Seeing shadows of history

I stand still, counting footprints. I’m staring at a black and white photograph, footprints planted in concrete, some firm, others faded to scant shadows.

The footprints and photograph are from Manzanar, one of ten remote western U.S. sites where Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II. Under Franklin Roosevelt, our government forcibly removed some 120,000 Americans because of their heritage, not their actions.

Maker:L,Date:2017-8-27,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E-veIn 2014, Minneapolis artist John Matsunaga went to Manzanar to see where his grandfather had been locked up. Everyone in Matsunaga’s family– his mother, father, aunts and uncles– had been incarcerated. For years afterwards, the family didn’t talk about what happened. Within two years, Matsunaga visited all ten incarceration camps. “It started out as personal, and then expanded out,” he said. The 46-year-old artist began thinking about “What do people know and what do they not know about what was happening.” The trips became a kind of pilgrimage, allowing him to absorb history not just through books, but by breathing in dust in arid desert camps, bakingly hot in summer, bitingly cold in winter.

It was often a solitary exercise, “ kind of meditative, kind of sad.”  Although all the incarceration sites have some kind of federal recognition, Matsunaga said he was often the only person at a camp. “I’d think, how many people really come to see this?” Matsunaga shifted from reflecting on the past to thinking about what’s happening in the U.S. now, with government efforts to ban Muslims and other people based on their nationality. “I don’t think it’s my place to speak for Muslim Americans,” Matsunaga said, “but the restriction of civil rights has parallels in the past.”

At East Side Freedom Library, where Matsunaga’s photo exhibit is on display through February 24, he points to the footprints photograph and says, “For me, it’s about this trace, I’m showing you a presence, but it’s really showing what’s not there.”

What’s also not there are labels. Matsunaga admits he wants to frustrate viewers by not explaining his artwork with easy-to-digest labels by each photo so viewers can scan the caption and walk on. Matsunaga points out that the photos are a fine art project, his thesis at Minneapolis College of Art and Design, not a public history class. His stark photographs don’t tell any one person’s story, instead, they’re designed make people feel something– dissatisfaction, anxiety, the loss of not knowing.

The photos challenge visitors to think about what’s seen and unseen, what they know or have forgotten about a shameful period of American history. What had once made a deep impression, a solid footprint in history is worn smooth with time.

One photo shows a dilapidated wordless sign strewn on the hard-baked dirt, no clues about what the sign was meant. Another photo focuses on  the hollow shell of a collapsed baseball, stitching frayed, curled into itself, holding nothing more substantial than crumbles of dirt and gravel. The ball’s shadow is bigger than the physical object. Many of Matsunaga’s black and white images include shadows, the remains of what had been.

Matsunaga knows that in time, no one will remain who had lived in these camps. The first-hand knowledge of what happened in the incarceration will be gone, just as his grandfather, and more recently an aunt and uncle, have died. What remains will be physical remnants, shreds of signs signifying little– and our knowledge, our memories of seeing, reading, hearing, knowing how our government locked up more than 110,000 Americans not because they had committed any crime, but because of who they were.

In 1988, Congress formally acknowledged  that the incarceration was “motivated largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”

Given today’s political leadership, decades of wars, and ongoing racial prejudice, this sobering exhibit and three upcoming programs are  necessary viewing. The exhibit’s title bears remembering as well: Nidoto Nai Yoni, Let It Not Happen Again.

Nidoto Nai Yoni: Forgetting and Remembering the Wartime Incarceration of Japanese Americans, on display through February 24 at the East Side Freedom Library, 1105 Greenbrier Street, Saint Paul.

All are welcome to these upcoming East Side Freedom Library events about this exhibit:

Saturday, February 10, 1 – 3 pm, Discussion Panel, Experiences of Wartime Displacement, Dispossession, and Confinement: The Japanese American Incarceration and Beyond

Saturday, February 17, 1 – 3 pm, Artists Panel, Representing and Resisting Historical Injustices through Art

Monday, February 19, 7 – 9 pm, Film Screening and Discussion, And Then They Came for Us (2017), a film by Abby Ginzberg and Ken Schneider                               

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No More Moments of Silence

Five years ago today, 20 first graders and six teachers were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

So, what’s happened since Newtown? We’ve seen mass shootings in churches, movie theaters, an outdoor concert, a nightclub, a county social service office.* We’ve had a lot of moments of silence.

