Today, around 450 items created by prisoners in the American WWII concentration camps were supposed to be sold at the Rago Arts and Auction Center. This collection of photos, artifacts, and crafts created by Japanese American prisoners (imprisoned en masse, that is everyone of Japanese ancestry was put in concentration camps) was donated to artist/activist Allen Eaton in good faith that he would exhibit them to share the story behind this moment in history.
Eaton died in 1962 before they could be exhibited, leaving the collection in limbo and soon forgotten. Earlier this year, as first reported by the New York Times, this collection mysteriously appeared on the Rago website as items up for sale. They were to be sold by an unnamed person.
The response was unexpectedly swift. Japanese Americans are organized, yes, but this touched a nerve on a scale I haven’t seen our community react…ever in my lifetime, perhaps. A number of organizations came out with statements of condemnation. A Facebook page got 'liked' over 6,000 times with a soaring engagement rate and overflowed with heartbreaking testaments from our community, some folks identifying photos of their family members.
The auction house responded and said they felt bullied. We all rolled our eyes.
As always happens, there was backchannel conversation throughout. I listened in to folks discussing who should take the collection if “we” were to postpone the auction somehow. Folks raised questions of accountability. Eyes and elbows pointed towards specific institutions, people, and points in history that led us to this moment, and the same eyes and elbows pointed towards those that would help us out of it.
Yesterday, the items mysteriously disappeared from the website. A few hours later, George Takei confirmed that he would be working with the auction house to find a solution. All is calm, for now. There will undoubtedly be more obstacles up ahead. Jenn over at Reappropriate will undoubtedly be keeping us updated through her amazing, thorough research. You can read an even more in-depth analysis by Mia Nakaji Monnier over at The Rafu Shimpo.
Meanwhile, I’ve been trying to write this piece. My commutes to work have been phone calls with family and friends to process out loud. My moments of nothing have been attempts to find language to articulate why this struck so heavy and spread like fire on parchment throughout an intergenerational community that’s had a hard time, in the past decade, finding common ground. After reading Reappropriate’s amazing (as always) run down of the situation, however, I realized that in order to full get at what I wanted to, I needed to break it down properly.
On a first look level, it’s obviously historically problematic. In case you don’t want to read the encyclopedia I wrote a couple months back, in 1942 120,000 folks of Japanese ancestry up and down the West Coast (including citizens) were put in concentration camps due to racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and failure of political leadership. In those camps, prisoners saw their families split up, illness run rampant, and shame seed itself in the hearts and minds of an entire generations, leading to decades of mental and emotional scars. For many, art provided a way to negotiate the horrible situation, and so art became part of camp culture. There were beautiful gardens at Manzanar built by the ingenuity of our working-glass gardener community, photos taken with contraband cameras, and tiny detailed birds that became a culture in their own. Mothers traded senninbari, a sash or vest with 1000 stitches in them, to send good luck, protection, and love with their sons when they headed to fight for the very country that imprisoned them.
Before the war our families were largely in poverty, but what little we had was mostly lost once World War II began. Most of our families do not have boxes and boxes of heirlooms, meaning that any artifacts from that era are precious. For someone to accept donations and then presumably change ownership of the collection post-mortem means that somewhere along the line there was a dip in communication. Ideally the collection would have gone to an institution that could properly care for it, though apparently Eaton’s papers are currently in a private collection. Perhaps they are surfacing at auction as well.
On a moral level, the whole thing calls a few things into questions. Without comparing situations, late last year a group of scrapbooks and photo albums from writer/Holocaust survivor Mary Berg went up for auction at Manhattan-based house Doyle. The auction was pulled, however, after her family intervened.
