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Samurai among Panthers

Samurai among Panthers: Richard Aoki on Race, Resistance, and a Paradoxical Life

Diane C. Fujino
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    Samurai among Panthers
    Book Description:

    An iconic figure of the Asian American movement, Richard Aoki (1938-2009) was also, as the most prominent non-Black member of the Black Panther Party, a key architect of Afro-Asian solidarity in the 1960s and '70s. His life story exposes the personal side of political activism as it illuminates the history of ethnic nationalism and radical internationalism in America.

    A reflection of this interconnection,Samurai among Panthersweaves together two narratives: Aoki's dramatic first-person chronicle and an interpretive history by a leading scholar of the Asian American movement, Diane C. Fujino. Aoki's candid account of himself takes us from his early years in Japanese American internment camps to his political education on the streets of Oakland, to his emergence in the Black Panther Party. As his story unfolds, we see how his parents' separation inside the camps and his father's illegal activities shaped the development of Aoki's politics. Fujino situates his life within the context of twentieth-century history-World War II, the Cold War, and the protests of the 1960s. She demonstrates how activism is both an accidental and an intentional endeavor and how a militant activist practice can also promote participatory democracy and social service.

    The result of these parallel voices and analysis inSamurai among Panthersis a complex-and sometimes contradictory-portrait of a singularly extraordinary activist and an expansion and deepening of our understanding of the history he lived.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-8036-8
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Introduction: Demystifying the Japanese Radical Cat
    (pp. xi-xxxii)

    At his memorial service in May 2009, there were signs that Richard Aoki’s image could rival that of Che Guevara—in style that is, though of course not in fame.¹ The memorial, held at UC Berkeley’s Wheeler Auditorium, began with a processional of former Black Panther Party (BPP) members holding a large painted banner that proclaimed Aoki to be a “People’s Warrior” and identified him as a “BLACK PANTHER AND TWLF MEMBER.”² A large black panther leaped out from the center of the banner, across a red star symbolizing revolution; black lettering against a light blue background echoed the colors...

  2. 1 “My Happy Childhood That I Don’t Remember”
    (pp. 1-9)

    I’ve been told that my early years, before the war, were the happiest period of my childhood. I was adored by my extended family. Yet I don’t remember it. I was born on November 20, 1938, in the year of the tiger and in the European zodiac, Scorpio. I’ve heard rumors that my birth was a bit of a surprise. My father was a big man on campus. He was, my mother’s sister Decky tells me, the only Japanese American student at UC Berkeley before the war who had his own car and I’m sure it was a sporty car....

  3. 2 “Protecting the Japanese”
    (pp. 10-26)

    December 7, 1941. I don’t recall anything about the immediate effects of Pearl Harbor, such as the radio broadcast or the panic and confusion. I learned later that on December seventh, a few thousand Japanese Americans were locked up, though they committed no crime. They all were loyal citizens—ministers, teachers, community leaders, and businesspeople. The irony of it is that those who championed the hardest for assimilation were often the first ones rounded up. Then on February 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, ordering 110,000 West Coast Japanese Americans to be interned in concentration camps.¹...

  4. 3 “Learning to Do the West Oakland Dip”
    (pp. 27-65)

    My tour of duty in the concentration camps ended in late 1945. I vividly recall the trip back to the Bay Area because my father somehow managed to score a deal. My father and his friend were to drive two military vehicles—an ambulance and a covered pickup truck—from Topaz to the Bay Area. This other family and their two children were in one vehicle and my father, my brother, and myself were in the other vehicle. We were going to Oakland to move in with my grandparents and my uncle Riuzo in the Aoki family house that still...

  5. 4 “I Was a Man by the Standards of the ’Hood”
    (pp. 66-96)

    So we leave West Oakland and fast-forward to Berkeley High School, where I was a conscientious student from 1954 to 1957. When I became a senior in high school, I began to think of what I would do after graduation. I hadn’t been too happy at Berkeley High School. In looking at my options upon graduating, number one, I could get a job. During high school, I did decrease my activity in “extramural fund-raising” at night, primarily so that my mother wouldn’t worry as much. I then worked as a gardener’s helper, a parking helper, a parking lot attendant, a...