We don’t silence. We need change.

Tonight, I’ll go to a Protect MN workshop, No More Moments of Silence, to learn about ways people can work to prevent gun violence. The only way we can prevent gun violence is if more people demand change. So I will keep showing up at the State Legislature, keep calling and writing elected officials, keep protesting and donating.

We can’t keep ignoring gun violence, hoping it will go away, hoping our families will never be touched by gun violence.

Today, five years after Sandy Hook, we need to do something to stop gun violence. Please, please, do something. Donate. Get involved. Don’t be silent.

If we stay silent, get ready for  Tomorrow’s News, the next shooting,

Protect Minnesota

Giffords: Courage to Fight Gun Violence

Everytown for Gun Safety

Sandy Hook Promise

*Las Vegas, 58 dead, 546 wounded at an outdoor music festival, what’s now the nation’s deadliest mass shooting, 2017

Sutherland Springs, TX, 25 dead, 20 wounded in a church shooting, 2017

Orlando, 49 dead, 58 wounded in a nightclub shooting, 2016

San Bernardino, 14 killed, 22 wounded in a county office, 2015

Charleston, SC, 9 killed in a church shooting, 2015

 

 

Monuments that Matter

Men on horseback. Men with weapons. We’ve had enough of the usual statues.

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Monument to New Immigrants by Tania Bruguera. Philadelphia

Philadelphia has a fresh take on public art: An 8-foot Afro pick topped with a raised fist, All Power to All People. A faceless, genderless Monument to New Immigrants.  A mash-up of pedestals sans sculpture called If They Should Ask, spotlighting the absence of women monuments.

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If They Should Ask by Sharon Hayes. Philadelphia has just two statues dedicated to women, Joan of Arc and a Bostonian, Mary Dyer.

You can savor the city’s twenty eye-catching creations the through November 19. The artworks are part of Monument Lab: A Public Art and History Project, which asks, “What is an appropriate monument for the current city of Philadelphia?”

Given this year’s attention to outdated Civil War statues, Philadelphia’s question is timely, but Monument Lab has been working on this project for five years. I hope more people start seeing public art and asking questions. What is a monument that matters? Who are we honoring? Who are we ignoring? Why?

Statues tell stories, about who matters and who doesn’t. In Philadelphia, William Penn is top dog, or at least top statue. No building in center city can be taller than Penn’s statue atop City Hall. Penn is part of Philadelphia’s history, as is Frank Rizzo, a racist police chief and mayor, whose statue may not remain long in the city.

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People appreciating Hank Willis Thomas’s All Power to All People. In background sits another sculpture, Government of the People. Philadelphia

I thought about Philadelphia’s history as I stood across from City Hall recently, watching people taking selfies by Hank Willis Thomas’s 800-pound Afro pick. A group of young African American men smiled broadly for the camera. Then two women took their turn, then another, then another. No one glanced at a massive sculpture, Government of the People, hulking just a few feet from the All Power to All People pick.

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Spoonbridge and Cherry by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, Minneapolis

What makes a hair pick art? Maybe the same thing that makes a spoon art. People connect with ordinary objects, especially those made in dramatic fashion. The Black Power comb makes a necessary statement when so many people, including the president, don’t understand that black lives matter.

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Two Me by Mel Chin, standing above right. Philadelphia

In Philadelphia’s City Hall courtyard, ordinary people become the art. Mel Chin’s Two Me lets people step up to the pedestal, literally, and become the monument. I watched a little boy who just wanted to run up and down the long ramp, and a young woman in hijab stand up, tentative but smiling, atop the pedestal.

Monumental messages can come from simple stuff. A spoon, a cherry.  A comb, a fist. The ordinary becomes iconic. Monuments that stay with us, that matter.

 

 

 

 

Why I blocked a freeway

Your honor, I respect how you have listened to all of us protesters. You have said freeways aren’t safe places to protest. I went on Interstate 94 not to put my life in danger but because other people’s lives are in danger. I don’t think freeways, roads, really anyplace in America, are safe for people of color. Philando Castile was not safe here, in Ramsey County.

