Category Archives: history

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The Forgotten Story of Japanese American Zoot Suiters

By Guest Contributor Ellen D. Wu, cross-posted from Nikkei Chicago

Sus Kaminaka was a zoot suiter: one of the many young people in 1940s America who embraced a distinctive, working-class urban aesthetic characterized by flamboyant fashions and irreverent comportment. Kaminaka and other hipsters sported pompadours and ducktail haircuts, “drapes” consisting of broad-shouldered, long fingertip coats tapered at the ankles, pleated pegged pants, wide-brimmed hats, and watch fobs. They also loved to party. Jazz, jitterbugging, lindy hopping, drinking, casual sex, and “cool” were just as integral to the lives of zoot suiters as their characteristic dress.

Sus Kaminaka was also a Nisei: a second-generation American born to immigrant Japanese parents and raised in the farmlands of California’s Sacramento Delta region. Planning to follow in his father’s footsteps, Kaminaka enrolled at a local agricultural college to study truck crops.

But President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, signed on February 19, 1942 and authorizing the secretary of war to “prescribe military areas… from which any or all persons may be excluded” completely upended his ambitions. Ostensibly region- and race-neutral, the order targeted Pacific Coast Japanese Americans. Forced to leave school, home, and community, he soon found himself in the Stockton Assembly Center, one of the 16 temporary way stations for the 120,000 Nikkei (persons of Japanese ancestry) en route to longer-term concentration camps.

On incarceration, Kaminaka’s worldview changed entirely. Previously intent on earning his college degree, a goal he now considered hopeless, he dropped out of his center’s adult education program. Once “proud of living in the best country in the world,” Kaminaka abandoned the idea of registering for the franchise. “I don’t think I was too interested in voting anyway because I didn’t know what it was all about and my vote didn’t mean a thing,” he shrugged. Deciding that hard work was an exercise in futility, he instead “concentrated on having fun like [he] saw the other kids doing.” Before the war, he used to regard Nisei girls as “something sacred” and “never had any dirty thoughts [about] them.” But in Stockton, he shed his “nice boy” reputation. He signed up with an eight-member “gang,” and spent his days and nights chasing young women and going to camp dances. It was during this time that he also acquired his first zoot suit.
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‘Murican Idol: Here’s What Didn’t Get Phil Robertson Suspended from Duck Dynasty

By Arturo R. García

Phil Robertson of “Duck Dynasty.” Image via Facebook.

By now you’ve no doubt heard that reality “star” Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty “fame” was suspended from the show — or, in snake-oil TV-speak, placed on “indefinite hiatus” — after glibly engaging in some concern-trolling homophobia in a GQ interview while painting his show and his family’s public embrace of its Christian faith as some sort of antidote for whatever it believes ails America.

But what hasn’t been reported nearly as widely is the amount of outright racially prejudiced statements Robertson also lets fly in the piece, which points to a bigger problem for A&E. The network has been all too happy to trade on Robertson and his family’s “good ol’ boy” brand. Now it has to deal with the consequences.
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Western Privilege and Anti-black Racism in Panama

By Guest Contributor Aliyya Swaby

Residents of Colón, Panama, have been fighting to get the government to renovate their dilapidated colonial-era buildings, with little success. Images by the author.

In late September, I moved from New York City to Panama City to start a freelance journalism project. For two college summers, I had traveled in Latin American countries and did not see many people who looked like me.

In Ecuador, a friend told me I seemed more “French” than “Ecuadorean” black, because I wasn’t too aggressive. As I walked around Peru’s inland cities, men called out “Chincha,” the name of the predominately black coastal city.

I thought I would feel more comfortable in Panama, where the skin color gradient includes darker shades of brown. After all, my West Indian immigrant parents belong to the same diaspora as many Panamanian black people, whose ancestors were imported by the U.S. government as laborers on the Panama Canal.

