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On "Life Magazine, December, 1941"

Allan G. Borst

Sesshu Foster’s prose poem "Life Magazine, December, 1941" presents a stark and brutally honest commentary on racism during WWII by targeting one of America’s most beloved and omnipresent magazines. On December 22, 1941, fifteen days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, LIFE magazine reached the newsstands and American homes with a large cover shot of the American flag. The issue offered a number of examples of the magazine’s prized photographic essays, some showing the devastation and aftermath of the attack on Hawaii. The magazine sought to inform and educate its readership about the attack, while bolstering the country’s sense of hope and powerful resilience. What seems like inspiring patriotism and encouraging journalism becomes, in light of Foster’s poem, packaging for overt racism.

Foster recognizes LIFE as a barometer of dominant American thought and is able to criticize not only the publication, but also the American ideology it represents. The poem challenges an American public that readily subscribes not only to the magazine, but the racist and damaging propaganda it transmits. Foster’s poem assumes the voice of the magazine article, shedding the practical tone and scientific façade of the original; the poem rewrites the article by intensifying it racist undercurrents, in order to bring them prominently to the surface.

While Foster does not engage the entire issue, the rhetorical apparatus that frame the targeted article cannot be ignored. Entitled "How to Tell Japs From the Chinese: Angry Citizens Victimize Allies With Emotional Outburst at Enemy," the article is listed in the table of contents under the heading, "Handbook for Americans." Working in tandem, the cover and the heading offer an image of an American people that are patriotic and spirited, but more importantly, prepared. Also under this heading is an article that aims to help the readers identify Japanese warplanes. As the heading implies, these two articles are considered to offer what any good handbook would: practical, usable knowledge. What constitutes ‘practical’ could be debated, however. The article on warplanes states, "If you see the full underside silhouette, a bomb may hit near you in the next split second. If you see the full front view, you should throw yourself on the ground against possible machine-gun fire" (36). The message seems to be that with the United States now engaged in war, Americans can assuredly turn to LIFE for survival tips. Foster’s poem attacks this same practical and matter-of-fact rhetorical presentation as it occurs in the other article.

"War hysteria?" Foster asks. Hysteria, as the poem suggests, amounts to the difficulty in distinguishing Japanese-Americans from Chinese-Americans, before slurring, berating, and attacking the newly identified enemy. With the help of LIFE, however, the task is made much easier. As the original article explains:

In the first discharge of emotions touched off by the Japanese assaults on their nation, U.S. citizens have been demonstrating a distressing ignorance on the delicate question of how to tell a Chinese from a Jap. Innocent victims in cities all over the country are many of the 75,000 U.S. Chinese whose homeland is our stanch ally. […] To dispel some of this confusion, LIFE here adduces a rule-of-thumb from the anthropometric conformations that distinguish friendly Chinese from the enemy alien Japs. (81)

As in the warplane article, the magazine teaches its readers how to differentiate between Japanese and Chinese people, with what Foster terms "instructive, easily interpreted / diagrams/photographs." These photographs are marked with crudely notated facial features in a manner that an anthropologist might compare an ape and a gorilla. Furthermore, Foster identifies how the article’s "helpful captions / denote distinctive bones structures and facial features." Under LIFE’s photograph of General Hideki Tojo, the caption not only offers to differentiate between the two racial groups through anthropological information, but it also states, "An often sounder clue is facial expression, shaped by cultural, not anthropological, factors. Chinese wear rational calm of tolerant realists. Japs, like General Tojo, show humorless intensity of ruthless mystics" (81). With the utmost irony, Foster seems to contend that LIFE is performing a commendable public service aimed at quelling this hysteria. But if the article works, as it suggests, to properly distance Chinese people from the "Japs," it implicitly condones and encourages racial hostility. Foster’s poem rearticulates this sentiment with rawness: "At LIFE we are here to direct your hatred to its proper object."

Consequently, deplorable acts of racism and violence become justified and honorable in the time of war. Foster moves from the sarcastic allusions to the article and quickly transforms the poem into a satire. In this way, the poem captures the essence of the ideological message of qualified bigotry as transmitted by the LIFE magazine article. He adds to LIFE’s commentary "distinguishing social / psychologies" that further differentiate the two groups. "When you slap / the Jap, his skin will blanche, but if you kick the yellow / Chinaman, he may cuss you in a heathen tongue." The poem even calls for action: "each individual fiend must be beaten and / stomped." With such lines, Foster works to intensify the magazine’s ideological message and forces it into visibility.

