Monday, March 30, 2009

Legacy of Silence: Reconciling Past and Present With Better Questions

The book read for the April History Book Discussion Study Group was part of the Historians at Work series, What Did the Internment of Japanese Americans Mean? edited by Alice Yang Murray. The collection of essays regarding the internment of Japanese Americans provided a heavy analysis that revealed an evolving and painful history. As the book exposes as much about historiography as it does the history, I recommend the book to teachers whose curriculums include this topic. Though historiography can be as difficult to study as it is to say, I believe, in moderation, it is important to the high school classroom. Though there is seldom time to get through a year’s curriculum, let alone, teach several interpretations of one event, there is still value in teaching students the impact that source availability and public opinion has on history.

To supplement April’s book, we each read a chapter from Last Witnesses: Reflections of the Wartime Internment of Japanese Americans edited by Erica Harth. I read “Legacy of Silence” by Mitsuye Yamada. In her reflection, Yamada reveals her present conflict and responsibility as a survivor of Japanese internment camps. With the hopes of protecting her children from racism, Yamada, as her parents before her, did not voluntarily share the experiences and emotions from her internment with her children. Through interactions with other victims, she soon realized that that burying the silence was a disservice, especially to her, but also to her children: “Our parents’ legacy of silence – “for the sake of the children” – had been a curse rather than a blessing.”

In efforts to rectify this wrong, Yamada offers great words of wisdom, to which teachers should pay close attention. Yamada suggests that, “We need to ask questions beyond “What was it like?” The assumption behind such questions is that as long as we are treated decently, we have nothing to complain about.” Asking superficial questions, such as “what was it like?” is important to begin a discussion, and often the easiest point of entry. However, these questions can lead students to compare suffering, which can lead them to conclude that the suffering wasn’t that bad. Yamada protests the danger in this by emphasizing that, “a wrong is still a wrong.” The way we present history can positively or negatively impact our students’ understanding of these wrongs.

The importance of her realization resonated within me. As teachers, we need to be conscious of how our questions could send unintentional messages to our students, impacting the way they view history, especially a sensitive history concerning victims. We need to deconstruct the meaning of the question and consider the purpose of this question. In considering what type of information it will provide and how we can and should process the information it provides, we can enrich our students’ historical understanding and restore the significance and value of people’s experiences.

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