- Local Story: The Massie-Kahahawai Case and the Culture of History by John Rosa
The murder of Joseph Kahahawai was one of the most sensational events to take place in territorial Hawai‘i. The story of his death is usually remembered [End Page 435] by the name of his murderers—the Massie Affair—or the crime of which he was falsely accused—the Ala Moana rape case. The story captivated American audiences from September 1931 to May 1932. In addition to the titillating combination of sex and murder, there were several developments that kept the American public intrigued. The rape trial ended in a hung jury, a result that many whites (in Hawai‘i and on the continent) found intolerable. While waiting for a retrial, the accused were harassed by Thalia Massie’s husband, Tommie, and mother, Grace Fortescue. Before a new trial could be scheduled, Massie’s mother, husband, and two accomplices kidnapped Kahahawai, shot him, and attempted to throw his body into the ocean. In the second trial the murderers were found guilty, sentenced to thirty years in prison, and promptly released. Like others before and after them who perpetrated a lynching of a nonwhite man, the murderers were unabashed. Grace Fortescue as much as admitted her culpability in an interview with the New York Times, and years later, one of the accomplices, Albert O. Jones, proudly confessed to firing the shot that killed Kahahawai. The accusation of rape, the murder of the defendant, and the release of the criminals became a symbol of the power of white supremacy in Hawai‘i.
Most Americans forgot about the Massie-Kahahawai affair as soon as the last headline was printed. But in Hawai‘i, the story lingered in local memory and, according to John Rosa, took on a life of its own. In Local Story, he asserts that the case marked the emergence of “local” as a pan-ethnic identity that brought Hawai‘i’s diverse population together. The case was an example of what they daily experienced: racial prejudice, structural inequality, and a society that was dominated by a tiny minority of whites who exercised absolute control over the territory.
Rosa is a historian, but his primary concern is with the present. The book, he says, is a “dialogue between the past and the present.” Any good history should be just this. In this case, the conversation vacillates between a narration of the most important events of the case; context that adds dimension to local history and politics; and an analysis of the ways the case has been retold in fiction, documentary film, plays, and other forms of public history. Rosa examines how the case has been remembered and brought back to life. Until very recently the case was not talked about, was not an active part of public memory. But beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, the case resurfaced and took on new meaning. It no longer existed as simply a case of perverted justice, but instead came to symbolize a newly emerging identity, one that was not defined by the stigma associated with the working class. Local identity became a source of ethnic pride.
Rosa states that Local Story does not simply reiterate the facts of the case and that a reader unfamiliar with the events would do better to start with [End Page 436] one of the many nonfiction narrative histories. This is good advice. The book treads no new ground. His intention is to tell a story about the story, to provide metanarrative that explains the significance of the story for a local audience. Americans who followed the case from the continent were given a thrilling tale that came to a satisfactory conclusion in which racial tensions were resolved and white supremacy was protected. For a local audience, however, the end of the case was disquieting and the story had no satisfactory ending. In later years, telling and retelling...