The Sleeping Giant: racism

Uncategorized January 25, 2015

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.



For over three decades my profession was as an author and illustrator of children's books. Firefighters A to Z (McElderry Books/S&S) was chosen as a "Best Book" by the NY Times (2000). Over 100 titles are attached to my name. In 2011 my life changed the moment I saw a photo of a WW II fighter pilot. Nineteen year old Griffin Holland, P-47 pilot stood erect on the wheel of his plane, staring off into the distance, cocky as all get out. The need to paint that photo and Griff's tearful reaction to it as an 88 year old man set this journey in motion.

Comments 6

  1. Floyd Thompson says on January 25, 2015

    Your heart is good and I rejoice at your opened eyes. Yes, much still lingers below the surface. Like the father in The Shack book it is a hard journey to forgive the unforgivable terror brought to innocence people or your own country men. The movie Unbroken and book even more shows why so many WW II era folks; Especially those in combat or concentration camps sector hold such hatred for what they saw. Yet, the conversion and soul saving of Louis Zamperini and his later forgiveness and acts of loving acts to make amends are testimony to the power of Gods love. I think if you are a praying man I ask you consider praying for those who are still living in darkness and bigotry and ask that your legacy work will stir their souls to know forgiveness and loving grace that is there for them. Let God hold the judgement –for holding judgement ourselves blocks our loving nature given by God. Bless you Chris for what you are striving to do through your artwork. Praise God.

    • wwtwotravelingportraitexhibit says on January 25, 2015

      Thank you Tom, for your kind and understanding words. A friend and docent wrote to me after reading my blog to make sure I wasn’t letting the guy get to me. I assured him he didn’t. As you point out, the burden of passing judgement is not mine but God’s. I didn’t get angry with the man and as I pointed out to my friend, I wrote the piece with calmness for that is the only way my message can be expressed. If there’s any anger it’s at his ignorance and unwillingness to understand, ie stand in someone else’s shoes. But I can’t make him or anyone see anything unless he/they are willing to. But by writing about it, it’s my way of saying it exists (racism, hatred) and my work will always be, especially because I work in public, enlightening those who are willing to listen. Judge not the individual as a group, but as a person is my message. The work continues and always with a light heart and smile. So thank you.

  2. Tom Hart says on January 25, 2015

    Bravo, Chris. The WWII generation – our parents, grandparents and great grandparents – did many great things, not the least of which includes winning that terrible war and enduring the related sacrifices. But the generation was not uniformly great in all aspects, as you so well point out. They were, and are, imperfect humans. The problem that you illuminate (and that many of us have inherited) has to be called out. Only by recognizing it can we ever hope to correct it.

    • wwtwotravelingportraitexhibit says on January 25, 2015

      Thank you Tom for taking the time to read this. Needless to say, this attitude is more prevalent than I’d like but the gift I got immediately afterward was the wonderful family to whom I gave the origami cranes. I will continue educating through stories. This guy, I didn’t ask, probably never stopped to read any of the stories. But on the other hand, I’ve watched many docents read several of them and praise the work. I’m emboldened to use this run-in as an example to some of the men who bash Obama and muslims, ie doing the same thing American white people did at the start of the war: label and hate. Stay tuned.

  3. Donna Marie Merritt says on January 26, 2015

    A well-stated post, Chris. You can’t force someone to understand or to be logical or even kind. You just keep doing what you’re doing, bringing out the stories, changing the world one painting at a time. Know that you are making a difference.

    • wwtwotravelingportraitexhibit says on January 27, 2015

      Thank you Donna. You too know the power of both words and gestures. I assured a friend my piece was not written in anger and I’m not out to punish this man. Kill him with kindness and education maybe 😉

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s