We were fortunate to have Dave Neiwert in Juneau last week. The students in my US 1919-1950 course were reading Strawberry Days, Dave’s latest book about the enduring damage caused by the World War II internment, and my university was able to find enough change buried in the library couch cushions to bring him to campus for a couple of days. For those who haven’t read it, Strawberry Days details the effects of racism and bad public policy on a community of Japanese-American truck farmers in Bellevue, Washington. This was an agricultural community that had tactfully avoided competing with larger white producers when its members arrived in the US during the early 20th century. They cleared the deforested land — a difficult process that took considerable amounts of time for stump removal — and then developed an agricultural niche for themselves by developing a market for fresh vegetables that white farmers had neither the patience nor the interest in growing.
Meantime, of course, racist fables about the “Yellow Peril” offered the pretext for restrictions on “alien” land ownership (at the state level) and for exclusionary immigration laws (at the national level) during the years leading up to the start of World War II. As these policies reveal, white hostility toward the Nikkei blended cultural and economic themes that are difficult to disentangle. Already racially despised, Bellevue’s farmers also inhabited land that was increasingly coveted by white farmers and real estate developers. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the logic of internment added a third dimension to the anti-Japanese narrative — the unsustantiated fears of a “fifth column” on the West Coast of North America. Internment satisfied all three fears and desires simultaneously.
Neiwert’s book does an outstanding job of showing how these various tendencies worked themselves out in the lives of Bellevue’s Nikkei community, whose hold on the land was severed by the internment. It also includes a sharp epilogue that reminds us why the internment continues to matter, six decades after the fact. In a media culture that still reserves a place for prehensile, race-baiting shitheads like Michelle Malkin and Lou Dobbs, who peddle grotesque myths about terrorism and immigration, stories like those in Strawberry Days are more important than ever. To my knowledge, Neiwert’s is the first post-9/11 study of internment to make that argument so explicitly. But as he points out in the final chapter, the contemporary relevance of the internment was evident to the Nisei the same day that the 2001 attacks took place. As one of his interviewees explains, “There are things [occurring] that are really distrubing today that in some ways echo what had happened to us. I felt that it was our responsibility to speak out . . . .”
On a completely unrelated note, Dave’s book got me thinking about how cool it would be now to develop a course based entirely on books written by people who blog. I’m not sure what the theme of the course would be, but we could read a little Berube, some Duck of Minerva, some Eric Muller, maybe some Drezner, and who knows what else.
But I promise nothing by this guy or him. And if You-Know-Who wrote anything but crappy law review articles defending Bush v. Gore, she’d probably write something like this.
And no, I wouldn’t assign that book either, though its thesis appears more plausible than Reynolds’.
. . . it may be 700 pages, but Perlstein’s book on Goldwater is in, too. (As luck would have it, I think I’m teaching the US since 1950 next spring….)
And these guys have always seemed pleasant; I don’t teach philosophy, but blood and organ donation is pretty cool. The Republican war on science . . . not so much — but an important subject nonetheless.
. . . and (thanks to Ralph Luker in comments), I see that Juneau could get very crowded next year….