Alphawood Gallery debuts internment exhibition by Carrie Maxwell, Windy City Times 2017-07-05
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Seventy-five years ago President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. This order set in motion the forced removal and internment, without due process, of over 120,000 citizens and legal residents of Japanese ancestry living on or near the west coast during World War II.
For its first original exhibition Alphawood Gallery, in partnership with the Japanese-American Service Committee ( JASC ), debuted Then They Came for Me: Incarceration of Japanese-Americans during WWII and the Demise of Civil Liberties at a June 28 opening reception.
The event featured keynote addresses by Japanese-American Citizens League Program Coordinator Rebecca Ozaki and Exhibition Curatorial Committee member and Fermalogic, Inc. COO Roy Wesley.
Alphawood Foundation Executive Director James McDonough kicked off the event by noting the Art AIDS America exhibit that was recently on display at the gallery.
"We wanted to continue telling important stories like that in this space," said McDonough. "We thought that this [Japanese-American incarceration] story was very important to tell especially at this moment in our country's history."
Chicago Commission on Human Relations Commissioner Mona Noriega read a statement from Mayor Rahm Emanuel who was unable to attend. In Emanuel's statement he noted the importance of remembering what happened to Japanese-Americans so it does not happen again.
Chicago's Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events Commissioner Mark Kelly noted that this exhibit is a reminder to everyone how easy it is to demonize a group of people due to fear and ignorance.
JASC CEO Mike Takada echoed the others about how timely the exhibit is in this current political climate. He also talked about the JASC's involvement with the exhibit.
Wesley ( who spent the first two years of his life incarcerated with his family at Minidoka War Relocation Center in the Snake River Plain 17 miles northeast of Twin Falls, Idaho ) spoke about his family's immigration story from Japan to Portland, Oregon.
"My experience as a third generation Japanese-American, or sansei, is typical of many Japanese-Americans of my time," said Wesley. "My family immigration histories are also pretty typical of Japanese-Americans who came to America around the turn-of-the-century [in 1900]."
Wesley noted that all of his grandparents built lives rooted in American ideals that were passed along to their children, including his parents. He explained that his family's way of life was upended when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
"Dad was a 24-year-old president of the Portland Japanese American Citizens League ( JACL )," said Wesley. "JACL was fiercely patriotic then as it is today. He rebutted false accusations and rumors against the Japanese-Americans reported in the Oregon Journal and the Oregonian. He was interviewed by the newspapers and he also testified to the Tolan Committee on behalf of the community to prevent incarceration.
"Dad served on the Portland auxiliary fire department and the police department. He trained and marched with the police. He guarded bridges in the middle of the night in case there was an enemy invasion. It's amazing that he was able to do that in spite of the hysteria against Japanese-American citizens at the time. He also assisted the FBI in identifying Japanese Issei loyalists. He saw this as his patriotic duty."
Wesley noted that everything his father did was in vain because of the prejudice, hate and discrimination against Japanese Americas at the time.
"I was born on May 5, 1942the last day we were ordered to go to the Portland Assembly Center," said Wesley. " Dad had to apply to the War Relocation Authority for an exemption because of my birth. Mom and I had three days at the Good Samaritan hospital before being taken into the Portland assembly Center ... I was born and immediately became a suspect enemy alien capable of sabotage and had to be locked up behind barbed wire and guarded by rifle toting soldiers in case I tried to escape."
Wesley explained that his father was able to leave the camp to go to college ( he did this even though he already had his Doctor of Optometry degree ). He said his dad chose Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana and that is when he changed the family name from Uyesugi to Wesley after the founder of the Methodist church. Wesley noted that his parents, especially his mother, never recovered from their time in the incarceration camp.
"Remember James Baldwin's words from I Am Not Your Negro," said Wesley. "'History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history. If we pretend otherwise, we literally are criminals.'"
Ozaki read her late grandfather's ( Sam Ozaki ) 1981 Redress testimony where he recounted his time at the Jerome War Relocation Center in southeastern Arkansas beginning when he was 17 years old.
"My grandpa was the first Asian American principal in Chicago, a beloved community activist and my best friend and hero," said Ozaki. "He was one of the only people I ever felt truly listened to me. He made a decision to speak out against the injustice that was done to him and the injustice that continues to target communities of color and marginalized groups in this country."
Ozaki noted that because her grandfather stood up and spoke about his story in 1981 and later at a Day of Remembrance event commemorating the signing of Executive Order 9066 shortly after 9/11 she was able to understand what resistance means.
When her grandfather said "We will never let it happen again" at the commemoration event she said those words became ingrained in her mind.
"They have come to guide my own path as an aspiring organizer and advocate," said Ozaki. "More recently I remember my feeling of helplessness as a string of Executive Orders were released ... That the unconstitutional Muslim ban spawns from the same hate and fear politics as my family's history of incarceration. And the mass incarceration and brutality against Black bodies also parallel my family's story ... I had to find my place in this movement ... We need to remember that we are part of a collective resistance and so many of us have the same vision of an equitable future ... My act of resistance is sharing my family's story of incarceration ... I urge you to find yours."
Among the over 200 attendees were two survivors of the incarceration campsYuki Hiyama and Chicago Japanese-American Historical Society President Jean Mishima.
Hiyama ( who was taken with her family when she was 13 years old to Manzanar War Relocation Center at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains in California's Owens Valley ) explained that she did not know it was an incarceration camp because they were one of the first families to arrive. She said her older brother volunteered to go to Manzanar so that is how her entire family ended up there. Hiyama noted that they had to make their own mattresses out of hay. She explained that her older sisters were married to servicemen and lived in Chicago. In order for them to leave the camp and come to Chicago her sisters got their father a job at the Hilton Hotel as a chef. This was in 1944.
Mishima ( who was taken with her family when she was six years old to Gila River War Relocation Center 30 miles southeast of Phoenix, Arizona ) said at the time she did not realize they were incarcerated but as an adult she learned the truth. She explained that they got permission to leave the camp in 1944 when her mom got a job in Chicago. Mishima noted that Chicago was one of the welcoming cities for Japanese-Americans during World War II.
Tatsu Aoki and The MIYUMI Project provided the evening's entertainment.
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