Sunday, October 26, 2008

John Howard's "Concentration Camps on the Home Front"

John Howard is professor in and head of the Department of American Studies at King’s College London and the author of Men Like That: A Southern Queer History.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Concentration Camps on the Home Front: Japanese Americans in the House of Jim Crow, and reported the following:
Is a picture worth a thousand words? A good one merits a hundred thousand or more. That’s the lesson of my second book, which was launched by a single black-and-white photograph from 1943. I found it while searching for illustrations for my first book.

At the Library of Congress in Washington, I typed in “Mississippi” and selected “1940-1949” and came up with an astounding image of men in uniform and women in fancy dress, arranged boy-girl-boy-girl-boy-girl, as far as the eye could see. Almost all were Japanese American.

I knew about America’s World War II concentration camps from grad school days, thanks to Prof. Catherine Nickerson. But I was unaware of the extent of the Deep South connection. As with many long journeys, it initially seemed a side trip, a momentary diversion. Eventually, this insistent question about Asian American history would grow and evolve into a nine year research project, all resulting from that one unforgettable publicity shot. Which can be found on page 138, dang it.

Page 99 does contain a crucial argument that emerged from sustained analysis of the picture, among other sources – an argument informing many others in the book:

Even as the [indiscriminate] imprisonment [of 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent] had devastating effects, it likewise yielded many opportunities, especially for … women…. Authorities had not anticipated these benefits, nor did they necessarily view them as such. When the full consequences became known, they acted to shore up gender differences, reasserting women’s subordinate position to men and reaffirming entrenched standards of heterosexual marriage, male privilege, patriarchal control, and female domesticity. At every step, they met with resistance.

Under the most dire conditions, women worked their way up the socio-economic ladder. Lesbians and gays crafted new ways of interacting. Striking laborers protested occupational hazards and forced concessions from administrators, after co-workers were injured and killed on the job. Visionary organizers cried out against the cruelties of American capitalism. They built successful co-ops and hatched daring plans for alternative, agrarian, utopian communities.

The gains achieved, amidst all the horrible, unnecessary loss, are testament not to any distinctively American values, but rather to the human capacity to endure, cooperate, and thrive.
Read one except from Concentration Camps on the Home Front at Southern Spaces, and another excerpt at the University of Chicago Press website.

Learn more about Concentration Camps on the Home Front at the publisher's website, and visit John Howard's faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue