This past April, I took a beautiful trip up the eastern side of California, driving past the breathtaking scenery of the Eastern Sierra Nevada mountain range with majestic snowcapped peaks and billowing rainclouds watering the mountainsides as they passed over. I was on a research trip for Cowboy Ninja, on my way to Bodie, California’s official gold rush ghost town, and to Donner Lake, where the Donner Party tragedy occurred. As I plotted my route to these two destinations, I realized that I would be passing by Manzanar National Historic Site, and I knew I just couldn’t miss the opportunity to stop by and visit this very important site of American history.
I wanted to visit Manzanar just because I wanted to. I wanted to visit the place where so many Americans were unlawfully held captive just because of the color of their skin, an act of pure xenophobic, racist, and ignorant fear. I can’t say “I learned so much” from the trip, because much about Manzanar and the internment camps is already common knowledge for me. What I can say is that “I felt so much”.
I was heartbroken not just at the unjust detainment of entire communities of families, but at the mistakes we make as a people against our own kind when driven into a corner of fear, how easily we sacrifice our basic and most valuable human rights for the sake of some perceived sense of safety. I know that if I were there in Los Angeles during WWII, I would be on the inside of the fence, but I really don’t know what I would have felt and done on the other side of the fence, poisoned with fear and loathing.
If I ever find myself on either side of that fence, I believe strongly that the lessons of Manzanar will help guide me to making the right decisions. Therein lies the value of learning history.