Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Balm of Anger

The following is part of my exploration of a topic that fascinates me--immigration. I am writing and reading alongside of my students as they also research a topic that has captured their fascination.

The lengths people go in order to become American, or live in a America, speaks volumes about how great we have it as well as how poorly others can have it across the globe.

The willingness to strip one's life of possessions and family heirlooms must be a shared experience among immigrants from many nations and many decades. However, to the immigrant in that moment, possessions must take on an immediate insignificance--after all, what value is there in a thing when compared to one's freedom?

In I Am an American by Jerry Stanley, the following quote takes the release of personal possessions to another level:
Stunned by the growing hostility, the Nisei tried to appear as un-Japanese as possible. Slowly, sadly, all along the west coast of America, they destroyed what they possessed of their Asian heritage. Japanese books and magazines were burned because of a rumor that FBI agents had found such materials in the homes of Issei arrested on suspicion of sabotage. Priceless diaries, letters, and photographs were burned; porcelain vases, tea sets, and silk tablecloths were buried or dumped on the street.
The Issei (pronounced EES-say) were born in Japan. The Nisei (pronounced KNEE-say), born in America to Issei parents, are American citizens. Stanley's narrative makes me wonder about a major difference between what my European ancestors experienced and what the Japanese-Americans were forced to endure. For the Japanese-Americans, the destruction of their possessions was an effort to make oneself "less"--to deny who you were, where you came from, to hide--to reject your blood--to scrub one's race and heritage from their skin.

This astounds me.

The effort to strip away a perception. The effort to throw away who you are. The effort to convince us that you are not what we fear you are. 

I am certain that some would respond that I should not be angry or embarrassed, but thankful. Nevertheless, I am left wondering what drives some of the decisions our leaders made in 1942, or the painful words they uttered.

For example, Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt incited the American public's fear, anger, and sense of loss when he roared, "A Jap's a Jap and it makes no difference if he is an American citizen." His words reek of the need to blame and the need to physically vent out our emotion.  Anger and hatred becomes a balm.

When people slam doors or throw objects out of emotion, they transfer their venom onto what they have in their hands at the time...or what they can control. When emotion and common sense are in conflict, emotion wins.

And anger can literally pull us out of our minds.

Today I think of my Italian-American uncles and aunts who served our country during WWII. I wonder how they felt about the internment of the Japanese-Americans--both in the moment, and long after the fact. Was there a double-standard in my family? Or did they empathize, fearful of facing a similar fate as American was not only at war with Japan, but with Germany and Italy as well.

Or did my ancestors understand, that our fear and anger only ran skin deep?

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