Success on Dakota land.

What does it mean for a member of a “problem” community to attain accomplishment?

Mapping a loss.

Nobu Kitagawa was born in Madison Wisconsin, home for Ho-Chunk, Kickapoo, and other Indigenous peoples. But her Japanese face ensured that only Japan would follow her throughout her life. She spent about two years of early childhood in Japan. After she moved with her family to Dakota land in 1919, she probably never went to Japan again. In her 1933 Washburn High School yearbook photo her flamboyant bow shouted, “Look at me!” Her gaze radiated the calm confidence she held as she approached her solo piano concert for the prestigious MacPhail School of Music, as she ascended the stage to perform for her high school graduation. Her yearbook caption confirmed: “She is accomplishment.” Principal MacQuarrie selected her for the National Honor Society. Since elementary school she played the piano on the radio, at the State Fair, at churches and civic clubs. Her solo concert featured mostly music by Chopin, to a favorable review in the Minneapolis Tribune. The reviewer stated that Nobu’s “attitude toward her music is altogether occidental, touched a little by romantic mysticism.” He probably would not have used “occidental” for a white or Black pianist.

Nobu succeeded in segregated spaces. Her church was historically segregated. Her family had attended a Methodist Episcopal church in Japan, a church that had parted ways with the African Methodist Episcopal Church since the late eighteenth century. She attended Louis Agassiz Elementary School, which was named after the founder of Harvard’s Museum of Natural History. Natural history encompasses glaciers and fish, but in his case it also meant scientific racism. Nobu attended a school named after a man who believed that she belonged to a different species than her white peers. The short-lived school newsletter The Little Philosopher from May 1920 hinted at the students’ privilege: fifth-graders hired a private car to visit the superintendent dressed in “watches, tie pins and our best suits.” What does a child learn in such spaces? And how do these spaces restrict what constitutes accomplishment?

Nobu’s neighborhood was also segregated. Racial housing covenants were common by the time the Kitagawas arrived. Mr. Kitagawa described times he inquired after a house to rent or buy, but concluded “nothing doing.” We cannot know if he was refused because of race, but racial covenants were quite effective in their south Minneapolis neighborhood. In their high school yearbooks, Nobu and her sister Miyo were the only nonwhite children in their grades, even though a neighborhood that was up to 25% Black lay due east from their house on the other side of Nicollet Avenue. This area was bound by 4th and 5th Avenues to the east and west, 35th to 41st Streets to the north and south. It lay equidistant from Washburn High School as Nobu’s house. It might have felt as if the Nicollet streetcar line divided their white-normative world from Black Minneapolis, but at the time both neighborhoods belonged to the 13th Ward.

In the 1980s when the model minority myth was accepted by whites and Asians alike, my sister and I were high-achieving piano-playing Japanese Americans like Nobu. I also loved playing Chopin. My white suburban communities taught me a social Darwinist hierarchy and my place in it. I earned As studying history textbooks littered with captions like “Rev. Jesse Jackson: spokesman for an underclass.” My white New England piano teachers believed that Asians were naturally smarter. One urged me, “Use your Asian mind.” My Asian mind knew this was nonsense, but lacked the power to say so. From the bus stop to school and back I had absorbed messages from white peers and teachers about when I could speak, where I could sit, where I was welcome. I noticed when the rules differed for me.

I also noticed when spaces outside my white communities challenged the model minority myth and the hierarchy that supported it. My relatives’ interests and priorities ranged far beyond grades or the piano. My Hawaii-born grandmothers put me in my place in snappy pidgin English. When I moved to Chicago in the late 1990s I learned what I could not know in white spaces. The Dusable Museum of African American History centered Black accomplishment. At a multiracial church I met African American elders around Nobu’s age. She is accomplishment. And so is he. And many more. Today in Dakota land I hear stories and view art at the birthplace of the American Indian Movement in Minneapolis. They are all accomplishment.

