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
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Title Page, About the Series, Copyright, Dedication
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Introduction: Demystifying the Japanese Radical Cat
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At his memorial service in May , there were signs that Richard Aoki’simage could rival that of Che Guevara—in style that is, though of coursenot in fame.1 The memorial, held at UC Berkeley’s Wheeler Auditorium,began with a processional of former Black Panther Party (BPP) membersholding a large painted banner that proclaimed Aoki to be a “People’s War-...
1. “My Happy Childhood That I Don’t Remember”
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I’ve been told that my early years, before the war, were the happiest periodof my childhood. I was adored by my extended family. Yet I don’t rememberit. I was born on November , , in the year of the tiger and in theEuropean zodiac, Scorpio. I’ve heard rumors that my birth was a bit of a sur-prise. My father was a big man on campus. He was, my mother’s sister Decky...
Disrupting the Deviant–Noble Binary
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But the American Dream shatters and the Japanese American nightmaretakes over. What was this Japanese American nightmare? It was the exclusion,evacuation, and internment of the national Japanese American community onthe West Coast. Now comes the end of Richard’s happy childhood, whichThis is an atypically short chapter. I considered combining it with the next,...
2. “Protecting the Japanese”
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December , . I don’t recall anything about the immediate eﬀects ofPearl Harbor, such as the radio broadcast or the panic and confusion. I learnedlater that on December seventh, a few thousand Japanese Americans werelocked up, though they committed no crime. They all were loyal citizens—min-isters, teachers, community leaders, and businesspeople. The irony of it is that...
The Ungrieved Trauma of Internment
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...that too. Richard doesn’t seem to know what’s going on, but okay, I’ll go withI’m beginning to get a little pissed regarding my early childhood, mean-ing that period from to when my family was intact, my communitywas intact, and I was growing up a happy little child, with the nickname ofChatterbox and doting grandparents. Then about a week after we left the...
3. “Learning to Do the West Oakland Dip”
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My tour of duty in the concentration camps ended in late . I vividlyrecall the trip back to the Bay Area because my father somehow managed toscore a deal. My father and his friend were to drive two military vehicles—anambulance and a covered pickup truck—from Topaz to the Bay Area. Thisother family and their two children were in one vehicle and my father, my...
Masculinity, Race, and Citizenship in Postwar Oakland
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...know. I had to drink a pint of vodka, trying to muster the courage. It was oneof the hardest things I ever had to do in my life. But I don’t know how I couldhave lived with myself if I didn’t. A pint of vodka! I just told him the newsand that if he needed to talk to David or visit, he only had a short time to do it.That was about it. The ball was in his court. I had delivered the message; I had...
4. “I Was a Man by the Standards of the ’Hood”
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So we leave West Oakland and fast-forward to Berkeley High School, where Iwas a conscientious student from to . When I became a senior inhigh school, I began to think of what I would do after graduation. I hadn’t beentoo happy at Berkeley High School. In looking at my options upon graduating,number one, I could get a job. During high school, I did decrease my activity in...
Military Misadventures and Cold War Masculinity
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Two photographs of Richard and his brother, David, are revealing of theways Cold War militarism impacted their lives. The first photograph showstwo boys, aged six and seven, dressed identically in striped shirts and over-alls, using their left arms to steady their right shooting hands, with eyes peer-ing down the top of their toy guns. Their guns look like crude replicas of...
5. “My Identification Went with the Aspirations of the Masses”
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The year was big for me, though I didn’t realize it at the time. I wastwenty-five years old and starting to settle down. My younger brother had got-ten married, had a child, and decided to go to UC Berkeley, and I’m still tiptoe-ing through the tulips.1 I got to get serious. By ’, I had set up housekeeping,so my domestic life was getting fairly well settled. Although I had a good-pay-...
The Old Left, Third World Radicalism, and Vietnam
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Aoki is best known for his work in the Black Panther Party and Third WorldLiberation Front. Yet, I contend that his participation in the predominantlyWhite Old Left, through the SWP/YSA, was pivotal not only to his radical-ization but paradoxically in moving him toward Black nationalism as well.In the early s, at a time when Aoki was deciding whether to join the...
6. “The Greatest Political Opportunity of My Life”
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My joining the Black Panther Party was about being in the right place at theright time—or the wrong place at the wrong time, depending on how youlook at it.1 Had I gone directly to [UC] Berkeley, I would have missed out onthe greatest political opportunity of my career because Merritt College was ahotbed of Black nationalism.2 That time was the beginning of racial polariza-...
