By Scott Kurashige
I can appreciate how and why Aoki became an Asian American icon. Japanese Americans have used and needed icons in diverse ways. Before World War II, when Japanese immigrants were barred from citizenship or full membership in the American body politic, the community held up Japanese homeland figures as their icons and used economic nationalism as an entrepreneurial survival strategy. The Nisei generation saw all their citizenship rights stripped away, so their leaders put forward Japanese American war heroes as model citizens who proved their ethnic group could make great contributions to America. When this morphed into the model minority stereotype and was manipulated by conservatives and anti-black racists, Sansei radicals looked for models of resistance and Afro-Asian solidarity. Of course, Yuri Kochiyama fit the mold perfectly, but sadly her health issues have limited her in-person exposure in recent times. Richard Aoki was there for those younger activists who needed to be shown it was possible to break the mold and chart a new path forward.
To be frank, I did not know Richard Aoki personally and only met him in passing. I doubt that he was personally well known by most Asian American activists coming of age in the 1980s. When I briefly talked with him later in the 1990s, I was excited to meet him. But I had already begun to question the limits of militant agitation and the form of Marxism-Leninism I presumed he espoused, and I saw Aoki more as a historical figure of interest rather than a potential role model. My view of him changed after seeing the positive impact he had on a younger generation of Asian American activists. He wasn’t telling them to pick up the gun and “off the pigs” nor was he demanding they follow some doctrinaire theory of revolution. He was accepting where they were coming from and encouraging and inspiring them to live a life dedicated to social justice. I have heard from many Asian American and Bay Area activists, who are deeply concerned about the hasty conclusions being drawn about Aoki and troubled that his legacy of Third World solidarity, his warm and generous spirit, and his positive contributions to movement building have been overlooked.
Those who cherished what Aoki gave them should hold onto that. It doesn’t matter what “origin story” people have of Aoki. If you received something genuine from him, no one can take that away from you.
At the same time, we need to generally rethink the issue of iconography—a very personal one for me since I work closely with someone who has become a movement icon. And the more Asian Americans—in and more full and general manner—become part of the narrative of US history, the less we will need to rely on individual icons to represent us. We need to recognize that all people are contradictory because the world is contradictory and to be human (esp. a person of color in the US) is to live a contradiction. The mainstream presents us with whitewashed histories of icons to promote national mythology and patriotism. We don’t need it, since we have more important lessons to learn by studying how anticolonial founding fathers like Jefferson and Washington were also racist slaveholders taking over native lands. Nor do we need the capitalist media strategy of building up icons for profit in order to tear them down for more profit. We need to resist the either/or thinking that you are either a pure revolutionary or a total sellout. Too much self-inflicted damage has been done in the name of “purifying” the movement.
We need to embrace contradiction as the source of true change and transformation. We can have imperfect historical role models who learned from their mistakes, as well as some who never resolved their contradictions and thus bequeathed them to us. As James and Grace Lee Boggs have stated, “we are all works in progress”—indeed, revolution is a complex, protracted process not a single moment on a path of linear progress. And let’s never forget that we are the leaders we’ve been looking for.
So where do we go from here?
First, let’s demand that Rosenfeld answer the critical questions that many of us have posed and let’s demand that ROSENFELD now release the documents and recordings that he says substantiate his claims. Let’s hear the full, unedited recording of his interview(s) with Aoki. Then let’s do some of our own research and draw our own conclusions about all the evidence viewed in proper context. Let’s NOT set a very bad precedent by destroying a movement activist’s reputation based on the word and agenda of an outsider. If Aoki can be found guilty based on such inconclusive evidence, then none of us is safe. Remember that one of the most outrageous tactics COINTELPRO used to discredit movement activists and spur infighting was to send bogus mailings that purported to “out” FBI informants within the Black Panther Party and other groups.
Second, let’s re-start a longer conversation that people in the movement need to have about how we view state repression, how we respond to infiltration, and how we handle internal contradictions. This is not just a historical matter. When I lived in Los Angeles, I worked closely with Chicano movement veteran Carlos Montes, who has recently been hit with politically motivated charges and has a case pending in court. And there are too many more contemporary examples to count, including spying on peace groups as moderate as the Quakers. One knee jerk response is to “tighten” security and do more internal policing. But too much secrecy can lead us into smaller and smaller circles increasingly divorced from contact with the people. And “internal policing” of the movement is exactly what the cops want us to do when they spread fear among us—it almost never turns out well. We need to develop proactive ways to build a healthy movement culture, resolve non-antagonistic differences, and promote sustainable relationships that preclude us being susceptible to outside agitators or informants.
Third, let’s make this crisis moment a teachable moment. Let’s remember that the truth can and must be convened from every available source. So if Rosenfeld has provided even a partial-truth, we must discern what that is (even if he can’t do it himself) and reckon with it. But let’s not forget that we need to research, write, and study our own movement histories. As Amilcar Cabral said, “Tell no lies; claim no easy victories.” We need to learn from our shortcomings rather than spread heroic falsehoods. We need to analyze our contradictions rather than put our role models up on a pedestal. And most of all, we need a historical narrative of America that shows how all of us who have been labeled and have labeled ourselves as “minorities” are becoming the new majority. Rosenfeld’s book that focuses on three white men to tell the story of how America was transformed during the 1960s will not be very relevant to the America of 2042. The story of the struggle for Third World unity and liberation—a story rife with contradiction and positive and negative lessons—is one that we can claim as central to where we’ve been, who we are now, and who we are becoming. We all need to do a better job of writing this kind of history—including and especially scholars of ethnic studies—for this is a history that will determine our future.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Scott Kurashige has been a campus and community activist since the late 1980s, was based in Los Angeles in the 1990s, and has been primarily based in Detroit since 2000. He is the author of The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans in the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles and co-author with Grace Lee Boggs of The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century. He is also director of the Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies Program and a professor of American Culture and History at the University of Michigan.