By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu English Editor-in-Chief
“Black lives matter” was the impassioned message of speakers at this year’s Day of Remembrance ceremony held Feb. 21 at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo.
The social protest movement that grew last summer out of the police shooting of Michael Brown, a young black man in Ferguson, Mo., was the jumping-off point for a discussion on relations between Japanese Americans and African Americans.
Day of Remembrance is observed every year to mark the anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, authorizing the forcible removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans form the West Coast.
A capacity crowd filled the Aratani Central Hall to hear different takes on race relations between the Nikkei and the black communities. The event was sponsored by the Manzanar Committee, Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress, JACL Pacific Southwest District and JANM.
In a slide presentation, heroes from both communities, including Sue Kunitomi Embrey, Yuri Kochiyama, L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley, Rep. Mervyn Dymally and Malcolm X, were celebrated.
Hugh MacBeth, a black attorney who represented Fred and Kojiro Oyama, in a challenge to California’s Alien Land Act in 1945 was highlighted, as was Hisaye Yamamoto DeSoto, whose work at The L.A. Tribune immediately after the war included compiling reports of lynchings of African Americans.
During a panel discussion, Mike Murase remarked that there are “days of remembrance,” citing killings of African American men from Emmett Till in 1955 to Eric Garner in New York in 2015.
“They are not just killings of random individuals. They are significant to me because it represents the continuation of racism, hysteria and the failure of political leadership,” Murase said.
Dr. Curtiss Takada Rooks, a professor in Asian Pacific American Studies at Loyola Marymount University, moderated the panel discussion featuring Povi-Tamu Bryant, a leader in Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles, Rey Fukuda, assistant project manager in the East L.A. Community Corporation’s Real Estate Department and Murase of Little Tokyo Service Center.
Murase, an Asian American activist who was involved in the black and Chicano movements, shared a vivid memory of seeing a vigil held by black students at UCLA following the assassination of Malcolm X on Feb. 21, 1965.
“A lot of the people that were in the vigil were black friends I had gone to high school with and I became curious about who is this man Malcolm X? Later I became curious and read the ‘Autobiography of Malcolm X.’ I would say to this day that book and the story has been one of the five individuals who have been most influential in my life in terms of shaping my worldviews and outlook on society.”
Bryant said that her activism was informed by her upbringing in Los Angeles when she was often the only black person in most social settings.
Her work has included facilitating community-based workshops with organizations including INCITE! LA and Freedom Schools L.A. She said her experiences have led her to understand the importance of building solidarity while also educating oneself about the experiences of others.
“The most important thing is how we move into action, how do we show up, how do we do something? For me, one of my pushes for this conversation today to continue is to encourage people to be in dialogue with one another on what I can do from today,” Bryant said.
Fukuda, who is transgender, shared his story of coming out to his parents in his early twenties.
“How I share solidarity comes from there. I came out in my early 20s to my parents. During my time, my partner at that time was black and my mom in particular had a lot of issues with me being queer but also a lot of issues came from me deciding to be with a partner who is black,” Fukuda said. “It really shined a light on my understanding of how perpetual and pervasive anti-blackness is.”
Mariko Rooks, a 15-year-old student at Culver City High School and daughter of Dr. Rooks, vigorously represented the voice of youth in the dialogue. She was joined in a call to action by Alex Kanegawa, 19, a student at USC and a staff member at Tuesday Night Café.
As a mixed race African American-Japanese American youth, Rooks observed that her classmates, who are largely white and Asian at a liberal Westside school, reacted differently to the events in Ferguson.
“Several protests were held, things were tweeted, photos were Instagrammed about what a horrible incident this was. Because to many people, this was just an incident, an aberration in a normally peaceful, democratic and supportive American culture,” Rooks said. “Because many people don’t realize that we still live in a racist culture and a racist society, because they are not on the receiving end of it. Being part black, I am.”
At the day’s conclusion, Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles) offered a different perspective on the Day of Remembrance. Becerra, chair of the House Democratic Caucus, defended President Obama’s executive actions on immigration that would offer temporary legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants.
“Isn’t it interesting that an executive order issued by President Obama to keep families together is the same type of power that was used by a president to separate us (during World War II)?” Becerra said. “I believe we’re gathered here today because the power of this government can be very useful in bringing us together and I believe we should be proud of our president today for being so courageous to issue an executive order to tell immigrant families that we should not separate them and send their children to foster care.”
Photos by MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo