Saturday, February 15, 2014

Witnessing injustice: Dorothea Lange and Nellie Wong

Nellie Wong is a Chinese American poet whose parents were Chinese immigrants. Wong is also a political activist for feminist and socialist causes.

During World War II the Wong family worked in a Berkeley grocery store. The internment of their Japanese American neighbors had a profound impact on Nellie and her understanding of racism against Asian Americans. 

Wong's poem attempt to understand why her Japanese neighbors were being sent to internment camps when she and her family were considered patriotic citizens.

The photos on this post  were taken by Dorothea Lange who photographed the internment of Japanese Americans during WW2. Following the attack on Pearl Harbour, Lange was hired by the American War Relocation Authority to take photographs of Japanese Americans who were being interned in camps (detention centres) throughout America. The photos were impounded by the government and only made public in 2006 in a book Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored images of Japanese Internment.

Fong's poem and Lange's photos remind us that to respond to injustice, we must first learn how to see it and speak it.

Can't Tell
By Nellie Wong

When World War II was declared

on the morning radio,
we glued our ears, widened our eyes
Our bodies shivered.

A voice said

Japan was the enemy,
Pearl Harbour a shambles
and in our grocery store
In Berkeley, we were suspended

next to the meat market

where voices hummed,
valises, pots and pans packed,
no more hot dogs, baloney
pork kidneys.

We children huddled on wooden planks

and my parents whispered:
We are Chinese, we are Chinese
safety pins anchored,
our loins ached.

Shortly our Japanese neighbours vanished

any my parents continued to whisper:
We are Chinese, we are Chinese.

we wore black arm bands

put up a sign
in bold letters.

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