Editor’s Note: The following is a personal reflection by Jason Honeycutt, who visited the Manzanar National Historic Site in May, 2010.
CANOGA PARK, CA — On the almost five-hour drive north on US Highway 395 to Mammoth Mountain, I had driven by it over twenty times, always curious what it was. It looked like a prison of some sort.
Last spring, I found out what “it” was.
Heading north, a friend on our snowboard trip mentioned that it was the “Manzanar Relocation Center.” Over twenty times passing it, I wondered how many others made the same mistake, not knowing what was right in front of our eyes for so long.
I grew up in the rural Midwest, and in American History class, you heard whispers about concentration camps for the “Japanese” during World War II, with no real distinction made between prisoners of war and American citizens. Of course, it was a footnote to the story of how America was helping Europe to be free, to be liberated of Nazi Germany discriminating against people based on their heritage.
Why wasn’t the history of these imprisoned Americans in our history books more clearly? Maybe, like it was swept under the rug after the war’s end, certain people wanted to sweep it under history’s rug by not talking about some of the skeletons in our closet.
On our trip home from Mammoth, we made sure to schedule a half day to see Manzanar. Pulling in the camp, my car was rocking in the wind, sand blasting from every angle. As I fought to open the door of the car against the wind, in came a flood of sand, the wind quickly slamming the door shut. Sand was pelting me from every angle, in the cracks of my ears, under my eyelids, down my shirt. It was like nothing I had ever known—sand in places I’d never imagined.
As I leaned backwards against the sandstorm, making my way to the old Manzanar high school auditorium, which now serves as the Interpretive Center, I thought, “this is only a couple minutes of this. These people had to endure this for over three years?”
Inside the Interpretive Center, I got a crash course in this history of what lead up to the imprisonment of over 110,000 people in ten American concentration camps, two-thirds of them citizens by birth. The longer I soaked up the history, the sicker I became. My daughter is half-Asian and, after seeing a photograph of a girl her age just ripped my heart out, thinking how helpless her parents must have felt. I literally had to sit down in front of the stage for about a half hour just staring.
I eventually drove to the different parts of the camp. A sea of thick scrub brush overtook where barracks used to be, where people used to spend their nights. As my feet pressed into the sandy ground, I thought about how many others were standing right where I was, how many footprints had been erased by the passage of time. After the war had ended and Manzanar was dismantled, it was almost as if the desert wanted to erase the embarrassment of what had happened there. Every prisoner there had their life completely dismantled, their property sold for pennies on the dollar, stripped of their possessions and dignity, then, when the camp closed, they were left to rebuild with nothing, thrown back into “America.”
Manzanar was like nothing I had ever experienced—sheer anger, guilt, embarrassment.
“How didn’t I know? Why weren’t we taught this growing up?”
I felt like crying but I was too mad. I felt like fighting, but who? My jaw was stiff, locked together. I was helpless. Maybe I had a slight glimpse of what these Americans might have experienced stepping foot onto the sands of Manzanar for the first time.
Jason Honeycutt, a television editor and music video director, currently works for FX Network. Inspired by what he saw and experienced during his Manzanar visit, he has begun work on a feature film screenplay based on the camp. Honeycutt lives in Canoga Park, California with his wife and daughter.
Views expressed in this story are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the Manzanar Committee.
LEAD PHOTO: Replica of one of the eight guardtowers at the Manzanar National Historic Site. Photo: Jason Honeycutt.
SECOND PHOTO: Monument at the Manzanar cemetery, known as the Soul Consoling Tower. Photo: Jason Honeycutt
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