- After Camp: Portraits in Midcentury Japanese American Life and Politics by Greg Robinson
Readers who approach Greg Robinson’s After Camp: Portraits in Midcentury Japanese American Life and Politics hoping for a collection of Issei and Nisei survivor stories will be sorely disappointed. Only the third chapter (“Japantown Born and Reborn”), a triangulation of case studies based on resettlement experiences in New York, Detroit, and Los Angeles, inclines in that direction. There are, however, no sustained personal perspectives. Those seeking a non-chronological, “broad-based investigation” (2) of Japanese American pre- and postincarceration life will be gratified by the scope and conscientiousness of this ambitious historical project.
After Camp resembles a patchwork quilt of discrete yet cohesive pieces. Divided thematically into five sections, the twelve chapters tackle such diverse issues as President Roosevelt’s plans for postwar resettlement and dispersal of former internees; the negotiation of citizenship values by Nisei (second-generation) intellectuals, politicians, artists, and activist collectives like the Japanese American Citizenship League (JACL); the imperatives of assimilation amid public mistrust and discrimination; and the pre- and postwar connections forged among Japanese Americans, Mexican Americans, and African Americans. There is no core thesis to be proven so much as a multidirectional reconstruction of the cultural milieus into which the former “enemy aliens” found themselves released and expected to thrive.
Robinson’s writing is eminently readable, with ample examples conveyed in an accessible yet erudite style that would appeal to general readers as well as fellow historians. Particularly strong are the chapters devoted to the “uneasy” [End Page 104] and “fragile” alliance between African Americans and Japanese Americans from the mid-1950s onward (217). The author traces the evolution of black–Asian solidarity based on common experiences of oppression such as media-fueled racism, housing discrimination, and restricted access to schooling, employment, and property ownership. Robinson deftly calls attention to the precedent-setting cooperation between the JACL and the Legal Defense Fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Discussing Brown v. Board of Education (1954) in the context of Korematsu v. United States (1944) and Oyama v. California (1948), he expertly underscores how Japanese American legal struggles laid the foundation for postwar civil rights legislation at the national level.
The author then dissects frictions that arose between the two groups as the 1960s progressed. Attitudes ranging from avoidance and indifference to “bitter disdain” (226) characterized Nisei reactions to African American civil rights agitation. Others remained loyal to the spirit of camaraderie and mutual striving. Challenges were exacerbated by model minority discourses in the media that pitted assimilated, seemingly unobtrusive Asian Americans against “troublemaking” racial Others. Added to the fray were disagreements over controversial legislation like California’s Proposition 14 (on housing discrimination based on race and religion) and the fallout from the Watts Riots of 1965. This urban upheaval resulted in significant damage to Nisei-owned businesses and corroded the spirit of intergroup dialogue and cooperation. Overall, these incidents acted to diminish the closeness that had germinated decades earlier when, in the wake of Executive Order 9066, a “disproportionate” amount of support was offered by black intellectuals and communities for their Japanese American compatriots (157). Although African American institutional leadership remained largely silent on the matter, voices such as Harvard-educated lawyer Hugh E. Macbeth, writers George Schuyler and Langston Hughes, singer Paul Robeson, reporter Erna P. Harris, and attorney Pauli Murray challenged the long-held misconception that these two populations were largely uninvolved in each other’s historical strivings (161). Robinson’s inquiries whet the scholarly appetite for further investigation on this underexamined topic.
In the spirit of crossing barriers, boundaries, and borders, this U.S.-born Canadian academic displays a refreshingly hemispheric approach to the preand postwar struggles of the internees. He does not omit commentary on Japanese Canadian incarceration and also focuses an entire chapter on the career of McGill University sociologist Forrest LaViolette, whom he describes as a political “paradox” (4) and “weak reed in...