A ‘delectable’ though perhaps ‘paradoxical’ tribute to a civil rights icon




By Laura Atkins and Stan Yogi, Illustrated by Yutaka Houlette. (Berkeley, Calif.: Heyday Books, 2017, 112 pp., $18, hardcover)

As indulgent friend/relative and indefatigable book advocate, one activity I have always found a great challenge is finding holiday books for the children on my list. (I have sometimes tongue-in-cheek attributed my baldness to repeated tearing my hair over figuring out what books to give hard-to-shop-for youngsters). Luckily, there is one quite delectable addition to this year’s list. It is the graphic novel “Fred Korematsu Speaks Up,” a first entry in Heyday Books’ new “Fighting For Justice” series. It is the product of a collaboration between Stan Yogi, co-author of the California civil rights history “Wherever There’s a Fight,” and Laura Atkins, a longtime children’s book author/editor, with illustrations by Yutaka Houlette. The book recounts Fred Korematsu’s childhood, where he played tennis and liked hanging out with friends, then segues to the coming of Pearl Harbor and Executive Order 9066. The authors then treat Korematsu’s refusal to accept mass removal, his trial and conviction, and the eventual reversal of his conviction in the 1980s and his latter-day presence as a symbol of civil liberties. The illustrations, done in a manga-inflected comic book-style that evokes Adrian Tomine’s work, further dramatize and humanize the story.

The book not only pays homage to Korematsu the man, but underlines the particular importance of his story. Korematsu did not set out to resist arbitrary imprisonment out of broad constitutional motives, but out of romance — he did so because he wanted to stay together with his non-Japanese girlfriend. It was only after his arrest, when he was visited in jail by Ernest Besig of the Northern California branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, that he agreed to serve as a test case — and even then not without a great deal of soul-searching and consultation of other Nisei. Following his conviction and the loss of his case in the U.S. Supreme Court two years later (which by that time had become moot, for all practical purposes) Korematsu remained virtually silent about his experience for 40 years — so much so that his children did not discover the story of his court case until they learned about it in school. Unlike his fellow Supreme Court litigants Gordon Hirabayashi and Minoru Yasui, he did not involve himself in the Japanese American Redress Movement during the 1970s. In the wake of his victory in the coram nobis challenge to his conviction in 1983, he began to emerge as a public figure and spokesperson for civil rights. Paradoxically, it is Korematsu’s status as an everyman figure, motivated by small-scale individual concerns and uncertain about whether to proceed, that makes him an especially potent symbol.
(I once heard a prominent Nisei deplore the fact that Korematsu, a self-interested and accidental defendant, was selected for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, while men of principle such as Hirabayashi and Yasui were ignored). This lends a certain irony to the book’s title, as Korematsu took most of his lifetime to speak up about his own act of resistance and its legacy.

One response to “A ‘delectable’ though perhaps ‘paradoxical’ tribute to a civil rights icon”

  1. MT Avatar

    So many suffered because Earl Warren and Franklin Roosevelt were elitists and racists and held absolute power.

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