I had a nightmare last night. In my dream I didn’t know where I was, but I was trapped, somehow unable to either open or close my eyes. I was being swallowed up in marbled heat, like I was closed inside a standing coffin, sweltering in the sun. But I wasn’t inside, I was just…standing outside, sobbing, unable to catch my breath. Loved ones were standing around me, watching me dissolve into my body’s demands, and I knew in this moment that I was back at Manzanar.
This weekend I’ll be chaperoning a group of college-age (18-25) Japanese Americans to Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo neighborhood, where we will be engaging in critical workshops and discussions on Nikkei identity, as well as exploring the history of the community there through political tours and museum visits. The next day, we will head three hours north to the site of a former concentration camp that imprisoned more than ten thousand people during world war two – some of our participant’s family members included.
Two years ago, I went on this same trip myself as a participant and really felt that my life was changed forever by it. It was certainly the most explicit site of my genesis as a liberation theologian. Afterwards, I wrote a number of times about this experience: dramatically, for my own blog ; coolly, for the Pacific Citizen newspaper; and most recently for Inheritance Magazine.
I had spent the year before that first trip crystallizing a sense of racial consciousness through joining weekly videoconferences with a now-defunct antiracist/feminist theological collective (Killjoy Prophets) where we read Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree and engaged in decolonizing discussions around faith, gender, race, and social media.
From Cone to Manzanar to mobilizing around Michael Brown’s stalking and killing later that fall, these events left an indelible mark in my personal racial consciencization. They were each steps in a long journey of learning to marshal my own muddled, depoliticized identities into greater participation in a Christian QPOC activist tradition that has been extraordinarily life-giving. All of these collective experiences helped me finally begin to question the hegemonic categories of whiteness (and straightness) in which I’d enacted uneasy participation for most of my life. That year left me altered, some Ship of Theseus type stuff (if you replace every single component of a ship part by part, is that ship the same ship as before?). Manzanar met me shining and bright and I somehow left cut to the heart, immolating, with a new theology and a new name.
The concentration camps that our country raised from desert sands were our community’s crucifixion event. It is the Exile. This pilgrimage feels like, maybe, the disciples’ grandchildren gathering at Golgotha seventy years later, poking at old scabs, shooting for profundity, wondering if there is any going back here, or if it will fade forever, and which would be better.
Maybe someday when I’m telling this story of our people to the rokusei, sichisei (ha!), the hachisei, I will remind them that it could be that everything started with Manzanar. It is all here: trauma, sexuality, memory, ghosts, dead life, broken bodies and haunted houses. I wonder if all those years later, I will still be consumed by the reckless hatred of it all. Not my hatred – although that is there also, humming raw and pink in my chest. But the hatred of the men who for God and country architected this, and the easy scorn of the millions who to this day remain silent. (The people who believe themselves to be human.)
The immanent fact of returning to Manzanar in under 48 hours exhilarates and panics me. I have reimagined the scene of my return a thousand times, in dreams and idle thoughts. This land is not just any land. I know the history of pain there will physically paralyze me when I return. Where blood is spilled, where bodily hosts are broken, these places become perverted sacraments, outward and visible markers of an inward and invisible corruption. The cynics cannot understand the weight of this place, but there living memories here, waiting to be resurrected. When you walk over the sands, your feet kick up dust that stirs around in the wind and is swept into your nostrils. You can’t help but leave the place coated, the stuff sticking in and through and with every inch of you.
Please pray that we are able to have a productive and life-changing trip. Pray that the Spirit of God would speak powerfully to heal the trauma we are walking into this weekend. That we would be ever more greatly propelled towards enacting the liberation of ourselves, but especially other marginalized groups. That we can together learn to honor this place and history without deploying an essentialized or sterile version of this event, painfully easy for me to do when I am sharing with nice white folks, or to other well-meaning people of color who are eager to quickly bound towards The Greater Atrocities like we’re swapping tales about Big Fish.
I am looking forward to everything to come this weekend, and grateful for each of you who is reading this post.