In Nobu’s day the Asian “model minority” myth did not exist. Newspapers described both Chinese and Japanese as a “problem” alongside Indigenous and Black people. Even the word “problem” meaning topic or issue implies the writer’s question: “What do we of the dominant white culture do with these Black/Indian/Japanese people?” This question obscures the possibility of letting us be, succeeding on our own terms, and growing old in peace. As early as 1892 West Coast newspapers warned of a dire “Japanese problem.” Their cheap labor suppresses wages. Too many of them. Too many. “The [Chinese] exclusion bill may soon have to be amended so as to include the natives of Japan as well as those of China.” Midwestern newspapers reprinted this West Coast anti-Japanese rhetoric until 1924, when at last the Johnson–Reed Act limited immigration from all Asian nations. Even after the danger of Asian immigration passed, however, imperial rivalry in the Pacific also caused anti-Japanese sentiment. Mr. Kitagawa wrote letters of appeal to members of his church in response to Japanese military activity. I do not know if he wrote to save his gift shop business, his personal reputation, or both. Since Mr. Kitagawa felt compelled to answer for the Japanese Empire, perhaps Nobu and other family members also felt that pressure in school, in church, and on the street.

I also remember the 1980s as a time when “the Japanese” were regularly discussed in my sixth grade social studies class. Whether it was consumer electronics or trade policy, my classmates’ heads swiveled toward me as if the problem originated from my twelve-year-old body. Since I had never been to Japan, Japanese culture meant yearning for a place where I did not need to explain myself. If I had words for such moments they might have ran, Let me be. Let me define my own ways to win. Let me grow up in peace.

What does it mean to achieve while you are a “problem”? What can a young woman do after “She is accomplishment”? Perhaps Nobu concluded that Minnesota held nothing more for her. As a U of M undergraduate she left Minnesota to marry her fiancé in San Diego. In his diaries Mr. Kitagawa hinted that he did not expect her to come back. She returned briefly to finish her BA, but afterwards she rarely visited her family in Minnesota. Her accomplishment, it seems, did not build a community for her. She chose to build her community elsewhere.

Why was Minnesota not home for Nobu? We may find some answers by widening the frame to include her whole community and its historical context. When the Kitagawas arrived in May 1919, much of the world was recovering from the Great War. That year should have held promise for all Americans. Black and Indigenous veterans hoped to return to a land that offered them the same freedom and rights as their white counterparts, but communities of color suffered the same oppression as before the war. That October the Council of American Indians held a conference in downtown Minneapolis to discuss how they may gain equal rights, including recognition as US citizens. Ohiyesa (Dr. Charles Eastman), whose ancestors settled by Lake Harriet not far from Nobu’s house, returned to Dakota land to help lead that conference. I will write more about this gathering in the next blog post.

We may get a sense of Minneapolis as a home for African Americans in its response to the Chicago race riot of 1919. Chicago exploded on July 27 when a white man killed a Black teenager perceived to have ventured too far into a white swimming area at Lake Michigan. The incident triggered a race riot. For days mainstream Minneapolis newspapers reported terrifying fights between white and Black people “with razors and clubs,” and of “battle in groups of hundreds.” The weekly Black newspapers focused on the violence in racial segregation and the criminal justice system faced by Black communities nationwide. Some commentary hinted at lingering grievance. The Appeal offered three causes of the riots. The first: “The absolute failure of Christianity. The American Christian church has neither taught nor practiced the doctrine of the brotherhood of man, but has actually fomented racial animosities. Before the awful color line Christianity stands dumb.” That year race riots erupted in multiple cities, but The Advocate asserted, “The race riots in Chicago were a great surprise to the people of Minneapolis as well as nearly every other city because of the protection the colored people have always enjoyed and because of the leaders of the race who have always tried to see that their people got justice.” Messages like these might have helped prevent a similar uprising in the Twin Cities. Mr. Kitagawa mentioned neither the race riots nor the Council of American Indians conference, but both events shaped Minneapolis as home for Black and Indigenous Americans pursuing their own dreams.

The year 1919 also had international significance. Since defeating China in the 1894–1895 Sino-Japanese War Japan had been building its industrialized empire in East Asia, annexing Taiwan and later Korea. After both China and Japan had supplied troops to the Triple Entente during the Great War, Western powers allowed only Japan to negotiate the Treaty of Versailles. On May 4, Chinese students protested this unequal treatment and China’s weakened position on the world stage. Under these conditions it might have been difficult for immigrant Chinese and Japanese communities to see each other as comrades in arms in a white normative society. Chinese and Japanese merchants competed to sell Asian goods to white customers. Mr. Kitagawa cooperated with Japanese merchants in Saint Paul, Chicago, and Omaha, but probably did not interact with Chinese people outside of dining at Chinese restaurants.