Speaking after the auction was pulled, Professor Rachael B. Goldman of the College of New Jersey, herself an auction house consultant, offered some thoughts on the situation:
‘What’s to stop people from coming out of the woodwork with other things that are extremely sensitive?” Dr. Goldman said. “This could set a tragic precedent of less Holocaust material being put in archives and instead ending up in private hands — including the wrong private hands, I might add.’ (New York Times)
This raises an important question in the wake of this first small victory: if the collection were to be somehow offered to “the community,” who would take it? Though it’s a nice fantasy to believe that the items would magically return to the families they belong to, these are 70+ year old items that were donated during times of shaky record keeping. Three generations later, there are dozens of people who could potentially lay family claim to each item, items that have been conveniently appraised for large sums of money. If they were to go to institutions, then there is a question as to which one? The Heart Mountain, Wyoming Foundation (an organization that preserves the story of the Heart Mountain concentration camp) offered to not only buy the whole lot but work with other institutions to figure out what to do with the items, including returning them to families (their offer was turned down by Rago prior to the protest's height). Though this sounds great and I don’t doubt that they’ve done their homework, even a massive institution like the Japanese American National Museum with its own dedicated archive staff and archive space has become strict with the items it will intake due to capacity and budget. Taking ownership of an item is more than just having it in storage, it requires care and upkeep by professionals which translates to even more time, money, shipping costs, it goes on. This is a lot of 450 items. Who, of any Asian American non-profit, has the budget to ship, catalog, coordinate, and maintain 450 items with an extra layer of family communication/potential dispute resolution and then further item shipping/care/followup?
What will the bidding war look like, in the event that there are items institutions all want? Will we be pitting JANM against the Japanese American Museum San Jose against the Heart Mountain, Wyoming Foundation against the Manzanar Relocation Center National Park against the Smithsonian against the Wing Luke against any number of academic institutions? Our organizations are already fighting for money and national share of voice. Why should we be in an even deeper hole of it?
It just feels disgusting. I am reminded of one of my favorite pieces of writing by Cara Le about experiences with commodification/trivialization of the Vietnam War (Part of Memory is Forgetting). In the piece, Le offers flashes of memory with restrained analysis, instead allowing us to consider these moments and attempt to mentally articulate the gut response they evoke. What set this on fire so quickly, I think, is the gut-level feeling of disgust that comes when your history is being held and exploited in the hands of someone who does not have that personal context. It’s the realization that our bid for self-determination for decades has resulted in educational and economic attainment but little-to-no education for the people around us. It’s the reminder that people will do callous, awful things and while we have amassed allies, ultimately we will always need to advocate for our own familial, community, and personal health.
I refuse to hold our community accountable for this. This is not our mess to clean up. If things start to get shaky, we cannot segment ourselves over it. I applaud and thank “Uncle George” for stepping in, but I hope we can recognize that by putting a dollar value on our histories the seller has claimed responsibility for these items. If they consider the case of Mary Berg’s possessions, there is precedent for them to consider and act accordingly. It is up to them to work with our institutions, families, and public to determine how these items should be disseminated, with or without a price tag. To not involve the families and community that produced the items would be irresponsible. To sell them anonymously after acquiring them as donations for an articulated purpose would be immoral.
There is a Japanese concept called “mottainai” that has been transmitted from generation to generation, either through the literal word or through cultural practice. Though it has Buddhist roots, it is also based in the Shinto belief that possessions have souls. As a kid, I dreamed of teapots turning into raccoons to life as they did in my storybooks. The concept calls on people to not waste, normally in the context of food but also in the context of items in general. Our grandmothers saved ziplock bags. Our grandfathers took too much food home from community events to make sure it did not get thrown away (and because our potlucks are bomb). Consciously or unconsciously, we have respect for the food we eat and the items that offer service to us.
I’ve been thinking about this concept as my parents prepare to move to Los Angeles from my high school home. Soon I will have to sort through my room and build a pile of clothes and books to donate. My father mostly refuses to sort through his items. He will be bringing half a century of magazines, journals, and books with him.
We don’t hold onto these items because we want to own more things. We hold onto these items because we believe that they are unique, irreplaceable glimpses into the past that have been imbued with memory. Our protest is not a desire for financial gain, I like to believe that they will not be flipped by any of us for more money. Instead, our protest voices recognition that these items were made and were donated to tell our stories, and that our stories are so much more valuable than a financial transaction could ever match.
We will keep saying that, whether you understand us or not.
4/17/15 4:45PM Update: The co-signer of the collection has come forward. John Ryan says he was unsure whether the Heart Mountain, Wyoming Foundation was the right organization to take the whole lot and that Rago assured him that multiple institutions would be at auction. I wonder what institutions were invited. The plan is to keep the collection whole and work with a consultation group including George Takei to determine next steps. He intended to sell the collection to help a family member in financial trouble. Full article on the New York Times.
Huge thanks to Jenn at Reappropriate whose piece, as always, provided an invaluable reference point.