Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Dear Miss Breed - by Joanne Oppenheim

The internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II is a chapter of United States history that some would prefer to pretend never happened. I remember finding out about this injustice as an adult, and wondering why it wasn't taught in any of my American History classes in school, or my class on Constitution, Citizenship and Public Issues (CCPI) - a required course for all High School Seniors in Maryland during the 1980s. It is especially baffling to me because while I was taking CCPI there were actually Congressional Hearings about the internment going on at the time. How could it not have been worthy of a class discussion?

In 1942, after the Japanese invasion of Peal Harbor San Diego Public Children's Librarian Clara Breed discovered that many of her most enthusiastic patrons, American children of Japanese descent, were going to be sent to "relocation centers" with their families. She asked them to write to her, providing them with penny postcardsasking that they let her know where they were and how they were doing. From this she began a correspondence with many of the children. She also provided them with books, toys, supplies, and material for making clothes.

Clara Breed saved the letters that the children sent her. In 1993 they were donated to the Japanese American National Museum (you can read some of the letters here), and they are the basis of this book.

The children tell stories of the substandard conditions to which they were subjected (for some their first stop after being evacuated from their comfortable middle class homes was a refurbished horse stable - still smelling of urine). Surrounded by barbed wires and armed guards the camps were poorly heated, and poorly equipped, making for an especially difficult adjustment. Even so, the children's letters are hopeful, and demonstrate strong spirits.

Also included in this work are excerpts from opinion pieces from newspapers at the time. The bigotry is clear. It is also true that some things don't change, although today we are more likely to read such comments as anonymous posts and "tweets".

This work is evidence of librarians' long-time commitment to social justice. One former correspondent explained when he was interviewed for the book that as a "neglected child" Miss Breed introduced him "to the magical world of books". Clara Breed championed the rights of an especially vulnerable population at a time when it was especially un-popular to do so. In an article written for the Horn Book magazine in 1943, Breed tells the story of her young friends. It is interesting to note the stereotypes, albeit positive ones, evident in her article, as well as the language that many will find rather politically incorrect for the 21st century.

I was especially interested to see one of the children wrote to Miss Breed about how much she enjoyed "playing library" and discovering that another one grew up to work in a library.

Interestingly, as I was finishing this book I found out about Allegiance a new musical currently being produced in New York that tells the story of the Japanese-American internment camps.

No comments:

Post a Comment