Take Me to Manzanar

by Taro O'Sullivan

Why would I drive 220 miles into the desert to a place called Manzanar? Because 60 years ago, hundreds of cars, trucks, and army jeeps made that trip to establish a home for over 10,000 people who were robbed of their lives, their homes and their identities as Americans.

I want to take my children and go to Manzanar because I couldn’t even imagine what it must have been like, to have to take my children with, little more than the clothes on my back and leave everything behind that I call home. I need to go because it serves as the bitter reminder of a betrayal of trust. Manzanar symbolizes a time, not so long ago, when people turned on neighbors out of racism, hatred and fear.

This place, Manzanar, is where we must all go. Not because we want to celebrate the victory of human strength and character which endured this prison, but because for those of us born after 1942, going there is the only way our hearts will process the reality of the injustice which occurred here. Manzanar and nine other internment camps imprisoned over 120,000 Americans who just weren’t American enough for America. This year marks the 60th Anniversary of Executive Order 9066, which legitimized that injustice.

Sixty years have passed and in the post 9-11 America and we are on the verge of repeating the same kind of mistake. We are in an atmosphere of fear and hatred, willing to lash out first and ask questions later. If we can manage to learn from our mistakes just once, we could save a lot of people from needlessly suffering as they did in those dark days of our recent past, when the government of the United States of America, without regards to the Constitution, or the Bill of Rights, violated the civil rights of Americans just because people thought they didn’t look American enough.

How can we make sure that Manzanar will not happen again? We do this by learning the facts. We do this by asking those who were there. We make a place in our hearts where we can put their memories intact so that when these folks pass, we will be the keepers of their memories, their pain, and their collective experiences. We teach our children as we take them to these hallowed grounds. When they visit Manzanar, we will let them feel the powerful emotions which will touch them. We help them make a place in their hearts. And we will tell the world in our quiet way, that we will not forget. We will never allow folks to forget what happened, and to honor those who were there, we do all that we can to insure that this never happens to anyone ever again in our lifetime.

In the aftermath of 9-11, many Arab and Muslim Americans have been singled out and targeted. There has been illegal detention without due process. In Portland, Oregon, the Japanese American community gathered on October 13 to listen to our Arab and Muslim neighbors. Internment survivors spoke out and warned us of the dangers that we now face.

This year, the 60th anniversary will also mark the 33d annual pilgrimage to Manzanar. Survivors of Heart Mountain and Rohwer will be honored and those who passed will be remembered. Representative from the Muslim and Arab American community will be there to share in honoring our community.

Reading about it only gives you a glimpse of the life in the camps. But being there, I can close my eyes and listen to the sounds that 10,000 people make in the course of their daily routine. I can imagine children running, chasing each other like my children always do. In my mind’s eye, I can see it clearly as if it were an impression that was left there for me. It is so important to seize every opportunity to see it first-hand. The survival of their memory depends on us now.

Won’t you join me and my children at Manzanar?

Taro O'Sullivan is the keynote speaker at the 33rd Annual Pilgrimage.