From the strike for ethnic studies to the movement for Black lives

INTRODUCING A NEW COLUMN: We are proud to announce Amy Sueyoshi, the dean of the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University, whose new column Nikkei Q seeks to answer the Nikkei community’s most pressing questions on queer topics, such as same-sex sexuality, non-binary gender, and discussion items that are broadly disconcerting or queer through a higher education lens.

We begin this month with a look back at the 1968 strike at San Francisco State University, a comparison with the movement for Black lives, and how the Nikkei community responded to the longest student strike in U.S. history.

Penny Nakatsu, born in 1949, is a Sansei who grew up in San Francisco’s Western Addition redevelopment project area that includes the Fillmore and Japantown. In 1967 Nakatsu began her first year at San Francisco State College, now known as San Francisco State University.

The following year, the Black Student Union and the Third World Liberation Front at SF State initiated the longest student strike in U.S. history. Known as the BSU-TWLF Strike, the action resulted in the establishment of the School of Ethnic Studies in 1969, known today as the first and longest standing College of Ethnic Studies in the nation.

Nakatsu served on the TWLF Central Committee recruiting other Asian American students to support the strike and working with Japanese American community leaders such as Edison Uno and Yori Wada. Later, she would become an attorney working for the East Bay cities of Berkeley and Hayward, Calif., as well as the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency. After retirement, she served as a multi-faith hospital chaplain.

Amy Sueyoshi: What are similarities and differences between the 1960s and the movement for Black lives in 2020?
Penny Nakatsu:
In the 1960s, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and social unrest dominated the nation’s consciousness. While Black Lives Matter (BLM) did not yet exist, movements for racial justice had been active for many years. The Oakland-based Black Panther Party, which formed in 1966, demanded self-determination for the Black community in response to police occupation and brutality.

What’s different today is how BLM has achieved a breadth and depth of support outside of the Black community in the wake of the most recent police killings of George Floyd and other Black persons. BLM also has increased involvement of Asian Americans more so than the 1960s, a time when Asian Americans were largely apolitical. The use of mobile phones and social media today also enable greater dissemination of documented police and other governmental misconduct. Technology has been instrumental in diverse and widespread support for BLM.

AS: How did you become a student activist?
PN:
I’ve always been a little bit rebellious. I think it was in reaction to my mother who seemed oppressed and despondent. She was beautiful but also insecure and believed that a good Japanese girl should be cultured and feminine. I felt stifled by the stereotypic expectations my mom espoused for a Japanese woman. I was bookish, overweight and not demure. I also grew up in a racially mixed community, and could plainly see racial inequality in addition to my own experiences of bias and discrimination. The junior high I attended, Aptos, was racially stratified. Students were tracked so you hardly saw any students of color in classes geared towards college, such as journalism and Latin. I was one of very few “Oriental” students in a predominantly Black and white student body and treated like an unfamiliar potted plant.

The all but non-existent participation of Asian Americans in the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s was one of the reasons why l became politically involved as a student. I was inspired by the pioneering efforts of the few Asian Americans who I had heard participated in the freedom rides and other aspects of the Civil Rights Movement. I had the good fortune to discover Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA) which grew out of a series of meetings held at the Berkeley home of Emma Gee and Yuji Ichioka in 1968. In the fall of 1968, I helped organize an AAPA student group at SF State. We recruited anthropologist James Hirabayashi as AAPA’s faculty sponsor and did what we could to bring about greater Asian American student participation in political action at SF State.

AS: How was your involvement in the SF State fight for ethnic studies regarded by your family and other members of the Nikkei community.
PN:
My parents were somewhat concerned about my safety, but did not restrict my involvement. My mother likely never really understood what I was doing. The very words “third world” was also not in common parlance and may have been difficult to grasp conceptually for the general public. I believe some members of the Nikkei community were conflicted about supporting third world studies (now known as ethnic studies) because S.I.

Hayakawa was appointed by the Regents to serve as the SF State president just after the start of the strike. Many Nisei may have initially been proud of President Hayakawa because he is Japanese from Canada and the first Asian American to be appointed as a college president. The violence too, that Japanese Americans associated with the strike, was probably hard to reconcile. Nikkei are conflict averse culturally and the trauma of the concentration camps had scarred the community. They responded to camp by maintaining a low profile and become as integrated as possible, even allowing themselves to be used as a model minority. In the period before redress, the failure to discuss camp was deadly, a mixture of denial and fear that was impossible to address since no one talked about it. However, I don’t remember any direct criticism of the strike from the Nikkei community.

There was an educational meeting about the strike held in J-Town at Christ United Presbyterian Church attended by over a hundred Nikkei. Several community leaders actively supported the strike; these included Yori Wada, Edison Uno, Kathy Reyes and Aileen Yamaguchi. Rev. Lloyd Wake and Janice Mirikitani from Glide Church also supported the strike. Many of the Japanese American faculty at SF State also supported or grew to support the strike demands; these included Kenji Murase, Morgan Yamanaka and George Araki. Most importantly, AAPA’s faculty sponsor was Professor James Hirabayashi, a Harvard educated anthropologist (the brother of Gordon Hirabayashi) who later become the first Dean of the School of Ethnic Studies that began offering classes in fall of 1969.

AS: What models of solidarity and coalition building were utilized in the 1960s?
PN:
The TWLF was a coalition of minority organizations at SF State that made decisions on the basis of democratic centralism. Each TWLF organization also actively worked to inform community members about the BSU-TWLF Strike demands and generated community support by speaking to church congregations and other community groups. Many community leaders actively helped the strike in many ways, including speaking at the rallies held on campus. The BSU and TWLF organizations also worked with white radical organizations, such as the Students for a Democratic Society and these groups agreed to support and take their lead from the BSU and other TWLF leadership. Coalition building and community solidarity remain important tools in the continuing struggle for social and economic justice.

Amy Sueyoshi is dean of the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University with a joint faculty appointment in Sexuality Studies and Race and Resistance Studies. She holds a Ph.D. in history from UCLA and has authored two books titled “Queer Compulsions” and “Discriminating Sex.” She is also the founding co-curator of the GLBT History Museum in San Francisco. She can be reached at sueyoshi@sfsu.edu. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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