Breaking the Lines that Bind Us
By Ryan Masaaki Yokota
On April 23rd, I went on the Manzanar Pilgrimage. There among the high winds and dust I and hundreds of others, some from across the nation, came together to visit the site that along with the other American concentration camps came to symbolize the most visible and poignant demonstration of racism in recent governmental history against my people.
In that desolate stretch of land along the I-395 highway, some 10,000 of the total 120,000 Japanese-Americans suffered the indignity of the internment camps, often losing their land and livelihood only to be carted off like cattle behind barbed wire.
As I went out into the barrenness of that desert landscape I couldn't help but wonder about how the camps had affected my community, and how many Nikkei in America continue to walk behind barbed wire, trapped in their feelings of shame and denial over the internment experience.
With the sun blazing down on me, my mind continued wandering and I thought of the Native Americans on whose land we stand even today, and how they were forced off their land by the U.S. expansionists, to be placed in concentration camps which we called "reservations." I couldn't help but wonder how much their experiences of being torn from their lands had affected their people, their languages, and their culture, and I wondered about the ways in which they continue to be affected.
As the dust flew in my eyes, I thought also of the African-Americans and the manner in which they had been torn from their native lands as well, to work in forced slave labor camps that we've euphemistically called "plantations," and I wondered how their experiences of being enslaved to the white man, along with the continued racism and segregation against them throughout history continue to affect them and inform them of the fundamental tenets of racism embedded in the American experience.
As I walked along the tumbleweeds and grew thirsty, I wondered even further about U.S. foreign policy in Southeast Asian countries, where U.S. wartime (and peacetime) intervention caused hundreds of thousands of Asians in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam to flee their homelands for safety, uprooting themselves to flee by any means necessary, risking disease, pirates, and death in order to find themselves placed into "refugee camps" where children continue to be born who have never seen the world outside the walls that binds them, or have never tasted the scent of freedom.
I wondered at the U.S. policies that continue to inform the barriers against these Asian refugees from gaining U.S. asylum, especially considering the tremendous responsibility of the U.S. government, considering their role in propagating the warfare in that region.
I further thought of the Mexicans and Latin and South Americans who even now wait to cross the lines that block America from the south, and who sit in "border camps" seeking to enter into this land of "freedom" and "liberty." I thought of El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama, and Chile and of all the U.S. intervention in those countries and many others that have caused the countries to collapse into environments unsafe for their citizenry.
I even think about the role of the U.S. in their frequently voiced desire to restrain immigration, a desire which becomes easily revealed as a racist notion, considering that nonwhite immigrants from Asia and South of the border comprise the majority of new populations coming into America. Even later as I went back to the services to honor those who suffered in Manzanar and other camps, I thought of Los Angeles, and how people of color continue to be placed in camps today, though these places are called "barrios" or "the hood," and how even today there exists social segregation of people of color, based on the lack of adequate educational opportunities, and the failure of the system to address the need for adequate programs of food, clothing, shelter, and vocational training for those in the inner city.
As I stood before the monolisk marking the cemetery of the people who had died in Manzanar, and thought and remembered my great-grandparents who had been interned in Fort Missoula and Rohwer, I wondered about the idea of the camp in American history and about the types of camps that have affected all people of color in America and how these camps continue to affect us all today in the type of inherent racism prevalent in all American institutions.
And as I walked out of the cemetery, bounded as it was by barbed wire to symbolize the barriers that had surrounded my ancestors in 1942, I stooped down and crossed through the lines to get outside. Walking away from the camps I wondered if we will someday learn how to cross the barbed wire borders in our lives, and learn to burst through the walls that have been constructed to confine and limit us.
Perhaps someday soon each and every one of us will have the courage to cross the lines to escape the walls of our lives, and perhaps someday we will all prove ourselves even braver by coming back to help free everyone else who continues to be confined in their concentration camps.
When all the segregation and concentration camps are destroyed, when all the barbed wire cut and all the walls crumble to dust, who knows, maybe then I will be proud to call this place the land of liberty.
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