Why must we teach resistance today? An interview with the authors of Fred Korematsu Speaks Up

For Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, members of the Teach Resistance community read Fred Korematsu Speaks Up by Laura Atkins and Stan Yogi. The book tells the true story of Fred Korematsu, a Japanese American who fought a legal battle against the United States when he and other Japanese Americans were unjustly interned during World War II. Teach Resistance e-mailed Laura and Stan for their thoughts on the importance of teaching stories like Fred’s to young people today and teaching resistance in general.

What does it mean to “teach resistance” to young people today?

LAURA: I can speak as an author and activist. To me, this seems to be about showing young people that they have a voice, and the right to speak out when they see something that isn’t fair. This is true even when the government is doing something that is not right – as Fred Korematsu did.

fredkorematsu1940
Fred Korematsu in 1940

In our presentations, we show pictures of me being an activist when I was in middle school and high school, including getting arrested at an anti-nuclear blockade at Lawrence Livermore Labs. We then show a newspaper article about those arrests, and note that sometimes adults pay attention when young people speak up.

We have met teachers and students who are taking action themselves. At Bridges Academy at Melrose in Oakland, the elementary school students took to the streets the day after the election to show their concerns and make their voices heard.

Lisa Bishop, a librarian at Aptos Middle School in San Francisco, invites her students to type letters in the library, which they can send to elected officials. She told us how she had a student add the date to her letter to our current president, then made copies: one for the library and another for the student to keep. “This is history,” she said.

Another teacher showed us the protest pictures her students drew the day after the election. We’ve seen walls of empathy at schools, and teachers who are pushing their students to look critically at what is happening around them. And then think about how they can take action. This seems like a lot of great teaching resistance!

studentartwork phoebe diamond
Art made by students from Phoebe Diamond’s class in response to the election

Why do you think it’s particularly important for young people to learn about Fred Korematsu? What can Fred Korematsu teach young people about resistance?

STAN: Our publisher released Fred Korematsu Speaks Up on January 30, 2017, Fred Korematsu’s birthday, which is “Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution” in California and several other states.

We also timed the book’s launch to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the day, February 19, 1942, that President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which set into motion the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans. We didn’t anticipate, however, that the book would come out in a political climate fraught with echoes of the wartime imprisonment of Japanese Americans. The lessons of Fred Korematsu’s life are, sadly, very relevant today.

Kids are aware of political tensions in our country and specifically the targeting of Muslims, immigrants, and refugees. But young people most likely don’t know that throughout U.S. history other groups have confronted intense discrimination and violence.

discrimination timeline
We use this image during our presentations to talk about how different groups have faced discrimination in our country’s history

During World War II, Japanese Americans were in the cross hairs because of a long history of racism but also because they were connected, however remotely, to an enemy nation. Young readers probably also don’t know that individuals—acting independently or in an organized way—have stood up against unfair treatment.

henry sugimoto painting
We show young people this painting by Japanese American artist Henry Sugimoto showing discrimination experienced by Japanese American farmers, in part because they were such good farmers and so competed with White farmers.

Fred Korematsu was one of those people. His story is important for all Americans, not just young ones, to understand because it is an example of how an ordinary person can act in extraordinary ways during a time of crisis. He did not set out to be a civil rights hero. He simply wanted to stay in Oakland with his Italian American girlfriend. But he also recognized that the government’s mass incarceration of Japanese Americans was wrong and violated his rights. He challenged the government when very few others did. That took incredible courage.

His story also teaches us about resilience. The Supreme Court ruled against him. But nearly 40 years later, based on freshly discovered evidence that government attorneys had lied to the Court, a federal judge overturned Fred’s conviction.

 

yutaka houlette illustration
An illustration by Yutaka Houlette, illustrator of Fred Korematsu Speaks Up.

Fred was a champion for civil liberties, not just for Japanese Americans but for all people in the U.S. He did not want any other group to experience government-sanctioned discrimination. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when Muslim, South Asian and Middle Eastern citizens and immigrants were the targets of physical and verbal abuse, as well as government registries and round-ups, he spoke out and advocated that the government should not blanketly suspect all members of those groups because they look like the men who attacked the U.S.

korematsu medal of freedom
Fred Korematsu was awarded the Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton in 1998, the highest Civilian honor in the country.

What do you want educators to keep in mind when using Fred Korematsu Speaks Up?

LAURA: When we put the book together, we wanted to make sure that this historical period would be relevant to the present. That’s why we wrote the book using free verse poems for the biography, and then also giving deeper historical context alongside those poems. We wanted readers to engage with Fred’s story through empathy – how would I feel in his shoes. And then to look at their own lives and consider what they would do now. That’s why we added questions, such as “Have you ever been treated badly because of how you look or speak?” So ideally, educators will help young people to connect the past to the present.

historical inset
An example from one of the historical “insets” in the book, including a question for readers to consider.

We also include what we can an “activist spread” at the back of the book. This gives tips about actions young people can take, but as we say in our presentations, they are much more creative than we are, so will come up with much better ideas. We invite young people to share stories and photos with us of actions that they take – which we can then share on our website and Facebook page. We would love it if young people can see what others are doing, feel inspired, and take action themselves.

Is there any key prior knowledge that educators or students should have before reading Fred Korematsu Speaks Up?

STAN: Students and educators don’t need any prior knowledge before reading Fred Korematsu Speaks Up. Our book includes historical, political and social background so that readers can understand Fred Korematsu’s life in a larger context. We also provide connections to instances when other groups faced legalized prejudice and fought back. Educators and motivated students can find more information about Fred and the incarceration of Japanese Americans in the bibliography and “Notes” section of our book.

activist spread
A page from the activist spread in the book.

What are some parallels between Fred Korematsu’s fight for justice and today’s fights for justice?

STAN: During World War II, most Americans did not distinguish between the Japanese enemy and American citizens of Japanese descent or their immigrant parents, the majority of whom had lived in the U.S. for decades but were legally barred from naturalizing. Similarly, many Americans today consider Muslim, Middle Eastern and South Asian immigrants and U.S. citizens with suspicion. Both of these situations are grounded in the same underlying assumption: All members of a group are potentially guilty because of a shared trait. The epidemic of police killings of unarmed Black men has a similar infectious root.

However, unlike 75 years ago, when very few people spoke out for the rights of Japanese Americans, today civil rights organizations, churches, temples, grassroots groups and individuals are standing up for people targeted by official and unofficial discrimination. Although these days we’re seeing some of the worst in human behavior, we’re also witnessing some of the best and most inspirational. The three brave men who intervened on a Portland light rail train to protect two young women of color, one of them Muslim, from the verbal assaults of a white supremacist are heroes like Fred. They stood up when it counted. There are countless others who are acting in different ways for human decency and dignity.

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