Exploring a Dark Chapter in American History

By Mrs. McHugh

HHS Librarian

Imagine if the government deemed you and your family a threat to national security. You’re told to pack what you can carry and report for relocation, not knowing if you’ll ever see your home, community or possessions again. 

This is what happened to thousands of people of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast after the attack on Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941. While the United States had previously watched World War II from afar, the conflict now hit closer to home than ever imagined. The U.S. government turned its sights on possible spies and saboteurs within its own borders, focusing on Japanese Americans and immigrants. Some of these prisoners – referred to as internees or evacuees throughout history – were U.S. citizens. Some had lived in the country for decades, but hadn’t been allowed to become citizens because of immigration laws. Many had children born here, who were citizens no matter their parentage. Yet all were treated the same, their rights stripped from them because they looked like the enemy, imprisoned in isolated and inhospitable “internment camps” with uncertain futures.

There have been many books written about this awful chapter in American history. One of the latest, We Are Not Free by Tracy Chee, is a moving novel sharing the stories of 14 teens from one San Francisco community. What I liked about this book is that it covers many different experiences: the Americanized teen trying to make the best of life in the camps, which offer dances and sports along with barbed wire and armed guards; the young man who enlists in the Army because he believes in America despite what it’s done to his family; the conflicted youth whose parents would rather return to Japan than deal with such poor treatment; the teens who protest the harsh living conditions. With a chapter told from the point of view of each character, the reader learns a lot more about the time period than they might from their history textbooks. While there may have been some cases where people of Japanese ancestry acted as spies in the war, most families who were imprisoned were innocent victims of bigotry and fear. The chapter about a young man named Twitchy is especially powerful, based on the real experiences of Japanese-American Army units who saw some of the toughest fighting of the war.

If this topic interests you, here are a few more recommendations:

The Train to Crystal City by Jan Jarboe Russell – While We are Not Free touches on the experience of imprisoned families facing deportation to Japan, this nonfiction book goes into much more depth. For one thing, it wasn’t just Japanese immigrants who were imprisoned in camps during World War II; there were Germans in America who were considered dangerous as well. When these immigrants – mostly men who pledged loyalty to the U.S. and were never charged with a crime – were jailed in camps, their wives and children would join them rather than struggle to survive on their own. If the men were deported, the children followed without question, even if they were born in America and therefore citizens. The author describes one such family that was sent to a Japanese city devastated by an atomic bomb; there were neither the resources nor the goodwill to welcome them and the family struggled to survive. 

Manzanar by John Armor and Peter Wright – In commentary by a journalist who covered World War II and stark black and white photographs, this nonfiction book details life in one of the largest prison camps for Japanese Americans. While the camps offered things like Boy Scout troops, dances and softball leagues, they also featured tall barbed wire fences and armed guards. Homes were crowded barracks that barely provided shelter from the harsh weather of the isolated mountain or desert regions where camps were built. Food was rationed, mail was censored, and prisoners lost hope.

Internment by Samira Ahmed – Although fiction, the premise of this story feels a little too easy to imagine. It’s the near future, and the U.S. government has imprisoned all Muslim-Americans in internment camps, including 17-year-old Layla and her family. Even though they are citizens, they are stripped of their rights and possessions and considered enemies of the state. This echoes what happened to Japanese-Americans during World War II. It also draws on the hate and fear directed at Muslims after the September 11th attacks committed by radicals in the name of their religion. This is a fast-paced, thrilling story of tolerance and reason triumphing over fear and hate. It also highlights the danger we face when we stay silent in the face of injustice.

Featured image: A Japanese internment camp in California in 1942. Eliot Elisofon/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images from https://eji.org/news/history-racial-injustice-forced-internment-of-japanese-americans/

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