|How Fifties Pop Culture Helped America Forget the Internment|
By Christina Klein
Excerpted from Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination, 1945-1961
University of California Press, 2003
Hawaii in the 1950s had an ideological value unmatched by any other part of the United States. For one reason, it was a multiracial society that contained a negligible number of African Americans. It thus allowed [James] Michener and other commentators to recast American race relations in Asian-white terms rather than in the more fraught black-white terms. Writing about Hawaii enabled Michener to champion the ideal of racial equality and the practice of racial integration without having to grapple with the entrenched and often violent racism, rooted in the history of slavery, that the black civil rights movement was revealing in the American South and bringing to the forefront of national consciousness. By using Hawaii as "proof" that racism was not permanently entrenched in the American psyche and society, Michener effectively "solved" the nation's race problem by excising blacks from America.
Flower Drum Song offered a similar opportunity to publicly raise and contain the memory of internment by locating it within a larger narrative of Americanization. In its 1958 cover story on the show, Time presented the life stories of stars Miyoshi Umeki and Pat Suzuki as two models of how Asians could also be Americans. Umeki, whom the article described as "American by solemn determination," offered a model of Asians becoming American through the process of U.S. global expansion. Born and raised in Japan, Umeki's Americanization was set in motion by the postwar occupation of her country. Encouraged to sing by American GIs who befriended her family, she began performing with GI bands in their service clubs; later she learned to copy the style of singers such as Doris Day whom she heard on the U.S. Army radio and became a hit on Japanese radio and TV. Her success prompted her to move to the U.S., where she found work in nightclubs, on TV, and in Hollywood. She married an American and settled in the U.S. permanently.
Time presented the California-born Pat Suzuki, on the other hand, as "American by instinct": temperamentally as well as legally American, she was filled with wanderlust as a child and "chafed by restrictions, careless of customs, and in a hurry" as an adult. The article presented her childhood as a typical one, noting that she sang songs like "I Am an American" at county fairs. The bombing of Pearl Harbor derailed this uneventful life: she and her family were "shipped to the Amache relocation camp at Lamar, Colo.," and after the war they spent a year working on a Colorado sugar-beet farm before finally returning home. Time acknowledged but downplayed the significance of Suzuki's incarceration, presenting it as an interruption of an otherwise average American life story. The article did not mention racism, the violation of civil rights, or the economic exploitation of people forced to abandon their homes and property. Instead it described Suzuki's life in the camps as "a matter of school as usual," and implied that the experience made little impression on her, claiming that her only memories were of the weather and of the Nisei Boy Scouts who raised the American flag each morning. The article presented Suzuki as completely American even as she was ethnically Japanese, and it never suggested that internment entailed any denial of her Americanness. The article cast her experiences as a rough spot in an American childhood, but refused to read it as evidence of a widely held view that people of Japanese background were fundamentally foreign. In doing so it contained, as did Michener's novel, the destabilizing potential that public rememberings of internment threatened to raise.
Hawaii and Flower Drum Song make clear that the racial formation of Americans has never been a simple domestic process. The meanings and the regulation of ethno-racial difference within the nation have always taken shape in relation to events and processes occurring beyond the nation's borders. The foreign and the domestic spheres, far from being neatly separated as they have been in most accounts of American political and cultural history, impinge on each other in unexpected ways. The racial formation of Asian Americans shifted between the early 1940s, when Japanese Americans were interned, and the 1950s, when Asian Americans were legally and symbolically integrated into the nation as immigrants and citizens, and one cannot fully understand that change outside of a transnational framework that takes into account the political and ideological demands of World War II, the Cold War, and the ongoing process of U.S. global expansion.Quote this article on your site
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