“Memory,” as George Takei puts it in They Called Us Enemy, “is a wily keeper of the past.” It shifts and moves, changing over time. Memory, as well, is the keeper of the past and the means of immortality. It’s the act of remembering that connects us to those whom we have never personally met, not just with people that we tangibly interacted with in our day to day lives. Even though we have never met, memory brings us in contact with one another. This occurs all around us. Literature and recordings, for me, are the prime examples. I never met Lillian Smith in person, yet I feel like I know her and I have an image of her that I, through her writings, speeches, and recordings, have conjured in my head. She exists, even though her physical form no longer treads upon the earth.
About two years ago, I was digging through some things at the Lillian E. Smith Center, looking through a closet with a bunch of boxes. As I dug, I came across various records and reel-to-reel tapes that contained everything from events at Laurel Falls Camp to Smith, gathered with Paula Snelling and others, reading and talking about The Journey (1954). These recordings show a new side to Smith, one where she is interacting, uninhibited, with others, a side that adds to the ever changing image of Smith within my own mind, my own memory of her.
On the reel-to-reel tape where she talks about The Journey, Smith discusses the power of memory and what it does for us. She talks about John, a man who died, and his wife Marty and son Bill. Smith never met John, but she knew him through Bill and Marty. She says,
But there is one kind of immortality that we can understand and take comfort in . . . and that is the fact that the human memory can hold on to a relationship after the person with whom it was formed is dead. And the relationship so often becomes cleared or more defined and sluffs off the irrelevances so that it can have great meaning and significance for us, and this is why I believe will happen to Marty and Bill. They will never forget John. I have never met John, but I shall never forget John. The people who had known him, and who had relationships with him, still have those relationships with him. They still their knowledge of him. They will still remember him, and it will go on and on in their lives, not quite like genes and chromosomes, but what they do and think and feel will have something of John in them. In that way, there is always a resurrection on this earth. A man dies and he is resurrected on the third day after the mourning is over. He’s resurrected in the minds, in the memories, in the hearts of the people who loved him, and who came in contact with him. Who experienced him. And he will always stay there, and they will think of him and live his life on to a certain extent.
Memory keeps us alive, even if our brain function, our breathing, our heart cease to function. We remain in the minds of those we have touched. Smith knows John. She knows him through Bill and Marty. They know him through the experiences they had with him. I know John through Smith, through Bill, through Marty, through his letters.
I know James Hatsuaki Wakasa not because I met him but through Kiku Hughes’ Displacement. Hughes did not know Wakasa either. He was murdered in Topaz, a Japanese Incarceration camp, on April 11, 1943. Hughes’ grandmother, who was in Topaz, didn’t know Wakasa personally either. However, she, along with two thousand others in the camp, gathered on April 20, 1943, to remember him, to mourn him.
Private First Class Gerald Philpott shot Wakasa from 300 yards away, and Philpott contended that Wakasa was attempting to escape. Waksa was walking his dog, away from the fence, and an investigation showed that Wakasa was facing Philpott when the private shot him. He was not facing the fence and trying to get under it. The camp officials buried the truth, and they refused to let the community have a memorial for Wakasa. So, the incarcerated men, women, and children protested, refusing to work or go to school until the officials approved a funeral. The officials relented, and two thousand people attended.
At the funeral, Kiku talks about no one really knowing Wakasa and about herself not knowing the experiences of her grandmother at Topaz. One panel shows here solemn face as she narrates, “But their experiences, their traumas, still shaped me in ways I was only just beginning to understand. The murder of James Wakasa had such an impact on my grandmother that two generations later, it was still haunting our family. Our whole Nikkei community.” Waksa’s memory remined, through Kiku’s grandmother and others, carried down from generation to generation. Kiku takes up Wakasa’s memory, and his murder highlights for her the continued generational trauma of Japanese incarceration but also the resistance that individuals had to their incarceration.
After the funeral, some of the landscapers set up a memorial to Wakasa on the spot where he died. They set up a small wooden stick and walk away. However, the camp officials quickly worked to remove the memorial, and Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy wrote to Dillon Myers that such a memorial to a victim of “justifiable military action” would be dangerous. Kiku knows this as well, the power of memory. The section concludes with one panel that shows the hole where the memorial stood and a flower. Kiku narrates, “A memory is too powerful a weapon.”
Just as Smith carries John within her, Kiku carries Wakasa within her. She never knew him. She never met him. Yet, she knows him. His memory serves as a reminder of the oppression her ancestors experienced at the hands of the United States government. His memory serves as a reminder to fight back against such oppression. His memory serves as a “weapon” to fight the “weapon” of constructs of the events used for disinformation and propaganda. Wakasa, even though we do not know much about his physical existence, exists not just in Kiku’s mind, not just in her grandmother’s mind, not just in her mother’s mind, not just in the minds of those who attended his funeral and their progeny. No, his memory exists in my mind as well. I carry him there, and he exists.
Memory is a wily keeper of the past, yes, but it also serves as a means of resurrection and of immortality. Next post I’ll write some more about memory in Hughes’ Displacement. Until then, what are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.