Today, I sort of tripped over history.
Last week, a friend posted on facebook about a Fathom Events cinematic showing of the Broadway musical Allegiance, and I thought “Huh. I should go see that.” I’d missed seeing it on the actual Broadway. I follow George Takei on twitter, and he’s delightful. Funny and poignant and unabashedly liberal. I have fond memories of him in Star Trek, but beyond that, I couldn’t tell you anything else I’ve seen him in. But Allegiance was his brainchild, and I knew it was about the internment of Japanese-Americans, and I’d heard it was good. So I bought a ticket. I literally didn’t give it any more thought than that. I completely missed the symbolism of this show being shown on this day, February 19.
See, Mr. Takei was one of approximately 120,000 Americans who were interred in camps after the Pearl Harbor attack during World War II. I don’t remember much about this moment from my American history classes, other than what I just wrote. I know we learned that it happened, and it was bad, but beyond that…
So, on this unseasonably sunny day, I set out for the mall to catch a Broadway show. I arrived about an hour early (oops, got my times wrong), so had the entire theater to myself for a while. Scrolling facebook on my phone, I stopped, stunned, at a post from a friend with Japanese-American heritage:
I set my phone down and stared at the empty theater, gobsmacked.
No clue. I had no clue this was the anniversary of the executive order. Heck, I didn’t even know it was an executive order. I picked my phone back and up and read the order. Shook my head, frowned, then read it again. And I felt a chill; there was nowhere in that order that mentioned “Japanese-American” people. The words were colder. The words basically said that the US military could designate zones, whenever and wherever they wanted, “from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion.”
In a horrifying nutshell, the military had authority to exclude anyone they wanted from anywhere they wanted, and could force those people to move to other locations where, if the military felt so inclined, they would be fed and clothed and housed…maybe.
This was America. 1942. One stroke of a pen from the President. A Democratic president, it’s worth mentioning.
Shaken, I sat silently as the theater began to fill with people. I had only a few minutes to wrestle with the parallels between then and now before the show began. As it did, I idly noted some production flaws (the syncing of music and film was a little off at times), but within a few moments, I was completely enmeshed in the lives of the people I was seeing on screen.
I spent pretty much the entire show either on the verge of tears or with them dripping down my face. For a change, I wasn’t thinking about the structure of the show, or if that musical number belonged, or if that lighting cue could have been better. I was fully immersed in a beautiful and tragic story of warm, flawed, stoic, and loving people trying to survive.
Bubbling under my appreciation for music and choreography and costumes that touched my heart was fury and anger that my country could do this, and then sweep it under the rug. That’s the most basic of emotions. But I also ached at the duality the show revealed, as these earnest, patriotic, fiercely loyal people wrestled with how to respond to the outrage being foisted upon them. Some chose to enlist in the military, the same military that was interning them, out of a heart-breaking belief that if they proved themselves by dying for their country, it would help their families trapped in camps/prisons. Others sought resistance, through burning draft cards (yes, we DRAFTED people we’d put in internment camps) and smuggling letters out of the camp so other Americans could see/hear what was happening.
These two different responses to the internments tore the family apart in the most heart-wrenching of ways, and I was struck at how close we are to this reality today. Most decent people don’t think that rounding up people based on religion or ethnicity is good. Most decent people believe that something like the internments would never happen again.
But fear does funny things to decent people. And it’s in the response, in the ways we choose to react to such horrors, that the danger lives for those of us not immediately impacted. We can double down on patriotism, hope our loyalty is rewarded, and risk the guilt of staying quiet in the name of “not rocking the boat.” Or we can actively resist, risk being branded as naive and reactionary, and potentially widen the fractures in our own families. Maybe there’s a middle ground, I don’t know.
But we’d be foolish…heck we ARE foolish…to overlook history. Yes, the show I saw was a dramatization. But this chapter in our history HAPPENED. And I am fiercely ashamed of how quickly we forgot about it.
As the show ended, our theater burst into applause, even though the actors on the screen couldn’t hear us. I slowly tuned in to the sniffles around me and realized I wasn’t alone in being affected by this story. As I walked back to my car, I reflected on conversations I’ve had, as I try to figure out how to respond to today’s political reality, about how tired some Americans are of “apologizing”, whether for slavery, or wiping out our indigenous tribes, or dropping a nuclear bomb (twice), or spewing poisonous gases into the air, or even just being white and privileged. I get it. It’s tough to be “the greatest nation on earth” and have such blemishes on our history.
How do we show allegiance to our country, while also acknowledging its failures?
I was always taught, from elementary school through business school, that the strongest people admit their mistakes and learn from them. Granted, as a society we often don’t follow through on that lofty ideal, but I refuse to accept that we should stop trying.
Allegiance is just one story about an incredibly shameful time in America’s history. I wish our current leaders could watch and it and be moved, but I doubt they will, or would. But if you out there reading this have a chance to see it, please do. You might react differently than I did, and that’s ok. But I think you’ll fall in love with the people portrayed, as I did, and will maybe learn something, as I did. I think learning and re-learning things might be our only hope.
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