Today, on the 30th anniversary of the Civil Liberties Act, Japanese Americans have pledged to share their stories across social media (#neveragainisnow) to call attention to the unfinished business of true all inclusive freedom in America. This Act, signed by President Reagan, sought to formally apologize for unconstitutionally imprisoning Japanese American citizens during WWII, a neat and tidy way to close the book on the whole event and resist ever looking back. Problematically, the same racism and corruption that fueled Japanese American internment never left us, recently resurfacing as anti-immigration legislation and putting asylum-seeking children in caged detention centers.
I heard my grandma tell our particular family's internment story a dozen times: "they came in the middle of the night and took Papa away with no explanation. We didn't know where he was for 6 months until they forced us to join him in those barbed wire camps in the desert. I had to sleep in a horse's stall!"
I heard the words of this story, but it wasn't until I stepped onto the ground of where it all took place that I felt the words of the story. On a recent pilgrimage to the actual site in Southern Oregon, the Tule Lake Segregation Center, the dust from the desert landscape built up in my chest within minutes, and the weight of my grandma's story sank in deeply.
I was joined at Tule Lake by hundreds of former internees and their family members, where everyone had a chance to tell their own story of pain, fear, immeasurable loss, anger, and shame. To varying degrees, the emotional chord that linked all 400 people together was the feeling of Other, of being not a true American, and of never fully belonging.
Listening to the stories of those who had been there before, tromping through the relentlessly hot, dry, and isolated landscape, it is easy to get sucked into the doom of history repeating itself. The barbed wire fences looked so much like the footage of Texas detention centers I've recently seen on TV; the old photographs with "No Japs Allowed" signs passed around discussion groups seemed so much like recent border patrol's declarations of "America is full."
Then I remember Mark Twain: "history doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes." The decision about who gets the golden ticket into America has always been guided by arbitrary rules based on fear and/or greed - it's a universal part of human nature. For those Founding Fathers you had to be "white, free, and "moral" to qualify. But the good news is what many have always pointed out: we have the choice to be better. Democracy was always supposed to be a work in progress - James Madison knew this from the start and warned, "the Constitution was nothing more than the draft of a plan.. until life and vitality are breathed into it by the voice of the people." (Obama recently added more succinctly, "yes, we can.")
So, the Japanese American internment story - policy based on xenophobia and false facts, negatively affecting thousands of lives across generations - doesn't have to be repeated. We the People can change the key any time, even if we do it one note, one story, at a time.