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Japanese professor studies U.S. ‘birth of a nation’ and finds common humanity

by

Special To The Japan Times

In my first book, “Hi! My Name is Loco and I am a Racist,” I spent an entire chapter discussing my initial schooling and the reasons behind my mother deciding that my primary education would be Afro-centric. To summarize, she believed the exclusively Euro-centric indoctrination that black minds are subjected to in American public schools was tantamount to brainwashing.

Its purpose, she’d assert then as now, was to colonize young black minds, undermine the development of healthy self-esteem, impair cultural awareness and hinder black ability to perceive ourselves in a global historical context. The result: gentrified souls, groomed to embrace white supremacy as a given, as the natural order, often without even being aware of it.

The school I attended made heroic efforts to counteract this. I never even saw a white teacher until I was forced to finally attend public school in my mid-teens. By then, though, having been exposed for eight years to under-taught truths about the ruination of African civilizations, and the sanitization of the history about the birth of our nation — truths that didn’t make it anywhere near the NYC public school curriculum — I took every smidgen of propaganda coming out of these teacher’s mouths, or leaping off the pages of their sanctioned textbooks, with profound skepticism.

It wasn’t until university, when a white professor introduced me to the writings of Chester Himes and Zora Neale Hurston (the two black writers who’ve had the greatest influence on my decision to become a writer) that I began to question my resolve to judge an educator’s ability to grasp “blackness” partly on the basis of skin color. He told me one day after reading a short story I’d written that, though my writing was powerful, reading these writers’ works might help me to refine that power and hone the voice within it. And he was right.

Later would come the coup de grace, when a black media arts professor told our class that the success of guerrilla filmmakers like Spike Lee and Robert Townsend (two filmmakers whose works were designed to illustrate black humanity to a broader audience) were somehow diminishing the art of cinema, because they were fabricating the fallacy that any half-cocked pseudo-visionary with a camera and a credit card could be a director.

I looked around the room to find that some of my classmates were actually nodding their heads at this nonsense. Me, I shook mine.

Such experiences not only inform my approach to this column, but to life as a whole. Educators have immense power and influence, which can be used to inspire students to question the status quo and explore new ideas. They can also be used to reinforce antiquated ideas and maintain the current state of affairs. That’s especially true when the students have limited exposure to the subject matter, as is the case here in Japan in the area of black studies.

Keiko Shirakawa is a professor at Doshisha University in Kyoto. She earned her doctorate in American literature from Keio University in 2003. Her dissertation, titled “Antebellum Monsters: Race and the Subversive Imagination in the American Narrative Tradition,” was inspired by her research into American literature about the pre-Civil War South, during which she came across a slave narrative emblematic of the plight of black Americans of the period. That narrative — ironically, written by a white author, William Styron — was “The Confessions of Nat Turner.”

Nat Turner was a slave who led a bloody revolt against white tyranny in Virginia in 1831. Styron’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was based on the writings of a white lawyer, Thomas R. Gray, who had obtained the confession just prior to Turner’s execution. Turner’s insurrection was also the subject of the 2016 film “Birth of a Nation,” directed by Nate Parker.

“Styron’s novel was published in 1967. Here was a white southerner writing about a hero to many black people amid a period of intense racial conflict in the U.S.,” says Shirakawa, 52. “So the book was quite controversial. It held a great deal of interest for me as a Japanese student. I’m obviously not African-American and I’m not white, just somewhere in between. We Japanese are also a racial minority in the eyes of Americans, so we are better able to empathize with African-Americans as compared with white people. But at the same time we cannot completely understand the African-American mind. That’s why for me this was a very good work to focus on and learn about the American racial background.”

Shirakawa referring to Turner as a “hero” surprised me. I’d never heard the man referred to as such by a nonblack person. Even among blacks the word is scarcely used.

According to the metrics of my revolutionary early schooling, Turner had earned himself a bust on Mount Rushmore; however, by conventional American standards, no matter how righteous the motive of his unsuccessful revolt against the dehumanizing industry upon which America is founded, he’ll always be labeled a “controversial figure,” at best, for not sparing the lives of white women and children in the rebellion he initiated and led.

