Colleen Lye, â€œA New Deal for Asiansâ€ Chapter 4 in Americaâ€™s Asia:
Racial Form and American Literature, 1893-1945 (only pages 141-top
of 163 and 201-202
Mitsuye Yamada, â€œDesert Runâ€
Internment, the Myth of the
Frontier, and the Model
American Frontier: Taming the â€œwildernessâ€
What comes to mind in this environment?
â– harmony with natureâ€”animals grazing on pastures
â– peaceful, healing, authenticity
â– Jeffersonian democracyâ€”white farmers as ideal
â– Frontier mythâ€”American settlers are destined to
â€œconquerâ€ nature (also meaning indigenous Native
Americans). The experience breeds independence,
creativity, and individuality. Access to â€œsublimeâ€
nature is therefore a privilege of settler colonialism
â– â€œAmerican Progressâ€ by John Ghast, 1872
American Nature Writing: John Muir, Henry
David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson
â– Romanticizes the relationship
between man and nature
â– â€œlooking upon the countryside as
a peaceful, nature-bound, and
harmonious counterweight to the
corruptions of urban lifeâ€ (Ursula
Heise, Sense of Place, Sense of
Planet: The Environmental
Imagination of the Global, 138)
â– wilderness is a sublime landscape
for Muir where nature nurtures
and empowers man
â– The environment is a governing
tool in the US, what Michel
Foucault called â€œbiopoliticsâ€
â– Liberal power works passively
through the ability to â€œmake
live and let dieâ€
â– Muirâ€™s access to the
wilderness is life
senses, freedom of
â€“William Cronon, â€œThe Trouble with Wildernessâ€
â€œWilderness hides its unnaturalness
behind a mask that is all the more
beguiling because it seems so natural.â€
Switch out â€œWildernessâ€ for the word
â€œPowerâ€ in the quote below to
Why have we separated issues of social
justice like racism and colonization from
What happens when we try to link them back
together? We will explore this question more in our
analysis of the Internment and the poem by Mitsuye
SETTLING THE FRONTIER IN THE WEST
â€”THE WHITENING OF FARM LABOR
Cheap farm labor in the West was
predominantly Asian and Mexican. They
become invisible during the Great
Migration of poor white farmers from the
Dust Bowl creates national images of the
crisis of democracy brought on by the
Great Depression. Image of the
â€œwhiteness of the fallen yeomanâ€ farmer
that the nation must rehabilitate (Lye, 142)
GREAT DEPRESSION AND FARMERS
IN ENVIRONMENTAL CRISIS
Drought in the South and Midwest
Financial and Environmental Crisis of the
Dust Bowl Farmers migrate to the
New Deal policies (1933-1936)
of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt
aimed at alleviating poverty and the
plight of poor white migrant tenant
farmers through federal programs like
the Farm Security Administration
in addition to Social Security, the
Civilian Conservation Corp, Federal
Housing Administration, and public
works projects, etc.
Dustbowl Farmer Oklahoma, 1936
Digging out fence post being
buried in sand
“Ex-tenant farmer on relief grant in the Imperial Valley,
California.â€ Photo by Dorothea Lange
1934 Tydings-McDuffie Act revokes
â€œUS national statusâ€ for Filipinx
1937 forced repatriation of Mexican
â€œIn the same period 683,000 [white]
migrants from the south-central
states of Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri,
and Arkansas arrived in California to
take their placeâ€ (Lye)
February 1942 Forced removal of
people of Japanese Ancestry
Significance: Japanese and Filipinx
farmworkers were effectively
removed from farming in order to
make space for white farmers
LIBERALS REPRESENT THE PLIGHT
OF THE FARMER AS WHITE
John Steinbeckâ€™s The Grapes of
Wrath (1939)â€”sympathetic to the
plight of poor white farm workers
Lye writes, â€œlabor protest and the
entry of drought refugees dually
informed the metamorphosis of
the willing [Asian] coolie into the
suffering [white] migrantâ€ (Lye,
The heroic white figure,
by Dorothea Lange,
DOROTHEA LANGE ALSO TOOK THIS
FAMOUS PHOTOGRAPH OF THE EVACUATION
OF THE JAPANESE
Think/write for 5 minutes about the differences that you see between this photo and
the previous photo by Lange
â– The Mochida family awaits evacuation by bus in 1942.
Prior to the war, Mr. Mochida had operated a nursery
and five greenhouses in Hayward, CA. Dorothea Lange /
Nara. This image contrasts with â€œMigrant Motherâ€ in
that Japanese families are not portrayed as suffering or
in need of aid. They are well-clothed and look â€œmiddle
classâ€â€”many Japanese American evacuees were not
well off like the Mochidas. Even as the Japanese were
being incarcerated due to the Yellow Perilist fear of
treason, the Model Minority was also being activated by
liberals who sympathized with their plight.
THE REMOVAL OF JAPANESE FARMERS
FROM THE LAND
The Japanese were accused of â€œsoil miningâ€ or
overworking the soil (Lye, 157), yet admired for
reclaiming â€œlands that were either completely
out of use or employed for far less profitable
enterprisesâ€ (San Francisco Chronicle)
Confusion about internment among liberals like
Carey McWilliams who called it the â€œagricultural
adjustment,â€ or in other words, part of the New
Deal for Japanese people (162).
Many New Deal liberals viewed the
concentration camps as â€œpublic worksâ€ aimed
at â€œprotectingâ€ the Japanese from racism.
Japanese American farmer
holds a box of tomato
Asians not seen as legitimate â€œfarmersâ€ on
the â€œfrontierâ€ West. Colleen Lye argues
that the Internment Camps must be
viewed as part of this New Deal
â€œprogressiveâ€ federal management of
human populationsâ€”â€œliberalismâ€™s dirty
Illustrates confusion about Western
economic growth (Lye, 158)â€”what
was taking over in California was not
idealized small farmers but large
corporate farms and industrialized
agriculture that created a demand
for cheap labor in what Carey
McWilliams called â€œfactories in the
fieldâ€ and compared with the monocrop cotton industry in the South
Ansel Adams published a photo journal
of the Manzanar Relocation Center
He tended to photograph the Japanese
Americans as idealized American
pioneers within a romanticized
American wilderness setting
The American wilderness is a
construction of American settler
colonialism in that it romanticized the
â€œsettlementâ€ of indigenous lands as
destined by got, Manifest Destiny
This act of â€œsettling the wildernessâ€ is
central to our idealization of the
wilderness as part of a uniquely
American identity, the pioneer: the
creative, rugged individual,
camps from Born
Free and Equal
Japanese Americans photographed as
â€œmodelâ€ settlers or â€œpioneers in the
desert.â€ Images of Japanese Americans
in nature represent liberal attempts, like
this one by Ansel Adams, to recover the
image of Japanese Americans in the
camps as innocent and even healthful,
failing to see their presence in nature as
a form of imprisonment (Lye, 201)
Ansel Adams. Manzanar Relocation Center,
Farm, farm workers, Mt. Williamson in
Ansel Adams. Manzanar Relocation Center, California.
Nurse Aiko Hamaguchi.
Ansel Adams tends to romanticize Japanese
Americans as productive and hardworking
pioneering farmers, skilled workers, and
professionals, a â€œmodel minority,â€ in a
democratic (â€œfree pressâ€) natural setting
Mitsuye Yamadaâ€™s â€œDesert Runâ€ Poem
â– Look at the literary techniques that Asian
American feminist poet Mitsuye Yamada uses
to describe the natural environment:
â– Nature for many white male nature writers
of the 19th and early 20th century is often
personified as a woman, and described as
â€œsublimeâ€ and embodying American
values of democracy, individuality,
creativity, and exceptional destiny.
â– What is different about Yamadaâ€™s
personification, through this simile:
â– â€œlike the bull snakes brought/ into this
desert by the soldiersâ€
â– If the desert is not a place of â€œsublimeâ€
beauty, what does it represent ?
Yamada is â€œreturningâ€ to the
desert. She is not there on
vacation or for the â€œrejuvenationâ€
of nature, but to return to a site of
violence and trauma, where she
was treated like a â€œcriminalâ€ and
imprisoned in a concentration
camp during World War II
Yamada was in the Minidoka
camp in Hunt, Idaho
â€œI return to the desert/where criminals/were
abandoned to wander/away to their deathsâ€
Children removing sagebrush to clear
land for agriculture in Minidoka
concentration camp. Accessed at
Nature vs. Civilization
â– â€œwhere the sculptorâ€™s wreck/was reclaimed/by the gentle
â– citing Percy Shelleyâ€™s romantic poem Ozymandias where
nature is seen to triumph over corrupt civilizations
â– Yet rather than images of liberation of freedom in nature
(Muir), Yamada connects the desert as the place where
civilizationâ€™s unwanted are left to dieâ€”â€œcriminalsâ€¦
abandoned to wander away to their deathsâ€
Not Natural: Power and Oppression in Nature
â– â€œI flick my tongue in your face/an image
trapped in your mirror./ You will use me or/
you will honor me in a shrine/to keep me
â– Yamada, as an animal in the desert is not
â€œnaturalâ€ there. Instead she is imprisoned
there by the â€œyouâ€ in the poem
â– The desert is an environment saturated with
powerâ€”it is created by dominant society to
trap and contain people of Japanese ancestry
that they thought were a â€œthreatâ€
â– In other words, unlike the romantic poem,
â€œOzymandiasâ€ where power dies in the
desert, Yamadaâ€™s poem illustrates, as
environmental historian William Cronon
argues, that power is what makes â€œnature,â€
what makes the desert a desert.
â–Necropoliticsâ€”The Politics of Death in
â– â€œI wrote my will here/my fingers moved slowly in the/hot sand the texture of
whole wheat flower/three words; I died here/ the winds filed them awayâ€
â– â€œI am back to claim my body/my carcass lies/between the spiny branches of two
creosote bushes/it looks strangely like a small calf/left to graze and dieâ€
â– â€œI take a dry stick/give myself/a ritual burialâ€
â– Significance: Yamada describes the metaphoric death of the camps, the social
death, as if it were a real death, â€œI wrote my will hereâ€¦three words; I died hereâ€
â– How is â€œwritingâ€ an important part of this process? Does writing help Yamada
materialize the â€œdead bodyâ€ that is invisible? How does writing create closure?
â– Unlike dominant nature writing, Yamada is not able to â€œtranscendâ€ death to
recuperate in natureâ€”she is trying to describe abjection, social death (Balce)
and a process and ritual of mourning here.
â– In liberal democracies we think of
concentration camps as a â€œstate of
exceptionâ€: a suspension of the
normal rule of law in times of crisis
like war (See Giorgio Agamben, The
States of Exception)
â– Japanese American internment camps
were also viewed as a â€œwartime
â– Yet Agamben argues that concentration
camps are not exceptional but actually
everywhere, a â€œhidden matrix of the
political space in which we live,â€
Border detention center
Mine Okubo, Citizen 13660
â– Artist and muralist Mine
Okubo, who once studied
under Diego Rivera, sketched
her experiences during World
War II and the evacuation of
Japanese Americans to
â€œrelocation centersâ€ in her
graphic memoir Citizen 13660
â– Rather than representing
imprisonment as â€œpioneerâ€
wilderness or productive citizens in
an exceptional moment in wartime
hysteria, Okubo represents the
Japanese internee as unproductive,
bored, and surrounded by
â– repetition of buildings
â– bureaucratic lining up for food
â– boredom- as to â€œbore a hole
throughâ€ the rights of citizenship A resident of the camps looks lost between rows of
MinÃ© Okubo, â€œWaiting in lines, Tanforan Assembly Center, San Bruno, California,â€ 1942. Drawing. Courtesy of
Japanese American National Museum, gift of MinÃ© Okubo Estate, 2007.62.
Okubo embraces an affect of boredom to resist images of Japanese Americans as â€œproductiveâ€
citizens, idealized hard-working pioneers. Her images are not captioned because they are part
of the narrative of her graphic memoir
Okubo inserts herself into the scene of people
standing around. She is often drawn looking off
into the distance, at nothing, or something we
Okubo sometimes draws herself looking directly at the viewer in various states of boredomstanding around outside their barracks, standing in lines, or sitting at a table
Questions to Guide You
â– Think about the different techniques that Lange or Adams and Okubo use to
depict nature and their place in it (either idealizing citizens and workers as
â€œpioneersâ€ or presenting an oppositional gaze). Compare and contrast two
different visual images and try to identify a dominant gaze and an oppositional
â– How do Lange and Adams depict Japanese Americans as â€œmodel minoritiesâ€?
Why do you think they are not represented as poor struggling farm workers,
which many were? Think about how Colleen Lye talks about the liberal
â€œwhiteningâ€ of farm labor during the Great Depression.
â– How did Progressive environmentalists and liberals try to frame the Internment
of people of Japanese ancestry as a â€œpositiveâ€ thing that aligns the Japanese with
American nature ideals? How does Yamadaâ€™s poetry challenge dominant
American desires to shape the history of internment as a form of assistance and
assimilation into America?
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