But the reality is more complex. I recently found blogger BlackinAsia’s posts on being a black Westerner abroad, and immediately zeroed in on this quotation: “We inhabit a liminal space which is difficult to dissect, but that’s why a more nuanced analysis is necessary — with “Westernness” bestowing on us some privileges abroad (e.g. diplomatic immunity) rooted in the global power of our countries or origin, but our “blackness” leading to our oppression due to anti-black sentiments. We encounter and live both while abroad as black Westerners.”

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Quoted: On Colonial America’s Relationship With Islam

Third U.S. President Thomas Jefferson. Image via history.com.

At a time when most Americans were uninformed, misinformed, or simply afraid of Islam, Thomas Jefferson imagined Muslims as future citizens of his new nation. His engagement with the faith began with the purchase of a Qur’an eleven years before he wrote the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson’s Qur’an survives still in the Library of Congress, serving as a symbol of his and early America’s complex relationship with Islam and its adherents. That relationship remains of signal importance to this day.That he owned a Qur’an reveals Jefferson’s interest in the Islamic religion, but it does not explain his support for the rights of Muslims. Jefferson first read about Muslim “civil rights” in the work of one of his intellectual heroes: the seventeenth-century English philosopher John Locke. Locke had advocated the toleration of Muslims—and Jews—following in the footsteps of a few others in Europe who had considered the matter for more than a century before him. Jefferson’s ideas about Muslim rights must be understood within this older context, a complex set of transatlantic ideas that would continue to evolve most markedly from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries.

Amid the interdenominational Christian violence in Europe, some Christians, beginning in the sixteenth century, chose Muslims as the test case for the demarcation of the theoretical boundaries of their toleration for all believers. Because of these European precedents, Muslims also became a part of American debates about religion and the limits of citizenship.
- From “Our Founding Fathers included Islam,” adapted from a book by Denise Spellberg

The SDCC Files: Rep. John Lewis Comes To Comic-Con

By Arturo R. García

(L-R): Artist Nate Powell, Top Shelf Productions’ Leigh Walton, Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) and Andrew Aydin. Lewis and Aydin co-wrote the autobiographical comic “March.” All images via Top Shelf Productions.

A real hero came to San Diego on July 20, as Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) arrived to unveil the first volume of March, a three-volume autobiographical graphic novel telling his own origin story.

“I hope that hundreds and thousands of young people across America and around the world, pick up this book and be inspired to engage in non-violent direct action,” Lewis said. “When they see something that is not right, something that is unjust, that they be moved to protest.”

Co-written by Andrew Aydin, a member of his staff, and illustrated by Nate Powell, the first volume of the story, due out on Aug. 13, flashes back to Lewis’ youth in rural Alabama, and his eventual journey into what we now know to be the Civil Rights Movement, but was initially called “the Montgomery Method.” Under the cut is my live report from their jam-packed session at the convention.
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Must Read: Race, History, Colonialism and Assassin’s Creed IV

Friend of the blog Evan Narcisse wrote an interesting take on playing through historical worlds while black:

The game begins in 1715, when European rule over the island was still firmly established. That means I might be traipsing around an island where some Frenchman with my last name owns someone who looks like my father. And that might make me wince a little. But Ismail also told me that Edward Kenway’s first mate Adewale starts the game as a slave and becomes a free man over the course of the single-player story. Adewale will also be the focus of some of Black Flag‘s DLC.

Slavery Gives Me a Weird Personal Connection to Assassin's Creed IV

Focusing on Adewale and touching on slavery as it might’ve been lived in the early 1700s moves the racial portrayal forward from last year’s Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation. The heroine of that Vita game was the child of a slave and had missions where she freed others from servitude. And, with confirmation that Aveline will also be playable in PlayStation-exclusive add-ons for the game, ACIV will have two prominent black characters where so many titles struggle to have even one.

Narcisse also explores his own family history and what he hopes to see reflected in the game play.  Read the rest at Kotaku.

Cheering for the Chicago Blackhawks: A Tradition of Racial Play

By Guest Contributor Charles Fruehling Springwood

Members of the Chicago Blackhawk celebrate winning the Stanley Cup in a June 28 parade. Image by tanveer.i.ali via Flickr creative commons.

