Samurai among Panthers
Richard Aoki on Race, Resistance, and a Paradoxical Life
Publication Year: 2012
An iconic figure of the Asian American movement, Richard Aoki (1938–2009) was also, as the most prominent non-Black member of the Black Panther Party, a key architect of Afro-Asian solidarity in the 1960s and ’70s. His life story exposes the personal side of political activism as it illuminates the history of ethnic nationalism and radical internationalism in America.
A reflection of this interconnection, Samurai among Panthers weaves together two narratives: Aoki’s dramatic first-person chronicle and an interpretive history by a leading scholar of the Asian American movement, Diane C. Fujino. Aoki’s candid account of himself takes us from his early years in Japanese American internment camps to his political education on the streets of Oakland, to his emergence in the Black Panther Party. As his story unfolds, we see how his parents’ separation inside the camps and his father’s illegal activities shaped the development of Aoki’s politics. Fujino situates his life within the context of twentieth-century history—World War II, the Cold War, and the protests of the 1960s. She demonstrates how activism is both an accidental and an intentional endeavor and how a militant activist practice can also promote participatory democracy and social service.
The result of these parallel voices and analysis in Samurai among Panthers is a complex—and sometimes contradictory—portrait of a singularly extraordinary activist and an expansion and deepening of our understanding of the history he lived.
Published by: University of Minnesota Press
Series: Critical American Studies
Title Page, About the Series, Copyright, Dedication
Introduction: Demystifying the Japanese Radical Cat
At his memorial service in May 2009, there were signs that Richard Aoki’s image could rival that of Che Guevara—in style that is, though of course not in fame.1 The memorial, held at UC Berkeley’s Wheeler Auditorium, began with a processional of former Black Panther Party (BPP) members...
1. “My Happy Childhood That I Don’t Remember”
I’ve been told that my early years, before the war, were the happiest period of my childhood. I was adored by my extended family. Yet I don’t remember it. I was born on November 20, 1938, in the year of the tiger and in the European zodiac, Scorpio. I’ve heard rumors that my birth was a bit of a surprise...
Disrupting the Deviant–Noble Binary
This is an atypically short chapter. I considered combining it with the next, but its very brevity speaks volumes about Richard’s limited knowledge of his early childhood years and family history. Because he lived in his paternal grandparents’ home until his early teen years, I wondered why he hadn’t...
2. “Protecting the Japanese”
December 7, 1941. I don’t recall anything about the immediate effects of Pearl Harbor, such as the radio broadcast or the panic and confusion. I learned later that on December seventh, a few thousand Japanese Americans were locked up, though they committed no crime. They all were loyal citizens—ministers...
The Ungrieved Trauma of Internment
“My country abandoned me” and “I want to know why I was thrown away,” relayed one man, who had entered camp at age two. The stirring documentary Children of the Camps explores the anguish expressed by this man and other former child internees. Countering conventional notions that...
3. “Learning to Do the West Oakland Dip”
My tour of duty in the concentration camps ended in late 1945. I vividly recall the trip back to the Bay Area because my father somehow managed to score a deal. My father and his friend were to drive two military vehicles—an ambulance and a covered pickup truck—from Topaz to the Bay Area. This...
Masculinity, Race, and Citizenship in Postwar Oakland
The physical fight between his father and uncle was a pivotal moment in the development of Richard’s masculinity. “For days afterward,” Richard recounts, “I walked around with the hood of my jacket down over my head.” It was “one of the most horrible traumas, emotionally, I had experienced.”...
4. “I Was a Man by the Standards of the ’Hood”
So we leave West Oakland and fast-forward to Berkeley High School, where I was a conscientious student from 1954 to 1957. When I became a senior in high school, I began to think of what I would do after graduation. I hadn’t been too happy at Berkeley High School. In looking at my options upon graduating,...
Military Misadventures and Cold War Masculinity
Two photographs of Richard and his brother, David, are revealing of the ways Cold War militarism impacted their lives. The first photograph shows two boys, aged six and seven, dressed identically in striped shirts and overalls, using their left arms to steady their right shooting hands, with eyes peering...
5. “My Identification Went with the Aspirations of the Masses”
The year 1964 was big for me, though I didn’t realize it at the time. I was twenty-five years old and starting to settle down. My younger brother had gotten married, had a child, and decided to go to UC Berkeley, and I’m still tiptoeing through the tulips.1 I got to get serious. By ’64, I had set up housekeeping,...
