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"The Color of My Skin, the Shape of My Eyes": Photographs of the Japanese-American Internment by Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams, and Toyo Miyatake

From: The Yale Journal of Criticism
Volume 9, Number 2, Fall 1996
pp. 223-244 | 10.1353/yale.1996.0013

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The Yale Journal of Criticism 9.2 (1996) 223-244

Figures

Here we bear our honors, here we exercise our power, here we covet wealth, here we mortals create our disturbances, here we continually carry on our wars, aye, civil wars, even, and unpeople the earth by mutual slaughter. And not to dwell on public feuds, entered into by nations against each other, here it is that we drive away our neighbors, and enclose the land thus seized upon within our fence; and yet the man who has most extended his boundary, and has expelled the inhabitants for ever so great a distance, after all, what mighty portion of the earth is he master of?

--Pliny, "The Earth," A.D. 77

Prophetically, Dorothea Lange and Paul Schuster Taylor's An American Exodus concludes with this passage from Pliny, marking the end of an era as the nation turned outward, from contemplation of its own wounded body politic during the Great Depression, toward the defense of ideologies in which other wounded bodies would figure as signs of this nation's restored health and power. The Farm Security Administration would be replaced by the Office of War Information, images of desperate and hungry homeless folk for the official files by studies of the good life in American small towns which we would go to war to defend. We heard the news by radio. Across the country, families huddled around their kitchen table models or living-room consoles; later, preparing for enemy attacks, only the glowing green dot of the radio would be visible as we listened in the dark to the President's disembodied voice. The war in Europe and the Pacific would represent a juxtaposition in the extreme of body and voice. Human casualties -- bodies maimed and destroyed -- within the war would be the tangible results of verbal issues (freedom, national sovereignty, the right to a disputed ground, the extra-territorial authority of a particular ideology) that stood outside of war. Historic and strategic accounts of military campaigns would omit descriptions of injuries to sentient human bodies, of the actual altering of human tissue; interactions between armies of opposing nations, emptied of human content, would occur as what Elaine Scarry calls "a rarefied choreography of disembodied events." Both sides would dream of an absolute, one-directional capacity to injure those outside one's territorial boundaries, an idea that, "whether dreamed by a nation-state that is in its interior a democracy or a tyranny, may begin to approach the torturer's dream of absolute nonreciprocity, . . . that one will be . . . exempt from the condition of being embodied while one's opponent will be kept in a state of radical embodiment by its awareness that it is at any moment deeply woundable."

Over the airwaves came news of the violation of our own territorial boundaries at Pearl Harbor, followed by the demand for the evacuation of persons of Japanese descent from the West Coast. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law Executive Order 9066 "prescrib[ing] military areas . . . from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion." Within a month, the War Relocation Authority began removing persons of Japanese ancestry from California, Oregon, and Washington to fifteen assembly centers on the West Coast -- mostly hastily converted fairgrounds, racetracks, and livestock exhibition halls, each of which held about 5,000 people --and to unfinished relocation centers at Manzanar, California, and Poston, Arizona. Most of the evacuees -- 110,000 Japanese-Americans -- would be transferred to concentration camps housing 10,000 to 20,000 people each in Tule Lake, California; Gila River, Arizona; Topaz, Utah; Minidoka, Idaho; Granada, Colorado; Jerome and Rohwer, Arkansas; and Heart Mountain, Wyoming, where they would live for more than three years behind barbed wire. The army would build these detention centers on unused federal land -- land so desolate and forbidding that no one had tried to develop it. At the peak of the evacuation, 3,750 people a day were moved...


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