Some of the strongest symbols within George Takei’s They Called Us Enemy are the fences that surround Rohwer and Tule Lake interment camps. There are multiple panels depicting the barbed wire fences, and various angles occur in each of the panels. These images, coupled with Takei’s words, highlight the psychological effects of xenophobia and racism on individuals, especially children such as Takei. I have written about similar visual positioning in comics such as David Walker’s Nighthawk, and today I want to look at and discuss a few of the pages and Harmony Becker’s panels where fences occur in Takei’s They Called Us Enemy.
Note: I spoke with Justin Eisinger about They Called Us Enemy, and we covered a multitude of topics.
Takei’s first introduction to the barbed wire fence occurs as the train rolls into Rohwer. George and his brother imagine that the announcer says, “Roar,” and they picture lions with guns in their head. The next panel shows Takei and his family looking out of the window at nothing but barbed wire fencing with some wood planks. The conjoining of the animalistic imagery with the fencing is something that occurs throughout the narrative. It creates, within the young George’s mind, a sense of fear but also wonderment. It also serves as a coping mechanism, allowing him to think that the fencing keeps him safe from what lives and hunts outside of the camp.
When George and his family reach their assigned block, he hears a crow call outside the fence and stands up to look outside. The panel shows George standing on the left side, the fence in the middle, and trees beyond with the crow’s call echoing in the air. A boy asks George if he knows what made the sound, and when George says he doesn’t know, the boy tells him, “It’s a dinosaur out there.” The boy tells George that dinosaurs died off, but not here, and he concludes by saying, “That’s why they put this fence up. To keep them caged in.”
The final panel where the boy says the fence cages the dinosaurs in only shows the barbed wire. In this formulation, the boys and their families are outside of the fence and the dinosaurs are caged in; however, we know this is not the case. The boy’s construction serves to protect himself from the reality that he and those he loves have been interred, placed in the cage, and the fence keeps them there.
When George’s father gets permission to take a jeep outside of the fence, the boys get excited. They cannot contain their excitement, telling all of the boys that they know. As they leave, the fence becomes a problem piece of the wordless panels. We see the Takei family in the jeep, the boys waving to their friends who are chasing them, and then we get to a panel at the guard tower. Here, the guards come up to the jeep, and we see a panel where George’s father signs the form. The final two panels feature the fence. The first shows the gate closing, and the second shows the jeep speeding down the road outside the fence as George and his brother look back.
The final panel, with the reader looking through the fence at the jeep positions us as inside the camp as they leave. This placement comes into play later when George and his family get news that the Tule Lake camp will close and they can go “home.” In this sequence, George sees the fence as protecting him from the outside world and the xenophobia. Key to this sequence, as well, is the discussion of “home.” Two men talk about going home, and one asks, “You think our homes are still there? You think people will welcome us with open arms?”
George comments on this by stating, “The irony was that the barbed-wire fences that incarcerated us also protected us.” In the next panel, he stands alone next to the fence and ask, “Going home . . .?” For four years, the camps have been his home. The fence has been both his captor and protector. What would occur when the fences disappear and they no longer keep the dinosaurs or the xenophobes at bay?
The final panel of the sequence dissolves into a dark, tiled cloud moving towards George from the right of the panel. The fence is no longer there. George stands, with a look of fear on his face, as he appears to be backing away from the approaching cloud. He narrates, “If the fence were no longer there, we would be in danger.” This, of course, is what occurs when they leave. They enter back into a world of xenophobia and false fears, experiencing racism everywhere.
Most notably, George encounters xenophobia at school from his teacher Mrs. Rugen. She never calls on him in class and accosts him at recess. One day, he hears her call him “that little Jap boy.” This insult cuts him, tearing “open a wound filled with shame.” After she says this, we get a panel depicting George’s expression. His face is ghostly white, devoid of any color or life, and the background is black. This contrast, along with his expression, highlights the psychological pain that the teacher’s racist comment inflicts upon him.
Next, we see the teacher telling the class to stand for the pledge of allegiance. Panels shift from the schoolroom back to the camp. In the switch, we see the fence, a guard tower, and the American flag as the children recite, “One nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” The irony, of course, is that while the children recite the pledge they live in the camp, captives to a nation that treats them as enemies. Here, we get the violence and the patriotism juxtaposed by the fence, guard tower, and flag.
Connecting the past to the present, the final page I want to look at only has two panels, one of Barack Obama in 2008 and one depicting families caged at the border. In the first panel, we see Obama during his inauguration speech as he proclaims, “America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office but because we the people have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbears.” This is uplifting, but is it true?
The next panel panel undercuts the optimism by showing a young girl, tears streaming down her face, as he stares at the reader through a fence as she and others sit caged. This is June 2018, and Takei narrates, “Old outrages have begun to resurface with brutal results.” This panel is powerful and important for a couple of reasons. One, it shows what has been happening in America over the last few year, the detaining, separating, and caging of individuals at the border.
Two, it shifts the perspective of the above panel I discussed where we see George and his family leaving the camp. Throughout the narrative, we identify with the Takei family’s internment. We live with them inside the fence, feeling his pain, suffering, hopes, and fears. With this panel, though, we look inside the fence at the girl and those around her. We have made it out. She hasn’t. The point is that xenophobic rhetoric and policies still exist. They aren’t the same as the Japanese internment during World War II but they are just as devastating. These children will experience trauma and pain because of xenophobia.
What will we do? That is what this panel asks. Will we uphold the ideals that we espouse throughout this nation of “liberty and justice for all”? Or, will we turn a blind eye to the suffering and let the atrocities continue as they did during World War II? That is the question. How will we answer it?
What are your thoughts? Let me know either in the comments below or on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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