Historical Site in 2001, some years after I left the area. It commemorates the over 13,000 men, women, and children who were imprisoned there during the war. Nothing that I recall was ever mentioned about the place during the decade I lived less than a fifteen-minute drive away.

I looked further and came upon another story. It was the story of a man who was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroism in World War II. He was born in Seattle, Washington in 1922, and died in combat on the 4th. of July 1944. His name was William Kenzo Nakamura. PFC Nakamura volunteered for the U.S. Army in 1943. Both of his parents had been placed in the Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho in 1942. They were both immigrants from Japan and had lived in this country for over twenty-five years. How does a man give up his life to protect a country that would imprison his mother and father for the crime of being born in another country?

So what do I, or you, make of this? There was understandably at the time vast anger towards and paranoia about people of Japanese heritage. Pearl Harbor had been bombed, and this country had entered the war. President Roosevelt signed the Executive Order 9066, allowing for the internment of Japanese Americans. How do we view this seventy-five years later?

Now here we are in 2023, and one cannot turn on national news without hearing the elected talking heads complaining about what history is taught, what should not be taught, what cannot be taught, and what should be taught. Apparently, it is their appointed right and responsibility to tell us, their constituents, what our children and grandchildren will be and will not be told in our schools. And to further that cause, what books can and cannot be used to teach our history, and what books can and cannot be held in school libraries. The message seems clear. We know better than you, and we will tell you what books are allowed, and which ones are not.

I had to look up what woke as it’s used today actually means. Having read it, I am still not sure. What is clear is it and other such words have been weaponized by both the Conservatives and the Liberals. Because I need simple in my life, I accept the idea that truth is truth, science is science, and history is history. There is room for discussion of what those words mean, but there has to be room and tolerance on both sides for that to happen. Very little in the world is black and white. Our country has been built on tolerance for the beliefs of others, yet there is a seismic shift occurring regarding any disagreement about what is and is not allowed today. We become something other than a democracy when one ideology, whether it be Left or Right, has the power to impose their will unfettered, and that all citizens MUST follow their dictates.

Some noteworthy quotes about banning books:

“Don’t join the book burners. Don’t think you’re going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed. Don’t be afraid to go to your library and read every book…” Dwight D. Eisenhower.

“Every banned book enlightens the world.” Ralph Waldo Emerson.

“Yes, books are dangerous. They should be dangerous – they contain ideas.” Pete Hautman.

William Kenzo Nakamura

One thought on “Woke-Awake-Alive-Paying Attention – Call it What You Will.

  1. David, your recounts are very poignant. They are significant in today’s environment perhaps even more than in years past since the unintended consequences are potentially more severe. The saddest thing is how little or how slow our ability to learn important lessons have become. Think about how our grandchildren will understand the truths of history.


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