Shalom Black Reading Ground Zero
Presented to the World Conference
However one tries to speak
However one tries to write
Of human atrocity
All tongues and pens are to no avail. (Tanaka Kishiro, “Rage”)
As a child in the Atomic 80’s, one of my dominant feelings was fear. No physical harm could penetrate the protective bubble my close-knit family and small rural community created for me, but when I learned of the existence of nuclear weapons, fear entered my conscience and never left. Even now, living and working in Washington, DC, I feel at times as though a bull’s-eye is drawn on my forehead; on occasion, when I hear a loud bang, I wait for the light, the heat and the blast. This visceral reaction is ingrained from a childhood awareness of the nuclear arms race.
Although the two bombs were not dropped in my lifetime, or in my parents’ lifetime, their aftereffects reside in the cultural memory of many children of the twentieth century. However, in America, this awareness is less prevalent than in other countries. Had I not been active in peacemaking as a teenager, I might not have been exposed to stories from the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. World War II was a common theme for literature classes: literature about the Jewish Holocaust was required reading when I was in school. I was moved and shocked by stories from the concentration camps. When my own interest in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki led me to look for similar stories, I was surprised at how few were available in my small town’s library. In school, I was never assigned a book or story on the Japanese victims. I realize now that American children could not be allowed to read these stories, because our sympathy would be for ‘the enemy,’ rather than the American ‘heroes.’ We could recognize that on August 6, and again on August 9, 1945, our government perpetrated an act that cost—and continues to cost—hundreds of thousands of innocent people their lives. Yet we could not question the validity of this action, for it has been handed down to us as a necessary, indeed heroic, act that ended World War II. The easiest way to win a war is to dehumanize the enemy, to make them into a faceless, soul-less mass indistinguishable from one another. Elias Canetti, winner of the 1981 Nobel Prize in Literature, has said, “Among the most sinister phenomena in intellectual history is the avoidance of the concrete.” The other option is to embrace the concrete reality and detail, to tell the story of each individual and to show how each of us can relate our life to this particular fellow human. We naturally attempt to create these links with others, and when we do, we can begin to understand their side of an issue. This is what good literature does. And this is the antithesis of good war propaganda.
Overlooking the human lives lost to nuclear weapons has had its consequences. The Bomb has become a staple of American pop culture references and jokes; a recent episode of the cartoon “Futurama” used it as a gag, as have most children’s cartoons in recent memory. “Nuke ‘em till they glow” is a popular response given by people when asked how we should resolve a conflict with a foreign country. The true power, danger, and tragedy of nuclear weapons has been lost in a culture taught to praise the technology of warfare, a culture desensitized to human suffering. In fact, English author Martin Amis, in his lengthy discussion of nuclear weapons in the Introduction to Einstein’s Monsters, says: “Our leaders maintain the means to perform the unthinkable. They contemplate the unthinkable, on our behalf. … I believe that many of the deformations and perversities of the modern setting are related to—and are certainly dwarfed by—this massive preemption. Our moral contracts are inevitably weakened, and in unpredictable ways. After all, … what vulgar outrage or moronic barbarity can compare with the black dream of nuclear exchange?” The very existence of these weapons cheapens life on the corporate level, and subsequently leads to further violence on the individual level.
Although some Western authors acknowledge the threat of apocalypse in their works, this threat is much more tangible and pervasive for Japanese writers, because it was, and is, a reality for them. Writers such as Oe Kenzaburo, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1994, find that the nuclear fallout invades their literature and their lives, whether they wish it to or not. For example, Oe compared the destructive force of the nuclear explosion to the birth of his brain-damaged son: his son changed everything he thought he understood about the world. His novels’ heroes tend to be completely disconnected from their childhood values, violently confronted as adults with a world of vast emptiness. Ibuse Masuji’s Black Rain, which describes the bombing of Hiroshima and its aftermath, is one of the strongest indirect arguments against nuclear weapons. Its fictional narrative tells of an uncle’s attempts to find a husband for his niece, who is rumored to have radiation poisoning. He uncovers the truth by examining her diaries as well as his own and others’, and the stories each person recounts, with their details of the human scale of Hiroshima, would impact even the most cynical of readers. Yet, very few Americans have ever heard of, let alone read, this famous Japanese novel.
As a college English teacher, I have seen students moved to tears by stories of the concentration camps, or the lynchings of African-Americans in the South. Some, like me, have gone on to learn more about these unimaginable horrors, and have been shocked by the depths of depravity of which human beings are capable. Some go on from there to attempt to do something to change the injustices in the world today, to try to prevent the mistakes of history from being relived. Given literature’s unique power to create empathy for people, real or fictional, perhaps Japanese holocaust novels could make American readers consider the suffering caused by, not simply the use of, but the very existence of nuclear weapons. Perhaps then we will realize that we are all hibakusha: “bomb victims.”
Speaking to the International Meeting 2003 World Conference against A & H Bombs
I am a young African American female. I am constantly trying to avoid and escape the toils and snares of a society that still treats me like three fifths of a human being. My weapon in the struggle to survive is politics. Corporate America and the big money media would like to see my people poor and ignorant, as it makes us easier to exploit. But I see through the lies and realize that as a wise M.C. named Talib Kweli once said, “Life without knowledge is death in disguise,” therefore I am constantly seeking ways to increase my awareness. Although enlightenment ultimately comes from knowledge of self, it is important to strive to increase the social consciousness of the masses. I have put these theories to practice by dedicating countless hours to community service in Washington D.C. and Detroit , MI, organizing a Student Awareness Club in Silver Spring, strengthening my leadership skills in a Leadership Training Institute, and participating in groups such as Tribal Revolutionary Ideas For Black Elevation (t.r.i.b.e.).
Living in Arizona, North Carolina, Michigan, Japan, and Maryland has truly expanded my horizons as well. Living in Okinawa, Japan for a year was a remarkable experience. When I first moved there I was astounded by the dramatic differences between it and my own country. However, as I learned more about Japan’s history and its relationship with America and Europe I began to feel that perhaps my African American culture and the Japanese culture had some things in common. In 1919 the European dominated League of Nations rejected a proposal that stated that all races were equal under pressure from the United States and Britain. While the Japanese were being discriminated against by the League of Nations and the Black Americans were being subjected to discrimination in the form of Jim Crow laws. The Japanese and the Blacks shared a common enemy, an enemy that confined Blacks in jails and ghettos and Japanese Americans in prison camps. That same enemy killed countless Blacks from slavery until the present day, and that enemy killed thousands and thousands of Japanese at the end of WWII in the first use of atomic and hydrogen bombs in battle. While the acts of terror committed against people of color have been numerous and cruel, America’s use of weapons of mass destruction against Japan stand out as especially treacherous acts of violence.
The decision President Truman made to drop the bomb was flawed in that it disregarded both the Japanese culture and the option of diplomacy in ending the war.
An important cultural factor in WWII was that the Emperor was regarded as a god by the Japanese. The people had a strong allegiance to the Emperor and anything that the people perceived to be a threat to him, like the “unconditional surrender” the U.S. demanded would not be accepted by the Japanese public. President Truman had been advised of the importance of the Emperor to the Japanese, yet he totally disregarded this aspect of their culture in the decisions he made leading up to the end of the war. The cultural superiority complex of American leadership created an even more hostile situation and made it impossible to resolve the conflict diplomatically.
According to Doug Long “[the war could have probably been ended] sooner with fewer deaths on all sides by using the full carrot and stick: 1) offer retention of Emperor for a quick surrender 2) threaten Russian invasion; and as the absolute last resort threaten with atomic destruction. Rather than using threats to solve the problem the U.S. chose to use military force, not out of necessity, but for revenge.
Japan has rebuilt its infrastructure and its economy has recovered, but it and the rest of the world are forever scarred by the use of the atomic and hydrogen bombs against them. The attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki made war an even more vicious, destructive, and ruthless institution. The advancements in military technology took man to new lows, as he was now able to destroy all of creation in a few swift blows. Using a weapon of mass destruction against the Japanese was a quick way to eliminate the symptoms of the greater threat of the world’s greatest problems; injustice and inequality.
The global community can look to Hiroshima and Nagasaki as examples of what happens when the doctrine “might makes right” is followed. As we remember the immense tragedies of these massacres we should say never again will there be another atomic holocaust.
It is our responsibility as members of the human race to be watchful of our leaders, to check their power, and to make sure that they do not commit crimes against humanity to serve their own personal objectives. If we are to prevent our brothers and sisters from exploitation at the hands of a wealthy and corrupt few, we must take control of our media, our means of production, our land, and our resources if we ever want to regain control of our lives.
Each and every one of us is our brother’s keeper, to be silent when one witnesses injustice is to give one’s consent. We cannot prevent another Hiroshima or Nagasaki by becoming mentally lazy and being lax in our activism. The spirit of the movement must stay strong after the marches and rallies are over for any true changes to be made in society. Without education, and self determination we have no control of our situation.
Nagasaki and Hiroshima; Never again!