As gleaned from the articles, she was born and raised in San Pedro, California; she lost her father when he was arrested after Pearl Harbor while still recovering from an operation. She was interned with her family; both her brothers joined up; she met her husband in the camps. After the war they lived in New York City, had six kids, moved to the projects in Harlem, and started becoming active in their community. After being arrested, she met Malcolm X, who opened her eyes to racism in the US; she was there when he was killed. She subsequently became a radical activist, taking her children to marches and suffering frequent arrests, for a diverse range of issues, including Civil Rights, the Vietnam War, Internment reparations, Puerto Rican independence, etc.. In the late nineties, after her husband's death, she moved to Oakland, where she has been active ever since.
She is the activists' activist; she is the Asian American North Star,
she is our godmother, our justification, our revered elder and sacred
crone, she's the one everyone points to when we think of Asian American
women role models. She is our Malcolm X: beyond doubt, or corruption,
or naysaying. And, whereas Malcolm was placed beyond doubt, corruption
or naysaying by death, Yuri is there by the grace of her association
with the sainted Malcolm.
This constant association, though it honors her,
causes me discomfort; because the first thing anyone mentions about Yuri,
and the top priority, is her relationship with Malcolm. It's true that this relationship was very important to her, but ... Malcom X died in Yuri Kochiyama's arms,
they always say, and in just that tone of hushed reverence. It makes a
Mary of her, the woman who washed Jesus' dead body, or the one who
first saw Jesus alive when he came out of his tomb; her significance is
that of witness to the transcendent sacrifice of a man. (Or two men: in this Democracy Now! interview, they have her tell at length of her father's death and then Malcolm's, but nothing about her own life.)
It also places Yuri's association with the black Civil Rights Movement
above her association with all the other movements with which she's
been associated: Reparations, the Asian American Movement, the Anti-war Movement, Puerto Rican independence, etc. Many contemporary Asian Americans have a great reverence for Civil Rights and its leaders, without being directly involved in African American issues today, or with any group of issues outside of Asian American-specific organizing. As our blog editor Melissa Hung wrote in an excellent 2002 article:
The issues -- there are so many of them. Her Movement credentials
reveal her as unusual even among activists. While many pay lip service
to the notion of diversity, few, if any, have worked for so many causes
and embraced so many distinct ethnic groups.
This way of approaching Yuri has not done justice to either Asian American activism, or to African American activism. Revering this one aspect of Yuri's life has obscured
the fact that Asian American activism can -- and in Yuri's case does --
have a great deal of
flexibility in its alliances and tactics, can focus on issues that,
from a Civil Rights point of view, may not have direct bearing on
racial pride or racial self-determination. Our desire to place each activist, and each activism, within a category, obstructs alliances; our desire to give each person a single significance, prevents them from adding their strength to others.
What I want to say about Yuri Kochiyama as a role model is not just about her being a lifelong activist. Asian America is full of wonderful, life-long activists, some of whom I've had the privilege of meeting or working with. She reigns supreme among these in our imagination because she managed to cross boundaries (of race, of class, of interest) that we are still bounded by today. She is a particular hero because of her pluralism, because she calls all movements one: the Movement. And she means it, and lives it.
It's an important lesson as we move into a new era with our looming economic depression and our brand new, darker hued, community activist president. We've too often failed to connect our Asian American consciousness with action to stop the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; Yuri has never failed to make this connection. Now that the connections are opening up again, let's take her example here on this blog, at this magazine. Let's be inspired by our pride in this wonderful woman to use our energy and consciousness for the good of all, and not just our own community.