‘It’s still my history, even when I choose not to know it.’

For as long as America has interned children, it’s chosen to look away.


Image: A white clapboard house with a black sign that says Hospital. The shadow of a tree rubs the siding. In the window, several blinds appear stuck or broken at the height of a woman peering out to see who might be visiting — a soldier, a patient, a friend.

Caption: This is the first photo I see when I click the link in the email. My friend is doing research on her family, interned at Gila River, Arizona, in the 1940s. She’d gone looking for pictures of life there, of her family’s incarceration, and what she found was my name. Top of the photo lists the image’s provenance: The Brimhall Archive, a part of the Densho Digital Repository cataloguing the visual histories of incarcerated Japanese Americans. Although I research the ancestry sites, I cannot find how I am related to this nurse and teacher who worked at the Gila River concentration camp. But there is my surname on a photo archive. There is my friend’s surname. There they both are, years before either of us is born, over a thousand miles away from the city where we become friends, together at a camp where our country imprisoned Japanese Americans, taking away their homes and livelihoods, confiscating contraband: radios, weapons, cameras.

Photo illustration of Calesthenics [sic].

Image: A field of sunflowers grown and open. The ray florets look soft and silky as the inside of a cheek. The rows of corolla — a bright astonishment beneath the aching blue of a summer sky. Puffs of cumulus animate the frame of the photo. From the left and extending to the horizon is, Dear America, the dark smear of your border wall, its individual bars blurring into a solid line. 

Caption: My friend tells me she took this photo in McAllen, Texas, explains why the sunflowers are there — it’s public hunting land. The bossy brightness of the sunflower serves as a temptation, a feast of seeds to draw hungry doves from the other side of the border to be shot.

A father posed with his family. A tag looped through his coat buttonhole. The child next to him, tagged.

Images: 1) Rows of barracks and a dust storm moving through them. Dust through the floorboards. Dust through the broken windows. Dust through the unfurled American flag straining at the pole. Dust through the clothes of the two Japanese Americans running through the dust roads between the barracks. The mountain behind guarding half of the sky. 2) A father posed with his family. A tag looped through his coat buttonhole. The child next to him, tagged. The child in front of him, tagged. And the other child. And the other child. Each one staring unsmiling except the smallest child who watches someone the camera cannot see. Their bags labeled with their surname and a symbol to reunite them someday. 

Caption: The War Relocation Authority asked for the pictures, and, when Dorothea Lange submitted them, they were impounded, sent to the National Archives, until they resurfaced in 2006. It seems odd to me that a government would ask for its unethical acts to be documented, but supposedly it was so that the people involved could defend themselves against accusations of mistreatment. They must have believed it was true, that their actions were just, humane even. When they realized the photos were sympathetic portrayals of Americans moved into horse stalls, standing in line for hours for food, weaving camouflage nets to help the war effort, the WRA realized the images must remain unseen. Dear Unlooking America, it embarrasses me, but when a mirror teaches us who we are, do we ever believe it? 

Image: A stuffed dog on its back, the white fur of its belly exposed, all four fake paws up in the air as if waiting to be pet by a trusted hand. Its plastic eyes hidden. The pink underside of its felt tongue slipping from the mouth. The suggestion of a red and black collar with a name that could be called, perhaps a tag with a number, an address, a way to help it finds its way home.

Caption: A former janitor for the Border Patrol collected discarded items seized from migrants crossing the border — CDs, water bottles, Bibles, cigarette lighters, cans of food, blankets, toilet paper, sticks of deodorant. He saved the items in friends’ garages and then arranged and photographed the objects. Only the photo of a seized and thrown-away stuffed animal remains simple, unposed. He called his collection of confiscated items El Sueño Americano. I’m glad we know about this, that toothbrushes and toy dogs are taken from children. But I also don’t know why it needs to be art for us to see it. Why did someone curate other people’s suffering? Is that what white Americans need to make us look? A little beauty to make it all bearable?

Image: A line of children outside a tarpaper barrack labeled “Toy Loan Center.” Not an orderly line, but still one of order, though one girl stands to the side with a jump rope, one holds a wagon askew at the back, one boy stares out with a kaleidoscope on his eye watching the colors move and reorganize themselves. A boy watches a girl who stares at an unopened door. Their bodies make little dollops of shadow on the desert sand.  

Caption: Although the War Relocation Association seized everyone’s camera, photographer Toyo Miyatake managed to smuggle in a lens and film plate holder to the concentration camp at Manzanar. A carpenter built a box for the lens and a former client snuck in film. At first, he took photos in secret, wanting to document life at the camp, but eventually the ban was lifted. He was designated the official photographer of Manzanar. He created portraits of people resting against buildings, children huddled in play or gazing through barbed wire at the mountain, infants in the orphanage pulling themselves to standing by the crib’s even bars. 

Photo illustration of Tojo Miatake [i.e., Tōyō Miyatake] Family, Manzanar Relocation Center.

Image: Application form from the Gila River Indian Community. Lines for name and address and phone number. A form of identification. A claim for right of entry. A box for “Internment Camp.” A box for an explanation of the request.

Caption: When the United States built the Gila River concentration camp, it built it on a reservation. A prison on a prison. Fort Sill in Oklahoma has served as a relocation camp for Native Americans, a boarding school for Native children taken from their parents, a concentration camp of Japanese Americans, and now, Dear America, there are plans to use it to house detained migrant children. I don’t enter the Gila River Indian Community. I choose not to find out how or if the Brimhalls there were my family. It’s still my history, even when I choose not to know it. My privilege lets me look away.

Image: Green marker on canvas in a grid — the shaky hand of a new artist, the way a child draws lines for a game of tic-tac-toe. In the unmeasured rectangles of green are not X’s and O’s, but children with arms outstretched like butterfly specimens on a spreading board. Covered in wrinkled blankets, their heads face the bottom of the frame as if they are upside down ghosts. Guards in baseball caps stand at the single door and at the center of the room’s panopticon. At the hip of one guard are two dark lines. A mistake, perhaps. Or the L of a gun in its holster.

I am disturbed that we need images to make us pay better attention.

Caption: Three children released from Border Patrol detention facilities are sent to a respite center, given markers, and asked to draw their experiences. They are about 10 or 11. Their names, unknown. They can only stay at the respite center for 24 hours before being transitioned elsewhere. I don’t know if they are reunited with their parents, their siblings, someone whose touch and voice are the codex of their history. The Smithsonian expresses interest in acquiring their drawings as artifacts. I’m disturbed that this is collected and curated for a museum, this expression of suffering they did not consent to make public. I am disturbed that we need images to make us pay better attention. The Smithsonian also owns combs, razors and toothbrushes left by migrants in the desert. It owns a Border Patrol uniform. It owns an old piece of the border wall. It’s trying to show you as you are, America.

Image: Also in the Densho Digital Repository from the Gila River Camp: Lilla Brimhall, holding her son on the steps of the white house that is also a hospital, her face turned away from the camera as she studies his quizzical expression at something out of view, his outfit’s tiny buttons, the soft rolls of his baby thighs, his curled toes kicking inside frilled socks.

Caption: She got to do it. She got to hold her child.

Editor’s note: Fort Sill has not been used to house detained migrant children since 2014, during the Obama administration.

Traci Brimhall is the author of Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod (Copper Canyon), Saudade (Copper Canyon), Our Lady of the Ruins (W.W. Norton), and Rookery (Southern Illinois University Press). She’s an Associate Professor and Director of Creative Writing at Kansas State University. 

This essay appeared in the book Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance, and Democracy published by Trinity University Press (2020). For more information, please visit www.tupress.orgEmail High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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