The Old Left, Third World Radicalism, and Vietnam
Aoki is best known for his work in the Black Panther Party and Third World Liberation Front. Yet, I contend that his participation in the predominantly White Old Left, through the SWP/YSA, was pivotal not only to his radicalization but paradoxically in moving him toward Black nationalism as well...
6. “The Greatest Political Opportunity of My Life”
My joining the Black Panther Party was about being in the right place at the right time—or the wrong place at the wrong time, depending on how you look at it.1 Had I gone directly to [UC] Berkeley, I would have missed out on the greatest political opportunity of my career because Merritt College was a...
Joining the Black Panther Party
A Japanese American in the Black Panther Party? This comes as a surprise to most, including many Panthers themselves. Richard Aoki was the most prominent non-Black member of the BPP.113 But there were a few others as well, including Japanese Americans Mike Tagawa and Guy Kurose and a...
7. “Support All Oppressed Peoples”
Here I am at Berkeley, sitting in the campus dining commons, when a woman approaches me and asks, out of the clear blue sky, if I’m politically inclined. Emma Gee and her husband, Yuji Ichioka, were working with the Peace and Freedom Party on the forthcoming elections and wanted to gather together...
Founding the Asian American Political Alliance
Richard Aoki’s statement that AAPA was “one of the most important Asian American political groups to come out of the sixties,” yet almost entirely ignored by history, was indeed correct. The very introduction of the term “Asian American,” credited to Berkeley’s AAPA, transformed the social consciousness...
8. “It Was about Taking Care of the Collective”
Students at Berkeley were active for months before the Third World Liberation Front strike began. The African American students had been negotiating for almost a year for a Black Studies program.1 The Latinos were pushing the university to boycott grapes, in support of the farmworkers’ struggles.2 At the...
The Revolutionary Potential of the Third World Strike
“I didn’t see the strike as that politically important.” This is a surprising statement from one who provided tremendous leadership to the Third World strike. Aoki’s admission that he “wasn’t paying too much attention” is revealing of his radical politics. In the 1960s, Richard saw formal schooling...
9. “A Community-Oriented Academic Unit”
After the strike ended, we had the task of setting up the Department of Ethnic Studies and the four divisions within it: Asian, Black, La Raza, and Native American Studies.1 AAPA had taken the leading role among Asian Americans in the TWLF strike and now took the leading role in creating Asian American Studies....
The Birth of Asian American Studies
The political milieu of the times demanded a radical restructuring of the educational system. The transformations that occurred within the university reflected the prevailing social movement’s demands for racial equality, an economic leveling, and a focus on social justice and community responsibility...
10. “An Advocate for the Students”
I’m sitting in my office at UC Berkeley when a half dozen Merritt College students come to see me. This is around 1970. They wanted me to set up Asian American Studies at Merritt College, but my plate’s full at Berkeley. So I said, “Let’s do it this way. I’ll teach one course and make it equivalent to the Introduction...
Counselor, Instructor, Administrator
In the early 1970s, after a decade of exhaustive activism, Aoki removed himself from overt political struggles and turned to the educational arena. Working in the community college system enabled him to channel his commitment to equality in more manageable ways, while sustaining himself physically,...
11. “At Least I Was There”
Huey was murdered in August 1989 on the streets of Oakland.1 His death was personally a very crushing blow to me. Even though Huey and I had drifted apart, we still occasionally crossed paths. It was painful seeing Huey in that period because his descent into the drug world was rather shocking. It was...
A Rebirth in Activism
The Black Panther Party presented Aoki with one of the greatest politically and personally gratifying experiences of his life. It is thus apropos that Aoki’s return to grassroots organizing in the early 1990s, his coming home to meaningful work that matched his radical politics, was sparked by the death of...
Epilogue: Reflecting on a Movement Icon
A processional of old guard Black Panther Party members marched down the aisle of Wheeler Auditorium on the UC Berkeley campus. While their graying hair betrayed their age, they carried the spirit of the party in the large banner they held featuring a black panther over a red star, pronouncing...
The writing of a book, while solitary, is never an individual act. On the contrary, research, teaching, and knowledge production come through the sharing of ideas and resources, the creation of a social good. A great number of people, too many to acknowledge here, made the research for and writing...
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