A week after Thanksgiving, I found myself seated in a cushy, high-tech theater in the center of LA’s Little Tokyo sobbing. Around me, an audience of about 50 listened as a scholar of Japanese mass incarceration and a filmmaker and activist discussed their work. At first, I attributed my inability to stifle the tears running down my cheeks and ruining my mascara placement to hormones and fatigue. But through these two months, I have found myself, well, beside myself, several times.
In that moment, I cried because someone in the audience asked a seemingly simple question to the speakers. Something like, “My grandpa talked about working with some Japanese Americans who were arrested and he took care of their stuff while they were away…did other people do that?” The speakers explained that many people who knew Japanese Americans personally did take care of their homes and belongings while they were away. Another audience member raised their hand and revealed that a series of photographs the filmmaker used in a short film featured a former neighbor. Then, stories started flowing. Children of formerly incarcerated started sharing about their parents’ time in “the camps.” A few veterans talked about feeling inspired by the 442nd Infantry Regiment, the regiment composed almost entirely of Americans with Japanese ancestry. One survivor finally- slowly- revealed his own experience in the camps.
These stories weren’t necessarily sad. In fact, I felt an intense spirit of kinship in the room, as if these folks waited decades to share and finally got the chance. I stopped taking notes like a good scholar and started listening, really listening, through body language and facial expressions and laughter. I think the reason I cried is because that space- one where scholars and activists and folx who might have simply been there to learn or share- were all essential to the conversation. That is the space I want to inhabit and create in whatever kind of work I do.
This past weekend, I found myself beside myself again! This time, over 5,000 people flocked to the Los Angeles Public Library for a Mobile Museum Festival. My partner and I brought along our exhibit materials and kept our eye out for innovative display ideas or stories to include in our exhibit about the religious and inter-religious history of California. We saw a pop-up planetarium (think an upside-down bounce house), a museum of miniatures depicting African American history and culture in America, a set of matchboxes from gay bars, candy wrappers, marionette dolls, indigenous food sources, and a feminist book wagon. We also saw a massive iguana and a tarantula that made me itch. I felt my impulse to cry when we crowded into a packed room full of sports memorabilia- the California Sneaker Museum. The display cases were cracked. Some of the posters looked slightly tacky. The table cloths revealed a few stains and fray. But the imperfections of the accessories fell in silence compared to the objects and the stories they held. Magic Johnson’s sneakers. The founder of the museum is a sports enthusiast and has been collecting objects and stories for over 20 years. He is a scholar of popular culture- and his mission is to share his work and passion with anyone who will stop and look.
I think we have moved beyond the false notion that scholarship should be objective and emotionless, as if our sources demand we put our humanity aside for more authentic understanding. While it is true that biases and our own experiences can shape what we think and how we study, I can’t imagine not “feeling” as I interact with them. How could I not be heartbroken upon reading a letter from an incarcerated Buddhist priest, who begged the government to grant him freedom so he could return to the religious community he served for over 35 years only to find the building sold and condemned after his seven-year internment? Or courage, looking at the old photographs of the first Sikh woman Mayor in the US and her journey as a sexual assault survivor? I don’t mean to say we should make value judgments on our sources- this often shadows the authenticity of them by projecting false context- but that we are missing a key aspect of research if our own emotions go unchecked, or worse, are stifled. So, I’ll keep crying, and laughing, and finding spaces where my work is a compliment to the stories waiting to be shared.