The role of monuments in our history, future

The role of monuments in our history, futureAs our country grapples with the role that historical monuments play in reminding us of our past, and the influence they have on our future, I allowed my mind to turn to the annual pilgrimage to Manzanar (a virtual “tour,” in order to comply with COVID-19 safety protocols).

Decades before I was born, and more than a half century before my children were born, 100,000 Japanese Americans were rounded up and sequestered into internment camps for the duration of World War II. At nearby Manzanar, located about 70 miles north of us, 10,000 men, women and children were encamped in a single square mile. They effectively lost their homes, their businesses and their possessions before regaining their freedom several years later.

As a young girl, I remember my grandmother telling me about the heart-wrenching experience of losing a classmate and his family to that imprisonment. That sad chapter in our history has been made more real to me (and my children) by our frequent visits to what is now a national historic site.

One year, the film “Remembering Manzanar” was playing at the interpretation center. The story took interviews from internees and family members, weaving into them excerpts from speeches and letters and photographic scenes from that time period.

The film closed with a message voiced by survivors and their families. “We don’t have a king, we don’t have a queen, we have a constitution. When we violate that constitution, we begin to unravel as a nation … I think today that Americans need to be so alert because the individual rights of people have got to be preserved … Are we going to make the same mistakes as we did with a whole group of my family and friends? I really worry about that … I think this is still the best country in the world — hands down. But it’s up to everybody to see that it stays that way.”

Walking through the cramped and drafty quarters of Manzanar, seeing the tiny spaces allotted to families, being surrounded by ominous guard towers and barbed wire gives you a sense of the conditions many thousands of Americans lived under at a time. It is a gift that our present and future decision-makers carry forward that knowledge of our history when they are faced with options that carry potential impacts.

But Manzanar, as a monument, also appears to have successfully separated out the historical elements that are important for us to remember, without unduly exalting or condemning the imperfect humans who led us through the crisis.

It is my hope that, as we conduct the painful, but necessary, exercise of collective soul-searching in our country, we can find a way to hang onto the constants in our society that bind us together while continuing to refine our systems of freedom, justice and opportunity. We are not perfect, and may never be. But there’s no reason we can’t be better.

— Rebecca Neipp

Pictured: A mural of our iconic Sierra Nevada, painted by internee Tamekichi Carl Hibino, remains on display in the Manzanar interpretive center. — Photo by Rebecca Neipp

Story First Published: 2020-06-26