With this visibility, the poem dismantles the aforementioned rhetorical packaging that the cover photo and even the magazine’s reputation create. For instance, the second page of the article is framed between two columns of advertisements, deeming the ideology carried in the photographs as palatable and appealing as American consumerism. What is constructed on these pages, and what Foster seems to attack, is what I will term patriotic racism. Patriotic racism transforms the xenophobia and the anti-Japanese-American sentiment into an uplifting American ideal. As it functions, patriotic racism closes the distance between the battleground and the home front. Americans staying home are given this opportunity to participate in a war that poises entire populations against each other. On the home front, the war movement is not advanced simply in the factories and support rallies, but through acts of racist, social violence and ultimately the interment of Japanese-Americans.

Having alluded to the LIFE article and then sardonically rewriting its message, Foster continues the poem by engaging the interment of Japanese-Americans by the FBI, a manifestation of patriotic racism. The poem uses hypothetical images to contemplate the violence of gathering Japanese-Americans and forcing them into concentration camps as directed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. The poem examines the resistance and conflict that emerged from this roundup, while indicating the thoroughness of the government’s operation. Much like the Jews in Europe, potential prisoners tried to elude the government by hiding with other Asian families. "You may ferret out the Japanese children from / interloping Asiatics by clever tactics/ harassment and fear."

The poem also works to address the combative, physical resistance to the relocation. "If the man inside the / shack is Kenji Uchioka, he may shoot at you with his / rifle […] be / forewarned / keep your eyes open for that Uchioka guy. / Bust him down with the FBI in front of his family, especially his little girl/ if you want to take him quietly." In writing to Cary Nelson, Foster identifies Kenji Uchioka as a fictional character and composite of second generation (Nisei) Japanese-Americans. Uchioka comes to represent a number of stories about the internment, as told by third generation Japanese-Americans. Even during these moments in the poem, Foster identifies LIFE as the epicenter of these events. Foster creates a fictional disclaimer, almost as an afterthought to the original article. "LIFE hastens to note, we in no / way condone mob violence/ patriotism has its ways and / means!"

As the poem ends, Foster once again evokes the resistance to patriotic racism. "Leavenworth, for the duration": this allusion to the military and federal prison complex in Kansas calls attention to a second wave of resistance that occurred after the initial internment of Japanese-Americans. Perhaps the most heinous of ideological crimes against the Japanese-Americans during WWII was the reinstatement of the draft on January 20, 1944 while upholding the internment policies. Consequently, Nisei men were forced to leave their families and friends in the interment camps in order to become soldiers. As a result, there were large resistance efforts that battled against the reinstated draft

In March 1944, 106 Nisei soldiers refused to participate in combat training at Fort McClellan in Alabama. They argued that they would not fight while their families were still interned in camps. Twenty-eight of the 106 soldiers were court-martialed. They were sent to Leavenworth in Kansas with sentences ranging from five to thirty years. Also in 1944, a large movement of draft resistance was felt at ten major internment camps. 315 resisters were imprisoned, 85 of which were from the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming. Seven leaders of what was called the ‘Fair Play Committee,’ from Heart Mountain, were convicted of conspiracy to violate the Selective Service Act, as well as counseling other prisoners to resist the draft. They were sent to Leavenworth with sentences ranging from two to four years, along with a number of older draft resisters. On December 24, 1947, President Harry S. Truman pardoned the WWII draft resisters.

While the last line of Foster’s poem offers only a fleeting reference to this history, it bolsters and enhances the poem’s efforts to encapsulate the patriotic racism and ideological warfare that emerged in the United States during WWII. The impact of the poem comes from Foster’s ability to unpack this history of racial conflict and have it emerge from the messages that occurred in the LIFE magazine article. Foster identifies LIFE not only as ubiquitous, but also as a purveyor of American consciousness. In doing so, he dismantles the racist propaganda that is disseminated as patriotism.  

Copyright © 2001 by Allan G. Borst

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