The prosecutor has said we protesters destroyed “the peace and tranquility of the interstate.” What kind of peace and tranquility did Philando have while driving? It’s likely he felt fear, rather than peace and tranquility, during the more than four dozen traffic stops he endured.

Last July, Officer Jeronimo Yanez panicked and killed a compliant driver. This June, Yanez was acquitted by a legal system that respects people who wear blue more than they protect people who are black.

We who have power– because of the color of our skin or the authority of our jobs—allow separate and unequal law enforcement and separate and unequal courts.

We allow officers to pull over people of color for unnecessary traffic stops. We allow cops who kill civilians to walk free.

Philando’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds live-streamed racial injustice as vivid and painful to see as civil rights protesters being attacked by dogs and water cannons.

We watched a man bleeding, dying. What did we do?

Philando shrine BIGGER

Many of us rose up. We went to the Governor’s Mansion, an urgent and spontaneous vigil, using our bodies more than our voices to demand justice.

Your honor, you have spoken of police mistakes. When we repeat actions hundreds of times, they can no longer be considered mistakes. Police shootings of civilians are not mistakes. Police shootings are racial injustice which we who have power allow to continue. We need to change laws. We need to change ourselves. We who have power, because of the color of our skin color or the authority of our jobs– judges, prosecutors, lawmakers— we need to accept our responsibility for allowing racism.

Until Philando’s killing, I had been silent about racial injustice. I watched Philando’s blood seeping across his body. I cannot unsee it. I cannot unsee the racism seeping across our history, staining America, for longer than we have been a nation.

Philando died because we who have power did not demand justice for all.  I will stand with and behind people of color. They have spoken out for centuries against the injustices by my people.

John Lewis calls protest “necessary trouble.”  We need to stand up, sit in, kneel on a sideline, block a freeway. Civil disobedience is as serious, as patriotic, and as necessary as voting.

I cast my ballot for justice standing outside the Governor’s Mansion. I cast my ballot for justice blocking Interstate 94. I cast my ballot for justice this morning in court.

We watched a man bleeding, dying. We need to make necessary trouble.

 

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Poster by Leon Wang

When Home Won’t Let You Stay

I saw their faces at the library last week. Minnesotans born in Myanmar, Iraq, Somalia, and Laos.  The boy in a football T-shirt who played in the mud in a refugee camp and now plays soccer here. The young woman whose dream is to get a job so she can begin taking care of the parents who carried her on their backs when they fled Myanmar.

Those refugee stories are part of compelling exhibit by Winona photographer James A. Bowey. The exhibit’s title sticks in my mind.

When Home Won’t Let You Stay.

Today, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the end of DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Our government is telling young people who were born elsewhere but have spent much of their lives here that they may not be able to stay.

When Home Won’t Let You Stay.

Today, people around country will rise up, rallying for young undocumented people going to school and working here, young people who consider this country their only home. We will defend 11 million Dreams.

I think of stories of people whose pictures I saw at the library– Mohanad, Dissel, Ahmay, Eh, Bway, Yatha, Zaina– people forced to flee their homes.

Sawlwin, forced to leave Myanmar, told photographer James A. Bowey that, “A refugee is someone who cannot depend on anyone.”

Leng, forced to leave Laos, told the photographer that, “My English is not good. I don’t have much friends. But I can get my children a better life.”

How many parents struggled to get here so their kids could have a better life? Today, our government announced plans to close the door on thousands of young people.

When Home Won’t Let You Stay.

What you can do to Let Dreamers Stay.

https://dreamacttoolkit.org/

Tell your senator to co-sponsor DACA

Robert Reich’s myths & facts about immigration

 

 

 

Stories rise up at East Side Freedom Library

Anchored firmly on the corner of Greenbrier and Jessamine Streets, this brick and mortar Beaux Arts building looks traditional, even staid.

Step inside, and you’ll see and hear a vigorous world of faces and stories, more lefty than stuffy. I hear the urgency of ardent voices– union organizers, community activists, and immigrant neighbors– demanding their stories be heard.

Funded by steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie, this library, built in 1917, a year of revolution, reverberates with robust stories.