Nobu’s world was very white. A white world provided affluent customers for her father’s Japanese gift shop, but it did not provide her with peers with whom she could discuss how to navigate that world as a nonwhite person. Her father’s few Japanese business and social connections did not center her world. I will now consider what Nobu and her classmates lost by living in a white society.

What about the African American community on the other side of the Nicollet Avenue streetcar tracks? Some of them attended Central High School. In Nobu’s year 1933, few nonwhite students graduated from Central High but the following year was probably the most diverse class up to that point. I found three East Asian and six Black seniors. The Asian and Black students followed the same patterns that I saw in my high school in the 1980s: Asian academic excellence, Black athletic excellence. The three Asian students fit a pattern: National Honor Society, foreign language and other academic-themed clubs. The one Chinese American girl had a nearly identical profile to Nobu: National Honor Society and sundry service and athletic clubs. To what extent did a white frame limit what teachers and peers could see in these Asian and Black students?

One young Black woman also shared interests with Nobu: Girl Reserves (YWCA), Girls’ Athletic Association, Latin Club. Her yearbook caption: “A student of the classics.” Her determined gaze announced that even if the world opened no doors for her, she would find a way through. A pearl earring gleamed brightly under her smoothly waved hair. How did it feel for the one nonwhite student named Johnson to study a classical world whose textbooks erased people who looked like her? Did she relish studying difficult languages as accomplishment? I searched for hints of her life after Central High, but initially found nothing about her in either mainstream or Black newspapers.

I also looked for stories of the young Black men who earned a “C” (for Central) in athletics. The yearbook committee left few clues about how these students might have felt as they walked the predominantly white halls of Central High, displaying their letters as accomplishment. “Look at him while you may, We won’t see his like for many a day.” “An even temperament does he possess, With character and ability, no less.” One young man distinguished himself through music: school orchestra, musical productions, and a comedy concert. “Never seen gloomy, never seen sad, With wit and with frolic, he makes us all glad.” He wore a serious expression in the photo. The Black newspapers suggest that Mr. Richardson belonged to a prominent family: well connected to Midwestern African Methodist Episcopal churches, the kind of family whose comings and goings were duly noted. The Advocate endorsed him for a career as a minister, documenting services he led. Mr. Richardson belonged to St. Thomas, a Minneapolis AME church. As a high school junior and the sole Black musician he played the lead oboe for the U of M production of Aida. He was accomplishment. He bore the hopes of his family and church on his shoulders. And once I found Mr. Richardson’s name in Black newspapers, I also saw his fellow Black classmates from Central High. The young men who earned letters. Miss Johnson the classics enthusiast. A circulating cast of notable Black college students, none of whom were selected for student government or National Honor Society in high school. Mr. Richardson and his peers thrived in a parallel community of which their white high school classmates seemed only vaguely aware.

We cannot know everything Central High lost by not hailing Miss Johnson, Mr. Richardson, and their fellow Black classmates as leaders. Without a doubt, however, they missed their chance to apprehend community trauma from multiple dimensions. Mr. Richardson and Miss Johnson were too young to remember the 1919 race riots, but their parents raised them with wisdom from ancestors, the Black media, and beyond. What might have happened if the mainstream ME Church and the AME Church joined hands after the 1919 riots to heal the trauma of segregation? How might Nobu and Miss Johnson’s lives have changed if their YWCA Girl’s Brigade groups had reflected as Christians upon the impact of the 1919 riots on Minneapolis Black and white communities? What would Central High have been like if Black teachers and administrators infused their understanding of social justice into everyday school policy, and nominated Black students to the National Honor Society? By segregating schools and tailoring the curriculum to protect the status quo, we lost an opportunity to build a robust understanding of community. We lost the opportunity to expand our standards and allow community enrichment. We lost an opportunity to learn how to live together in the 13th Ward and help each other grow old.

In this post I reflected on the borders and spaces of accomplishment and how they limit what we can know. We cannot help each other grow old unless we see and understand our community’s traumas and histories, starting with the ground on which we stand. In the next blog post, I will expand upon the theme of accomplishment and consider Nobu’s accomplishment on a national scale.

By Patti

Patti Kameya was born on Tongva land before it became "the OC." She writes, forages wild plants, and treats historical amnesia in the Dakota homeland of Saint Paul, Minnesota.

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