Joining the Black Panther Party
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Materially, this probably is true. But that’s never been my set anyway. By acci-dent of history, I was in the right place at the right time, where I had to makea decision. I didn’t do this for the money. I didn’t do this for the fame. I mademy decision and it had to do with this vision of a better society because thecurrent one is so messed up. I’d like to think of myself as being one of those in...
7. “Support All Oppressed Peoples”
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Here I am at Berkeley, sitting in the campus dining commons, when a womanapproaches 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 andFreedom Party on the forthcoming elections and wanted to gather togetherpolitically conscious Orientals for a meeting at their place.1 The first thing I...
Founding the Asian American Political Alliance
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...in that we had this captive audience who were generally interested. Also, theyknew who the significant Asian figures were—the TAs because the TAs wereall AAPA people. That’s how we got picked to be TAs. The TAs were also in theleadership of the strike. The only places students could go to for reliable infor-You asked how the students, even those who would take an experimental...
8. “It Was about Taking Care of the Collective”
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Students at Berkeley were active for months before the Third World Libera-tion Front strike began. The African American students had been negotiatingfor almost a year for a Black Studies program.1 The Latinos were pushing theuniversity to boycott grapes, in support of the farmworkers’ struggles.2 At thetime, there were many Filipino farmworkers working alongside Chicanos in...
The Revolutionary Potential of the Third World Strike
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...and emotionally. I didn’t do a lot of introspection. I was on automatic pilot.Academically I was on my way to completing the requirements for my mas-ter’s degree. Then the big split in the BPP hit. I’d been away from the party andI didn’t see it coming. Then I had my personal life and personal plans.I have to admit, at the beginning of the strike, I didn’t think the cause was...
9. “A Community-Oriented Academic Unit”
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After the strike ended, we had the task of setting up the Department of EthnicStudies and the four divisions within it: Asian, Black, La Raza, and Native Amer-ican Studies.1 AAPA had taken the leading role among Asian Americans in theTWLF strike and now took the leading role in creating Asian American Studies.AAPA’s two main goals, as I saw it, were to create “a community-oriented aca-...
The Birth of Asian American Studies
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There’s something I have to say about the generosity and commitment ofthe early faculty. When the report came out that we didn’t have enough moneyto fund all our courses, the AAS instructors voted to kick in part or all of theirsalaries. We were at this meeting and people were saying, “Let’s kick back partof our salary.” I was sitting there saying, “Am I hearing right?” I was really proud...
10. “An Advocate for the Students”
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I’m sitting in my oﬃce at UC Berkeley when a half dozen Merritt College stu-dents come to see me. This is around . They wanted me to set up AsianAmerican 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 Intro-duction to Asian American Studies at Berkeley to make sure it’s transferable.”...
Counselor, Instructor, Administrator
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...people, even under the best of economic conditions. It’s especially hard whenpeople don’t have anything to look forward to. I remember a guy who blewhis brains out in a bar after he retired from the post oﬃce. This also has to dowith the nature of our system where ageism is a factor. Then, there was alsothe personal part where my stepfather’s health was beginning to deteriorate...
11. “At Least I Was There”
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Huey was murdered in August on the streets of Oakland.1 His death waspersonally a very crushing blow to me. Even though Huey and I had driftedapart, we still occasionally crossed paths. It was painful seeing Huey in thatperiod because his descent into the drug world was rather shocking. It wasshocking because I respected him so much and because it was so public. One...
A Rebirth in Activism
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...declare solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters and to speak out againstany possible internment of Muslims. While the past history of the JACL seempolitically thwarted, more recent events show JACL making a positive contribu-Ironically, most of the people who were honored at this event were indi-viduals I had worked with during the sixties, including Ken Kawaichi and Dale...
Epilogue: Reflecting on a Movement Icon
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A processional of old guard Black Panther Party members marched downthe aisle of Wheeler Auditorium on the UC Berkeley campus. While theirgraying hair betrayed their age, they carried the spirit of the party in the largebanner they held featuring a black panther over a red star, pronouncingRichard Aoki to be a “People’s Warrior,” and in the black leather jackets,...
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The writing of a book, while solitary, is never an individual act. On thecontrary, research, teaching, and knowledge production come through thesharing of ideas and resources, the creation of a social good. A great numberof people, too many to acknowledge here, made the research for and writ-ing of this book not only possible but joyful and deeply satisfying. My first...
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About the Author
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DIANE C. FUJINO is associate professor and chair of Asian AmericanStudies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She has published twoother books with the University of Minnesota Press, Heartbeat of Struggle:The Revolutionary Life of Yuri Kochiyama () and Wicked Theory, Naked...
Page Count: 496
Publication Year: 2012
Series Title: Critical American Studies