It’s been almost four years since starting this journey and like most undertakings of such length, a lot is learned and acquired along the way. What started as a tribute to the men and women in uniform during WW II expanded way beyond that when, in talking to many visitors in many states, it began including as many aspects of the war as possible. And this meant people of color and non-white races.
As many of you know, this project started, as most things do, by one seemingly small thing. In my case a black and white photo of a pilot standing atop the wheel of his fighter. And it grew. The subject of that photograph and now painting, was not kind in his thinking of the Japanese. But the simple and unsolicited outpouring of gratitude by a Japanese American woman wiped, as he said “decades” of resentment toward the Japanese people.
Today at the Palm Springs Air Museum where I’ve now been working for over a year, a white male docent -the title given to the volunteers who interact with the public, stopped by my easel and calmly said:”This (referring to my portraits) doesn’t make me happy.” Pressed to explain himself, his issue was the lack of white men in combat, like his father. Though pointing out several of such images to him, what came to light was his resentment of both non-white races and women. After talking to him for five minutes, probing his point further, he simply said: “We’re free to disagree.” The fact is no we’re not. There is no room for disagreement about this. What I heard was racism at it’s “white”-washed ugliest. Somehow it was okay to not accept that all of these portraits represent real people who contributed something to the war and that includes the Japanese Americans on the west coast who contributed by, for the most part, willingly going off to one of ten internment camps, scattering close to 120,000 of them far and wide.
Two weeks ago, two caucasian women stopped by to talk to me about the internment camps and mentioned that an older docent made the off-the-cuff remark alluding to the Ansel Adams’ “Manzanar” internment camp exhibit: “That’s where those monkey’s belonged,” he had told them. Needless to say this man was dealt with immediately by the staff. The credo is to all who work at the museum, there is to be no discussion of religion, race or politics. Sadly that rule is abused daily.
One of the most commented on paintings I have is of six black WACs, the 6888th Battalion (Postal unit) happily posing for the camera. People love it. I’m not going to count the number of paintings I’ve done of ethnic minorities. My mission is not about reflecting the head count of the time period between 1940 and 1945. It’s always been about the stories. But bigotry, racism and sexism looms large among many of the docents. I will add, the majority of voluneeters are absolutely wonderful human beings, many from that era who know that they were far from being the “greatest generation”. It was if you were white.
One docent told me that when he was nine years old, he and a friend stood leaning on the wire mess fence and taunted the Japanese Americans staged at the Santa Anita horse racing track. “I’m not proud of myself,” Paul said. Like so many white people along the coast in particular, he was caught up in the mass hysteria and influence of his parents and elders. What’s particularly troubling as a thirty year old friend said to me, “We never learned any of this in school.” American textbooks reflect the war’s history as the United States winning the war and rescuing the survivors of concentration camps in Europe. Occasional sidebars might mention what happened to the Japanese Americans.
Those Japanese American men who sought to prove their loyalty to the United States were put in (like the black troops) segregated units. The all Japanese 442nd Regimental Combat Unit (where the late Hawaiian Senator Daniel Inouye served and lost his arm) was the highest decorated combat unit in US military history.
When the Tuskegee Airmen returned from their tours in Europe guiding American bombers safely into Germany and back to England, the “Red Tails” as they became famously known for, after sailing home on troop ships, the ugliness of white America greeted them at the bottom of each ship’s gangway. Two signs each with an arrow pointing in opposite direction stared up at them. Whites. Coloreds.
Daily, people are surprised (and mostly delighted) to read the truth behind Iva Toguri aka Tokyo Rose whose injustice was served by a Japanese hating journalist Walter Winchell (who later backed the anti-Communist Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunt).
It is now over seventy years since D-Day and resentment toward Americans of non-white races is far from buried. Today this white bigoted racist opened wide my eyes. Hatred lurks in the shallows. I have more reason than ever to fill the walls with more stories and images of people of all races who have valued stories to be told and remembered. It is ironic, yet apt to quote the famous Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto who solemnly mused after the Japanese Imperial forces attacked Pearl Harbor: “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” Today I became that sleeping giant against intolerance and ignorance.