Manzanar Internment Camp - A Forgotten History
Updated: Oct 20, 2019
Today, as I coasted down highway 395 in California, I came across a sign. It read “Manzanar Camp 3 miles.” I though to myself: The most amazing adventures are born out of spontaneity—right? So I put my blinker on and headed for the exit. I pulled up to an empty guard station and was a bit confused. There were towers spread about and barbed wire fences stretched along a seemingly endless plot of land… but the front gates weren’t guarded. In fact, the gates were open. I carried on a bit confused—and then it hit me. I saw signs labeled “Block 1,” “Block 2,” “staff housing,” and “police station.” I had a hunch I was somewhere that had hurt—I could feel the pain and silence in the breeze. I came across a sign that pointed down a road that read “Manzanar Internment Camp Visitor Center.” My hunch was correct. I was driving down a paved stretch of asphalt that once held upwards of 10,000 Japanese American citizens captive during World War II.
I had heard about the camps in class during grade school but we hadn’t done so much as skim the surface of “this happened and was bad, and if you look to chapter 14 you'll see the battle of pearl harbor.” I entered the visitor center and read every sign and watched every film. Families, children, parents, grandparents—all uprooted from their homes and lives and stability and brought to the desert for no reason other than that they were Japanese. They sold their businesses and items with only two days of notice. One child remembered vividly her mother in agony smashing plate after plate of new chinaware she’d purchased. These Americans were told they could only bring what they could carry on their backs, boarded buses and trains, and made their way toward their new home in the desert. Ten thousand human beings were put into a three mile stretch of land and told to start anew "for their own safety." As I drove on I couldn’t help but tear up.
One of my main ambitions of this trip was to feel the emotions of others and to have empathy for their experience…and this put me to the test. Barrack after barrack I drove by came as a wave. I passed an old baseball diamond where interned kids and teenagers had played. I passed foundation after foundation labeled “Block *insert number here*” and couldn’t help but think of the conditions these people faced. How it must’ve felt to have been herded like cattle and forced to shower and relieve oneself in a room without doors or walls. Sanctioned to a small barrack and told “go live.” And all of this imposed on you by your own government. I drove on and found a small wooden sign labeled “orchard.” I got out of my car and, accompanied only by the desert silence, continued toward a group of trees. They were apple trees. Their limbs bore specks of fruit. Small bits of life that remained after this place’s inhabitants moved on. The trees had to have been over seventy years old. I didn’t pick any of the fruit out of respect but if I had it would’ve been an honor to share fruit from the same trees as those men and women.
I got back into my car and drove on. Then...there it was. The monument to Manzanar. It was a large, white pillar with the words “Soul Consoling Tower” indicated. As I approached something told me to remove my shoes so I did. I felt my toes against the same barren sands that the interns did. It’s coarse nature cut deep, but it was somewhat comforting. I approached the pillar and sat down. Sprinkled about were the graves of those who had died while in the camps. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I imagined the people. Their lives. I imagined children running around and laughing. I imagined parents staying strong for their families even though no end was in sight. I imagined a community of people that came together and made one another strong during a time of hardship. I heard the wind chime through. It whisked against the decaying wooden poles and structures that hung about the obelisk. It danced across the sands with soft footsteps. I opened my eyes when I heard this, concerned someone else had joined me, but when I did I realized I was still alone. I got up and returned to my car and made my exit—all the while deep in thought. Thought about this moment and thought about the prejudice that exists in our country even today. The terms “they” and “them” get thrown around about races and religions like party favors. Genders are grouped on fictional merits and humans are subjugated not by the nature of their minds, but the nature of their being. We need to remember that we are a WE. We are humans. We are people. We are mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers. We are humans capable of love and empathy and remorse and hardship. We are sapiens, derived from the same DNA, who bleed and die just as readily as we heal and live.
I want you to do an exercise with me. Imagine you are holding the hand of someone you love. Really imagine it. Feel their fingers clasping yours tight. Rub your thumb over the wrinkles on their index finger. Touch the protruding vain that runs along the back of their hand.
Change their skin color
Change their faith
Change their gender
Change their sexual orientation
Change their heritage
Change their wealth
Change their physical ability
Change their ego
Change their hatred
Does the hand become anything other than a hand? Does it feel less human? I thought not.
Some of you will say "you're making things too simple." You're right. I am. Things are simple. They've never been more simple. You are you. I am me. We, together, are a collective we. That's it.
Keep this in mind next time you subjugate another person into a “they” or “them” category. Stop looking for the differences between you and your neighbor and start looking for the similarities. If you find yourself having to explain negative opinions with a “but” or “because,” catch yourself and realize the error of this. Needing an exception alone proves you understand the emotion is wrong. If it was right and good it wouldn’t need an excuse—it would just be. There was a saying that the interned said in the camps—“Shikataganai.” It means “It cannot be helped.” Just this morning I was on a mountaintop singing “This Land is your Land,” by Woodie Guthrie. Tonight I am disheartened with the truth that we have not always upheld this standard. I’ll repeat it one more time for the people in the back hard of hearing:
“This land is your land,
This land is my land,
This land was made for you and me.”
If you'd like to read up more on the Japanese American Internment Camps some helpful sites, as well as a video, can be found below: