As we find ourselves in a recent wave of anti-Asian hate sweeping the nation—mourning the victims of the March 2021 shootings in Atlanta, hearts breaking at the headlines of elders being attacked in broad daylight—I find myself thinking about a quilt in our recently opened exhibition “Fabric of a Nation: American Quilt Stories.” It was made in the 1940s by a group of fourth graders at the Poston War Relocation Center. This concentration camp was the largest of ten established in the US following the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, when fear-based racist rhetoric led the government to imprison 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry—most of them American citizens.
The 58 fourth graders who cross-stitched their names onto the blocks of this quilt—boys with blue thread, girls with red—did so under the instruction of their teacher, Masako Hirata, while learning about pioneer women in civics class. I wonder if, even at eight or nine years old, they recognized the irony of their situation. Like the pioneers, these children and their families were Americans in search of new opportunities. Yet according to the US government, they weren’t deserving of this American Dream. “A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched—so a Japanese American, born of Japanese parents, grows up to be a Japanese, not an American,” declared a Los Angeles Times editorial at the time.
These children—where are they now? How did their lives play out after the Poston internment camp closed in November 1945? When, if ever, did they feel they were American?
I moved to the US when I was about their age, at nine years old. I can’t remember a magical moment when I suddenly felt American. I can, however, pinpoint exact moments when I did not—bringing Korean or Russian food to lunch at school; sheepishly asking my third-grade math teacher for the values of nickels, dimes, and quarters; wishing away my parents’ broken English.
What does it take to become an American? Living here longer than your home country? Becoming a naturalized citizen and renouncing your home country’s passport? For those onetime fourth graders, did any number of after-the-fact apologies from the government erase what their own country had done to them?
There is another quilt in “Fabric of a Nation” that provides a beautiful counterpoint to the Poston work. Indigo Colour Mixture (2004) was made by Japanese American artist Tomie Nagano, who splits her time between Dedham, Massachusetts, and Hokkaido, Japan. It’s pieced together from old kimono fabrics, in a traditional Log Cabin pattern she chose because the design reminds her of the houses built by her ancestors and other farmers in Hokkaido. They’re not too different from the homes built by American pioneers. In this work, I find a comforting answer to the uneasy questions prompted by the Poston quilt. Being an Asian American doesn’t mean choosing your adopted country over the one you were born in. It doesn’t mean assimilating at the cost of losing your heritage—the traditions of your parents, grandparents, and all those who came before them. You can have both.
Hear from Artist Tomie Nagano
Tomie Nagano talks about her craft on MFA Mobile’s “Fabric of a Nation” audio tour.