Study Guide

Farewell to Manzanar Race

By Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston

Race

We were the only Japanese family in the neighborhood. Papa liked it that way. He didn't want to be labeled or grouped by anyone. (1.1.2)

How ironic is this? Papa doesn't like being labeled or grouped so he moves the family to white Santa Monica, but then he gets thrown into an internment camp anyway… Ugh.

Mama's first concern now was to keep the family together, and once the war began, she felt safer there [Terminal Island] than isolated racially in Ocean Park. (1.1.2)

This is ironic too because Terminal Island ends up being the least safe place for Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor. Since everyone there is Japanese, it's the first place the feds go to round people up.

It was the first time I had lived among other Japanese, or gone to school with them, and I was terrified all the time. (1.1.3)

Here's an argument for making sure your kids know their cultural roots and people. The last thing you want is for your kid to freak out at the sight or presence of people just like her.

One of his threats to keep us younger kids in line was "I'm going to sell you to the Chinaman." When I had entered kindergarten two years earlier, I was the only Oriental in the class. They sat me next to a Caucasian girl who happened to have very slanted eyes. I looked at her and began to scream, certain Papa had sold me out at last. My fear of her ran so deep I could not speak of it, even to Mama, couldn't explain why I was screaming…And it was still with me, this fear of Oriental faces, when we moved to Terminal Island. (1.2.3)

This has got to be one of the weirder passages in the entire book. Jeanne's basically exhibiting a racist reaction to a white girl who looks like she has "Oriental" eyes. What exactly is Jeanne reacting to? What does she think of when she looks at herself in the mirror?

The stories, the murmurs, the headlines of the last few months had imprinted in my mind the word HATE. I had heard my sisters say, "Why do they hate us?" I had heard Mama say with lonesome resignation, "I don't understand all this hate in the world." It was a bleak and awful-sounding word, yet I had no idea at all what shape it might take if ever I confronted it. I saw it as a dark, amorphous cloud that would descend from above and enclose us forever. (2.19.6)

Who would want to return to a place that seems like it's all about hate, especially toward a specific race? And that whole image of a dark cloud seems apt since racism can take on all sorts of forms (violent, non-violent, subtle, direct…). Maybe that's why young Jeanne is as scared as she is: it's impossible to defend yourself from racism if you don't know what that racism looks (or when or where or how it might happen).

To the FBI every radio owner was a potential saboteur. The confiscators were often deputies sworn in hastily during the turbulent days right after Pearl Harbor, and these men seemed to be acting out the general panic, seeing sinister possibilities in the most ordinary household items: flashlights, kitchen knives, cameras, lanterns, toy swords. (1.1.16)

We'll just point out that all this "acting out" of the "general panic"—this paranoia of the FBI—resembles the kind of freak out Jeanne shows when she sits next to that white girl with the slanted eyes.

The band teacher knew I had more experience than anyone else competing that year. He told me so. But he was afraid to use me. He had to go speak to the board about it, and to some of the parents, to see if it was allowable for an Oriental to represent the high school in such a visible way. (2.21.4)

So… as long as "an Oriental" represents the high school without showing his or her face, things are copacetic? What does that mean?

At one point I thought I would like to join the Girl Scouts. A friend of mine belonged, that blond girl who had commented on my reading….

"Can I belong?" I asked, then adding as an afterthought, as if to ease what I knew her answer would have to be, "You know, I'm Japanese."

"Gee," she said, her friendly face suddenly a mask. "I don't know. But we can sure find out. Mama's the assistant troop leader."

And then, the next day, "Gee, Jeannie, no. I'm really sorry." (2.19.10-13)

This passage kind of confirms what people say: all that racism has to come from somewhere and it can start with the parents. But what's more interesting here is how Jeanne announces her Japanese identity as a way of bringing the possibility of racism out into the open. Is she trying to protect herself by making it seem as if she's cool with a rejection based on her race?

"They're trying to stuff the ballot box," he whispered loudly. "They're fudging on the tally. They're afraid to have a Japanese girl be queen. They've never had one before. They're afraid of what some of the parents will say." (2.21.13)

"They"—as in the teachers at Jeanne's San Jose high school—are scared of the parents. Sound familiar? That's what her band teacher in Long Beach was scared of too—the PTA. This whole interaction reveals who actually has power in the education system and who decides whether or not a Japanese girl can be queen. Good thing the students have a voice too since they're clearly on Jeanne's side on this one—after all, they voted for her.

"I have been living in this country nine years longer than you have. Do you realize that? Yet I am prevented by law from becoming a citizen. I am prevented by law from owning land. I am now separated from my family without cause…"

"Those matters are out of my hands, Mr. Wakatsuki." (1.7.60-61)

This is Papa speaking in an (imagined?) interview with his FBI interrogator. Maybe he actually says this stuff out loud, and maybe he doesn't—either way, the point is that speaking truth to power is, well, pretty powerful. People don't like to be confronted with the truth when it shows how wrong they are…