As a white youth growing up playing ice hockey in the 1960s, in a Chicago suburb, I fell in love with the Chicago Blackhawks. I watched Hawks games on T.V., and during the intermissions between the periods, I retired to the kitchen (and its smooth, slick tile floor) to shoot my plastic puck at the cabinets. For the kitchen shootouts, I channeled my all-time favorite, the always-helmeted Stan Mikita, or on occasion, Bobby Hull. Born just after the team’s 1961 Stanley Cup championship, I anticipated – without too much patience – the next championship, and suffered through the team’s two failed Stanley Cup appearances in the early seventies.

But between those years and the team’s next championships in 2010 and now 2013, my Native American friends encouraged me to reflect more deeply on the way symbols like the team’s own “Chief Black Hawk” distorted their identities, particularly in the imaginations of white Americans. Ultimately, in graduate school at the University of Illinois-Champaign, I critiqued my school’s infamous mascot, Chief Illiniwek, and my friend Richard King and I went on to edit Team Spirits: The Native American Mascot Controversy, a 2001 collection of essays giving voice to how Native Americans feel about many of these manifestations of the power of non-Indian, mostly white institutions and people to (re)represent, (re)name, and (re)contextualize Native peoples for white purposes.

In his foreword for the book, renowned scholar Vine Deloria Jr. of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation wrote:

With diehard refusal to change the names and logos of sports teams we always hear the justification that the name is being used to ‘honor’ us. This tortured reasoning makes its proponents look absurd. Obviously if garish costumes, demeaning cheers, and crude logos are the essence of honor, then the various sports halls of fame need to perform drastic surgery on the busts and plaques of their honorees. The excuse, being lame, must conceal something more profound, which cannot or will not be articulated by those people ‘honoring’ us.

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Meanwhile, On Tumblr: Surprise, Surprise! SCOTUS Rules Against Native Americans

By Andrea Plaid

Image via pbs.org.

Image via pbs.org.

As you know, the US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) did the One Step Forward/Three Steps Back Dance when it came to rights for marginalized people. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-gender marriage and made rather questionable rulings regarding affirmative action and the Voting Rights Act (VRA), the justices’ ruling negatively impacted Native American nations’ right to their children and, ultimately, tribal self-determination. Colorlines’ Aura Bogado explains in the most popular post of this past week:

In a 5 to 4 decision today, the Supreme Court ruled that the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) does not block termination of a Native father’s parental rights. The court appears to have ruled as if it was deciding the issue based on race—when a better lens to understand the case, called Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl, is through tribal sovereignty.

First, some quick background on the case and on ICWA itself [sic]. Christy Maldonado gave birth to a baby in 2009 whose father, Dusten Brown, is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. Because of self-determination, the Cherokee Nation decides who its citizens are—and because Dusten Brown is Cherokee, his baby, named Veronica, is Cherokee as well. Maldonado and Brown lost touch by the time the baby was born, and Brown was never informed of the baby’s birth. Maldonado decided to put the baby up for adoption, and a white couple named Melanie and Matt Capobianco took Veronica into pre-adoptive care.

So what does ICWA do? The act was created because of incredibly high rates of white parents adopting Native children; in states like Minnesota, that have large Native populations, non-Natives raised 90 percent of Native babies and children put up for adoption. Those adoptions sever ties to Native tribes and communities, endangering the very existence of these tribes and nations. In short, if enough Native babies are adopted out, there will literally not be enough citizens to compose a nation. ICWA sought to stem that practice by creating a policy that keeps Native adoptees with their extended families, or within their tribes and nations. The policy speaks to the core point of tribal sovereignty: Native tribes and nations use it to determine their future, especially the right to keep their tribes and nations together.

But leave it to the Supreme Court to miss the point altogether this morning. The prevailing justices failed to honor tribal sovereignty in today’s ruling.

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