So, I felt fairly confident that Shirakawa’s choice of this material for her early studies and, more importantly, in the courses she teaches currently, unavoidably explores the kinds of complexities that a fuller understanding of America, then and now, demand. But I was curious why she felt it was important that Japanese students study these complexities.

“I think it’s important because America has a very unique history,” says Shirakawa. “Even in the 19th century they still had a slavery system. It’s a very rare case. And even after the emancipation and years of segregation, they still have a racial struggle.

“Japan and America have a long history and are very closely connected with one another,” she explains. “For instance, from the view of the Japanese people, we would not exist without the U.S. military’s protection, and America’s cultural influence here cannot be overstated. So it would be quite strange if we don’t know the history of America.

“And the core of that history is its racial issues. The first colonists came to America, exterminated one race, the native Americans, and imported another, Africans, as slaves. That is the birth of America. If people want to understand this country that has so much influence here, we have to first try to understand its history.”

Shirakawa’s method of conveying this history to her students is through American literature, notably works penned by authors writing about the antebellum South — authors like Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, Ishmael Reed, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Margaret Mitchell. She is particularly intrigued by the sequential narratives and themes of some of these works.

“For example, Stowe’s book ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ was of course very famous and popular, and was adapted into film many times,” says Shirakawa, “Another writer, Thomas Dixon, Jr., was very critical of Stowe’s work and published a book called ‘The Clansman’ in response. And based on that book, D.W. Griffith made a film called ‘The Birth of a Nation.’ Then, Margaret Mitchell, a great admirer of Dixon’s work, incorporated some of his negative stereotypical depictions of black people into her book ‘Gone with the Wind.’ Then, in 2001, an African-American author named Alice Randall wrote a book called ‘The Wind Done Gone,’ which was a satirical account of the story Mitchell wrote, written from an alternative perspective — that of Scarlett’s black half sister, Cynara.”

Shirakawa chortles at this, contagiously. Randall’s wit certainly wasn’t wasted on her.

“Many white people are very fond of these books and films,” she says, still grinning. “But behind them is a very serious and very complicated racial conflict. I’m very interested in this connectivity, this intertextuality, and I share this with my students.”

When I ask Shirakawa how this type of course is generally received by her predominantly Japanese students, she is modest, saying she hopes it’s had a positive impact. As for the impact it’s had on her own outlook over the years, she responds enthusiastically.

“For me, studying American history is fascinating,” she says. “As I learned new details, I noticed my perspective as a person widened, and I became more generous and open-minded, less hesitant to interact with all kinds of people.

“Studying one’s own culture and background is OK, of course. If one does that one will probably understand it well. But that’s not very interesting for me. Learning and teaching the culture and history of other people, with often completely different backgrounds, for me, is much more intriguing and meaningful.”

Upon encountering many Japanese people, in my experience, the initial response is fear, and the reason given for this knee-jerk reaction is generally some version of “we don’t know black people.” There’s a couple of ways to interpret this contention.

One, of course, is that their ignorance-based fear persists because they haven’t had the pleasure of meeting a black person due to Japan’s supposed homogeneity. I choose not to interpret it this way, though, because, well, it’s kind of a ridiculous notion. Meeting a single black person would tell you as much about “black” people as meeting Donald Trump or Kim Kardashian would tell you about “white” people.

A more likely interpretation is they have not been properly introduced to the notion that “black” humanity is as vast and complex as any other, and resides on the very same spectrum of humanity as their own, because if they had then it wouldn’t matter if they ever met a black person. They’d learn everything they need to know about “blackness” by looking at that human being in the mirror. I say as much to Shirakawa, and she agrees wholeheartedly.

“Even though our histories are different, we do share a common humanity,” says Shirakawa. “And, if we only study Japanese history and culture then we will not see the similarities among all cultures. I think we first need to go outside of what we know, because then, when we return to our own cultural sphere, we can begin to see it from a different perspective. And only then will the perspective of others be relevant.”

Black Eye appears in print on the second Monday Community page of the month. Baye McNeil is the author of two books on life in Japan. See www.bayemcneil.com.
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