On February 19th, 1942, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the country of Japan, President Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted Executive Order 9066. This order was put into place to protect the United States from possible espionage by those of Japanese heritage. However, what really took place was that over 120,000 Japanese people in California, Oregon and Washington State were forced into “internment camps” (a gentler name for what they actually were: prisons). The United States was not alone in treating their Japanese residents as enemies. Mexico and Canada followed suit, forcing nearly 25,000 people to leave their homes on the west coast of their countries and resettle to different areas.
The book, We Are Not Free, by Traci Chee, follows the lives of 14 Nisei (a person born in the United States whose parents emigrated from Japan) friends from San Francisco. The story opens with Minnow, a young high school boy who loves drawing. One afternoon, as he hurried home by foot instead of taking the bus as his mother prefers, he is harassed by a group of young white men. The reader is quickly introduced to the racism which Asians faced during the 1940’s. It was not only Japanese people who were targeted and called racial slurs, but anyone who “appeared” to be Japanese was also harassed. Signs on white owned businesses stated that “No Japs” were allowed inside. Businesses which were owned by those of Chinese heritage hung up signs stating that they were not Japanese. Even businesses that were owned by Japanese descendants went out of their way to show their loyalty to the United States by hanging up American Flags and hiding all signs that they had ties back to their country of origin.
As the story unfolds, we see the truth of how the Japanese were treated by the United States government. Families were given 6 days’ notice of their relocation and had to shutter their businesses, pack up their homes, and decide what they would leave behind as they moved from their homes (for some, it was the only home in which they had ever lived). Some people had friends with whom they could leave belongings, many of them had to sell family heirlooms on the street for a fraction of what they were worth. They were then taken on a train and moved into their new “homes”.
These “homes” were actually reconfigured fair grounds and racetracks where the livestock buildings were transformed into rough apartments. The areas were called “towns” by the government officials and many people were allowed to work and earn payment (nothing more than what a private in the Army would make). The towns were surrounded by barbed wire and residents were under constant surveillance.
In the book, Chee writes in detail about the lives of several young Japanese students and what they went through during their time in the prisons. She highlights the experiences of those people who refused to sign a loyalty oath to the United States (which included a promise to fight for the U.S. if given the opportunity). She brings to life the regular brutality and injustice American citizens faced simply because of their ancestry. The reader follows one character, Twitch, as he volunteers to serve overseas in the Army. We see the war from his point of view: A young man who was not given equal rights in his country of birth, but who was willing to lay down his life to prove his loyalty.
I highly recommend this book. If your public-school education was anything like mine, you barely learned anything about these four years of North American history. Perhaps there were 2-3 paragraphs in your history book about “relocation” or “internment” camps, but it has only been within the last 5-10 years that people have referred to them as forced imprisonment. The history books I had access to did not cover the murder of Japanese citizens within these prisons, many of them shot and killed simply for walking too close to the fence line or for being old and unable to make the walk to the camp.
While it is important for allies to read non-fiction books for anti-racist education purposes, historical fiction is a great way to learn about the atrocities committed against non-white people in America as well. We Are Not Free educates readers about a topic which has been historically white washed in school.
If you are a parent, read this book with your teenagers! All high school students are required to take American History. While they are enrolled in the 20thCentury history class, encourage them to read this book. Read alongside them and then ask them questions. Ask your kid if they are learning the complete story of American History.
If you would like to learn more about Executive Order 9066 and the subsequent Supreme Court Rulings and eventual reparations paid to Japanese families in the 1980’s, you can do a search on the History.com website.