Parents plan teaching event after school board rejects Japanese-American incarceration book
Parents and educators hope a teaching event Monday outside of the Muskego-Norway school board meeting will help thwart a board committee’s decision to pull a novel about Japanese-American incarceration during the World War II from his high school curriculum.
Last month, the committee reversed a decision by local educators to block Julie Otsuka’s book “When the Emperor Was Divine” from being taught in schools. The 2003 novel, which would have been read as part of an advanced high school English class, chronicles the experiences of a Japanese-American family incarcerated by the state during the war.
The decision received widespread media attention and criticism. In a statement, Muskego-Norway School Board President Chris Buckmaster said the book was not banned and the committee simply referred the recommendation to staff. He said the committee chair heard concerns that the selection process had been discriminatory, but he didn’t elaborate on how, why or by whom those concerns were raised.
All of these justifications from council members are flawed, said Ann Zielke, a district parent who is one of the organizers of the teaching event. Zielke, who attended public meetings and had multiple private conversations with council members about the decision, said the local controversy stems from the election this year of a council member dedicated to the fight. against so-called “critical race theory” in schools. She said this led them to exclude the book because it was an example of historical racism.
“They were taking a closer look at the program, so they wouldn’t be seen by our community as endorsing anything that might be anti-racist,” Zielke said of the Waukesha County District. “That’s what the extra emphasis on the program has been. And that’s why this book was chosen.”
The incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II in what were then called internment camps is widely understood to be a shameful chapter in United States history, treating American citizens who were not charged of any crime as a threat to national security solely on the basis of their ethnicity. In 1988, Republican President Ronald Reagan apologized for the actions of the U.S. government when he signed into law a bill providing restitution to incarcerated families. Reagan called the imprisonments a “grave evil”.
These are simply historical facts, said Kabby Hong, Wisconsin’s 2022 teacher of the year, and students deserve a truthful education in US history.
“This (Japanese-American incarceration) is not something controversial or debatable,” Hong said. “It’s an injustice, and that’s how it should be treated.”
Hong, who is the first Asian American to be named Wisconsin National Teacher of the Year, said one of his goals is to promote the teaching of Asian American history in the schools. In the weeks following the first report of the controversy, he contacted the Muskego-Norway School Board and asked if he could make a presentation on the subject. The council, he said, refused.
Instead, along with Zielke, other educators and community members, he will participate in the teaching event in Muskego on Monday night during the school board meeting. He said the group would give community members 100 copies of “When the Emperor Was Divine,” which he called “the perfect book to help sophomores prepare for AP English.”
“We want to try to replace disinformation with real historical facts about Japanese internment and what really happened during that time,” Hong said.
Zielke said she doesn’t have much hope the board will reverse its decision. The issue is not on the agenda for tonight’s meeting, which means the board will not allow public comment on it. Still, she hopes the activism of parents and educators around the decision will have a wider effect.
“This is us coming together as a community to say we’re going to continue to oppose this,” Zielke said. “This is the beginning of the rejection of books like this. And if we allow it, it will continue to happen.”