Richard Aoki: The man, the activist, the leader


Samurai Among Panthers_Web

By Diane C. Fujino (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012, 496 pp., paperback; $24.95; cloth, $75)

It has been more than 70 years since that fateful day that forever changed the lives of Japanese Americans, and it has been more than 40 years since Richard Aoki became a member of the Black Panthers. Aoki played key roles in the group’s formation and served as a field marshal, and at the same time became one of the leaders in the Asian American Movement.

Reading this biography put together by Fujino reminded me of the last time I saw Richard Aoki, at the 40th anniversary of Third World Liberation Strike (I really did not know him except meeting him a number of times at UC Berkeley back in the day and at various conferences and other events). To many, Richard was an enigmatic character who wore a beret, leather jacket (or field jacket) and sunglasses even on foggy days, someone who never stopped talking and — he had guns.

This publication contains something for everyone. For the average reader interested in biography, his story begins with his happy childhood that he doesn’t remember, to the trauma of incarceration, to his gung ho desire to join the Army, to his political awakening and journey of self-education on a wide range of radical political ideas and theories, his joining the Black Panthers and taking part in the Asian American Movement at Berkeley and eventually becoming a counselor, teacher and administrator. With each of these segments Fujino allows Aoki’s words, syntax, and rhythms to ring clear (for those who have heard him speak it will be like sitting in the same room listening to him talk).

Fujino does a masterful job in researching, interviewing Aoki and others to produce a highly readable and enlightening narrative by allowing him to tell his story.

For the academic audience there are the commentaries and interpretations (I find these disruptive) one can negotiate through, an eclectic maze of historical, psychological, other theories from across disciplines at the end of each chapter and in the epilogue. To the author’s credit, she wrestles with how to present and assess his legacy in the introduction. Of the various strategies of how to present his story, Fujino decides the best is to put her “…views and research” and her interpretation at the end of each chapter. The author’s rationale is that these “commentaries would serve to complicate … contextualize his life within historic social forces and political economies, and to raise alternative perspectives on Aoki and ultimately on the meaning of political agency.” Furthermore, Fujino writes, “…my commentaries…allows for a conversation to occur between the historical actor and his biographer.”

However, the problem with this “conversation” between Fujino and the historic actor, Aoki, is that he is no longer with us. He cannot agree, contest, or modify these interpretations and so one wonders what exactly does political agency mean and who is being given “voice,” and why is there a need to further complicate and contextualize his life more than how he presented his story? Nevertheless, the author combines a wonderful, sensitive, flowing, and spellbinding narrative to allow Richard Aoki to tell his story — that itself is worth the read.

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