By Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, New America Media
DETROIT - When I was in elementary school, I was taught that at the end of a long day in 1955, an old and tired seamstress with aching feet sat down on a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and was just too tired to get up and give up her seat to a Caucasian passenger. I always imagined thick white orthopedic shoes, and I felt the heaviness of her exhaustion weighing her down in her seat, and I thought that it was an accident or coincidence that she started the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the civil rights movement in America.
That story lived undisturbed in my mind until almost 30 years later, when I heard Reverend Jesse Jackson proclaim at her funeral in Detroit that she was not tired that day at all, she was a freedom fighter. I was surprised to then see photographs of how young she was at the time, only 42, and how elegantly she was dressed. I discovered that she was not the first person to be arrested for refusing to give up her seat, but she was chosen to be the test case because she was the one with the character and social status and personality deemed necessary to stand up to the challenge. It took moving to Michigan, where she later made her home, for me to learn how very political and intentional her action was that day.
This month marked the 55th anniversary of the day that Mrs. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery public bus on Dec. 1, 1955.
My own children have learned a very different story at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School one hour outside of Detroit, and they have even sat in Mrs. Parks’ seat (the bus is now at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn). When I pull up the link to the bus for this article, my 6-year-old son, Little Brother, recognizes the picture of the bus instantly, and he tells me his 6-year-old version of “Rosa Park” (sic) that he learned in school “…and then the people voted, and now everyone can ride the bus.”
I am often embarrassed to realize how naïve I was as a child, but I think part of what made my childhood version believable was that, as a child, I really did not know any African American people (and certainly zero activists or politicos). I did not have any real experience or alternative voices in my life to say, “Hey, that does not make sense with my experience.”
Knowing real people is key to how we interpret the events around us.
Dec. 7 is another significant date this month — the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japan in 1941. Due to the racial hysteria that followed, it also led to the forcible incarceration of 110,000 Japanese Americans, many of them American citizens, in concentration camps (and only a handful of German and Italian Americans).
The interesting wrinkle to this story’s argument for military necessity is that, although Hawaii was geographically much closer to Japan, only 1,875 Japanese Americans from Hawaii were interned. Because Japanese Americans made up one-third of the population in Hawaii at the time, the economy would have collapsed without them.
However, researchers at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii are pretty sure that one other factor was that key decision makers in Hawaii, including the director of the FBI, actually knew real Japanese Americans — friends, neighbors, vendors, employees, colleagues. Real personal experiences with real people led to a completely different read of the situation, not to mention outcome.
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a second-generation Chinese American from California who now divides her time between Ann Arbor and the Big Island of Hawaii. She is editor of IMDiversity.com Asian American Village, lead multicultural contributor for AnnArbor.com and a contributor for New America Media's Ethnoblog.