Why We Must Remember Rohwer

Why We Must Remember Rohwer  George Takei for Huffington Post

Last week, just before the attacks in Boston, I took a pilgrimage. I traveled to Arkansas to dedicate the Japanese American Internment Museum in McGehee. The town lies between two places of great sadness: Jerome internment camp to the southwest, and Rohwer camp to the northeast. Over seventy years ago, my family and I were forced from our home in Los Angeles at gunpoint by U.S. soldiers and sent to Rohwer, all because we happened to look like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor. I was just five years old, and would spend much of my childhood behind barbed wire in that camp and, later, another in California called Tule Lake. One hundred twenty thousand other Japanese Americans from the West Coast suffered a similar fate.

I was the keynote speaker at the dedication ceremony of the museum. A number of internees attended with their families, as well as about 500 people, primarily from Arkansas, along with historians from throughout the United States. After the dedication ceremony, we moved on to the actual Rohwer camp site about 20 minutes away.

 

george at commemoration 

Almost nothing remains where the camp once stood. We went to dedicate a historic marker, along with half a dozen audio kiosks. It was admittedly poignant to hear my own voice narrating from those kiosks about the importance of each specific site, marking ground where we had been held against our will, without charge or trial, so long ago.

 

georgea look back in time 

One of the audio kiosks is placed just about at the site of the crude barrack that housed my family and me — block 6, barrack 2, unit F. We were little more than numbers to our jailers, each of us given a tag to wear to camp like a piece of luggage. My tag was 12832-C.

I have memories of the nearby drainage ditch where I used to catch pollywogs that sprouted legs and eventually and magically turned into frogs. I remember the barbed wire fence nearby, beyond which lay pools of water with trees reaching out from them. We were in the swamps, you see: fetid, hot, mosquito-laden. We were isolated, far enough away from anywhere anyone would want to live.

Today, I recognize nothing. The swamp has been drained, the trees have all been chopped down. It is now just mile after mile of cotton fields. Everything I remember is gone.

The most moving of the sites is the cemetery. As a child, I never went there, yet that is the only thing that still stands from Rohwer Camp, except for a lone smokestack where the infirmary once operated. The memorial marker is a tall, crumbling concrete obelisk, in tribute to the young men who went from their barbed wire confinement to fight for America, perishing on bloody European battlefields. That day, I stood solemnly with surviving veterans who had served in the segregated all-Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the most decorated unit in all the war.

We ended the ceremony with a release of butterflies. They symbolized beauty confined, first in cocoons, then in a box, but now released, free to go and be wherever they chose.

 

grav weldon butterfly shot 

As I write this, once again the national dialogue turns to defining our enemies, the impulse to smear whole communities or people with the actions of others still too familiar and raw. Places like the museum and Rohwer camp exist to remind us of the dangers and fallibility of our democracy, which is only as strong as the adherence to our constitutional principles renders it. People like myself and those veterans lived through that failure, and we understand how quickly cherished liberties and freedom may slip away or disappear utterly.

Places like Rohwer matter, more than seventy years later. And so, we remember.

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A new piece!

I am still making artworks related to Executive Order 9066, and just finished this piece for the “La Frontera” exhibition, being sponsored jointly by Velvet Da Vinci Gallery and Museo Franz Mayer in Mexico City.

Called Sweet Bird, the wooden bird pin was made by a Japanese American internee in one of the camps, believed to be Minidoka – it was given to me by John Grew-Sheridan:  his late wife, Carolyn, had received it as a gift.  Unfortunately we don’t know who made this pin, nor do we know who gave the pin to Carolyn originally.   I thought I would make a shrine for this sweet little bird.

Velvet Da Vinci is a great jewelry gallery in San Francisco and invited me to participate in this exhibition.  While my piece is does have a piece of jewelry in it, it cannot be removed from its permanent home.

La Frontera at Museo Franz Mayer  in Mexico City
June 6 – July 28, 2013
Opening reception: June 6, 2013 at Museo Franz Mayer
La Frontera at Velvet da Vinci Gallery in San Francisco
August 14 – September 15, 2013
Opening reception: August 16, 6-8 pm at Velvet da Vinci

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Exhibition Schedule for Executive Order 9066/The Tag Project

The Society of Arts and Crafts

Boston, Massachusetts

September 8 – November 3, 2012

 

Arkansas Art Center

Little Rock, Arkansas

February 1 – April 21, 2013

 

Arizona State University Art Museum

Tempe, Arizona

September 28, 2013 – January 4, 2014

 

San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art

San Jose, California

March 1 – May 24, 2014

 

Museum of Craft and Design

San Francisco, California

October 2, 2014 – January 4, 2015

Lawson Fusao Inada reads “Concentration Constellation”

Concentration Constellation

In this early configuration,
we have, not points of light,
but prominent barbs of dark.

It’s all right there on the map.
It’s all right there in the mind.
Find it. If you care to look.

Begin between the Golden State’s
highest and lowest elevations
and name that location

Manzanar. Rattlesnake a line
southward to the zone
of Arizona, to the home
of natives on the reservation,
and call those Gila, Poston.

Then just take your time
winding your way across
the Southwest expanse, the Lone
Star State of Texas, gathering
up a mess of blues as you
meander around the banks
of the humid Mississippi; yes,
just make yourself at home
in the swamps of Arkansas,
for this is Rohwer and Jerome.

By now, you weary of the way,
It’s a big country, you say.
It’s a big history, hardly
Halfway through – with Amache
Looming in the Colorado desert,
Heart Mountain high in wide

Wyoming, Minidoka on the moon
of Idaho, then down to Utah’s
jewel of Topaz before finding
yourself at northern California’s
frozen shore of Tule Lake …

Now regard what sort of shape
this constellation takes.
It sits there like a jagged scar,
massive, on the massive landscape.
It lies there like the rested wire
of a twisted and remembered fence.

Lawson Fusao Inada, “Concentration Constellation” in Legends from Camp (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 1993).