A blue sign proclaims, “Rebellion to Tyrants, Democracy for Workers.” Posters hang like fresh laundry, an open-air display of the issues of the day: “PHILANDO MATTERS,” “CLERGY STANDING WITH STANDING ROCK,” “RESISTANCE IS IMPERATIVE,” “WE STAND TOGETHER.”

IMG_20170809_155245The walls and stairwell shine with vivid murals of Minnesotans: Immigrants from Europe, Southeast Asia, Africa and Central America, along with African Americans, building a community here on the East Side.

The library’s collection of books, art, music and other items highlight peoples whose stories and songs have often been ignored by traditional history books and libraries.

An East Sider couple, labor historian Peter Rachleff and theater and dance professor Beth Cleary, transformed the old Arlington Hills Branch Library into this theater of stories. When Saint Paul opened the new Arlington Hills branch nearby in 2014, Rachleff and Cleary’s nonprofit signed a 15-year lease for this space and launched the East Side Freedom Library. The lease is $1 a year, but it costs $1,200 a month just to maintain lights and heat.

The old building bristles with the energy and heat of activism. This library is more non-conformist than conventional. None of the 18,000 books filling the tall wood shelves can be checked out. Instead, the public are invited to use the books and other research materials here. This is a community space, with movies and weaving, meditation and meetings, including a union job fair.

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A crowded Lemonade and Listening session with elected officials at East Side Freedom Library

One recent rainy afternoon, the library was standing room only. More than 150 people wedged in for a Lemonade and Listening session with U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum and local legislators. Stories rang out.

An Iraq War veteran asked McCollum why the VA won’t provide health care for trans people. People talked about climate change, water quality, net neutrality and the healthcare marketplace. McCollum told people they had collective power about health care and other issues. “You have a voice,” she reminded the audience. “That is powerful. The fact that you showed up, spoke out, wrote out…”

An angry man interrupted the congresswoman, outshouting all other voices—disrupting the session until eventually, collective voices won out, and the listening session resumed, with talk about pipelines, broadband, Islamophobia and the need for unity.

Rep. Tim Mahoney joked, “Mr. Carnegie is rolling in his grave…”  about the pro-union, left-wing views of this Freedom space. Managers at the Carnegie Steel Corporation triggered the bloody 1892 Homestead strike. Carnegie emigrated to the U.S. from Scotland at age 13 with his family and became one of the 19th century’s richest businessmen then spent years giving away most of his wealth, launching more than 2,000 libraries, along with what’s now Carnegie-Mellon University, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

IMG_20170809_154716So perhaps it’s fitting that the immigrant tycoon’s traditional library is home to stories of other immigrants. The Freedom Library’s collections include the African diaspora and Hmong Archives. The library organizes monthly Neighbors meet Neighbors sessions. This month, Somalis shared their stories, history and culture. In September, Karen immigrants take the stage.

On summer Tuesdays, I’ve had the joy of sitting in this library of stories, finding my own words, then sharing lunch and conversation with fellow women writers. We’ve sat on the steps outside, talking about our work, families, places we’ve been and want to visit. Next week, we’ll read from our summer’s work.

One afternoon, a construction worker repairing alley potholes stopped by. His crewmates took their lunch break in the truck parked in the library’s tranquil shade. He made himself at home by us, each woman with our organic veggies and fruit packed in re-usable containers. He started talking, telling his opinions about city projects and politics. We hadn’t invited him, he just came. Needing to talk, a blue-collar worker saying what was on his mind, on the steps of a community library that embraces so many stories.

This brawny building is packed with stories of people, their voices rising up.

 

Good government fantasies: Where have you gone, Jed Bartlet?

 

Sixty days into a turbulent presidency, I’ve found solace in re-runs.

The West Wing offers respite from chaos. Many nights, I shield myself from my phone— banishing Facebook and breaking news—then indulge in old odes to good government.

When the series premiered in 1999, after President Clinton’s ugly impeachment and acquittal, the show presented a reassuring portrait of White House staffers, who were passionate about politics and public service.

Some episodes help me sleep. Some make me gasp.

My mind replays an episode about secrets and truth, and what happens when a president misleads the public. Continue reading “Good government fantasies: Where have you gone, Jed Bartlet?”