  6. 5 “My Identification Went with the Aspirations of the Masses”
    (pp. 97-126)

    The year 1964 was big for me, though I didn’t realize it at the time. I was twenty-five years old and starting to settle down. My younger brother had gotten married, had a child, and decided to go to UC Berkeley, and I’m still tiptoeing through the tulips.¹ I got to get serious. By ’64, I had set up housekeeping, so my domestic life was getting fairly well settled. Although I had a good-paying union job, I didn’t see myself working in the paint factory for the next forty years. This one African American supervisor bugged me all the time,...

  7. 6 “The Greatest Political Opportunity of My Life”
    (pp. 127-167)

    My joining the Black Panther Party was about being in the right place at the right time—or the wrong place at the wrong time, depending on how you look at it.¹ Had I gone directly to [UC] Berkeley, I would have missed out on the greatest political opportunity of my career because Merritt College was a hotbed of Black nationalism.² That time was the beginning of racial polarization nationally, and at Merritt it started to be really extreme. Donald Warden’s Afro–American Association was perhaps the first Black cultural nationalist organization in the Bay Area, and it drew some...

  8. 7 “Support All Oppressed Peoples”
    (pp. 168-186)

    Here I am at Berkeley, sitting in the campus dining commons, when a woman approaches me and asks, out of the clear blue sky, if I’m politically inclined. Emma Gee and her husband, Yuji Ichioka, were working with the Peace and Freedom Party on the forthcoming elections and wanted to gather together politically conscious Orientals for a meeting at their place.¹ The first thing I thought was, Yuji Ichioka, that’s Japanese; Emma Gee, Chinese. It may sound surprising that the existence of an interethnic couple was unusual in the sixties, but it was. So I went to their apartment to...

  9. 8 “It Was about Taking Care of the Collective”
    (pp. 187-213)

    Students at Berkeley were active for months before the Third World Liberation Front strike began. The African American students had been negotiating for almost a year for a Black Studies program.¹ The Latinos were pushing the university to boycott grapes, in support of the farmworkers’ struggles.² At the time, there were many Filipino farmworkers working alongside Chicanos in the fields of California. In the Asian American Political Alliance, the Filipino section was all over that issue. AAPA too had been negotiating with the university for its first ever Asian American Studies class. The African Americans set the tone: “We’ve been...

  10. 9 “A Community-Oriented Academic Unit”
    (pp. 214-229)

    After the strike ended, we had the task of setting up the Department of Ethnic Studies and the four divisions within it: Asian, Black, La Raza, and Native American Studies.¹ AAPA had taken the leading role among Asian Americans in the TWLF strike and now took the leading role in creating Asian American Studies. AAPA’s two main goals, as I saw it, were to create “a community-oriented academic unit” and to do so with maximum “autonomy.”² So now we had a big crisis. Who’s going to run AAS? We understood that somebody with a professorial rank had to be in...

  11. 10 “An Advocate for the Students”
    (pp. 230-257)

    I’m sitting in my office at UC Berkeley when a half dozen Merritt College students come to see me. This is around 1970. They wanted me to set up Asian American Studies at Merritt College, but my plate’s full at Berkeley. So I said, “Let’s do it this way. I’ll teach one course and make it equivalent to the Introduction to Asian American Studies at Berkeley to make sure it’s transferable.” Students could then develop a plan for an Asian American Studies department. To teach at a community college in those days, you had to get credentials, so I filled...

  12. 11 “At Least I Was There”
    (pp. 258-274)

    Huey was murdered in August 1989 on the streets of Oakland.¹ His death was personally a very crushing blow to me. Even though Huey and I had drifted apart, we still occasionally crossed paths. It was painful seeing Huey in that period because his descent into the drug world was rather shocking. It was shocking because I respected him so much and because it was so public. One time, we ran into each other at the annual Black Filmmakers Festival at the Paramount Theater in Oakland, a real posh place. As my date and I were leaving, Huey and his...

  13. Epilogue: Reflecting on a Movement Icon
    (pp. 275-294)

    A processional of old guard Black Panther Party members marched down the aisle of Wheeler Auditorium on the UC Berkeley campus. While their graying hair betrayed their age, they carried the spirit of the party in the large banner they held featuring a black panther over a red star, pronouncing Richard Aoki to be a “People’s Warrior,” and in the black leather jackets, light blue shirts, and black berets they wore. Thus began the weekend filled with memorial services for Richard Aoki. More than five hundred people attended this service on Saturday, May 2, 2009, in UC Berkeley’s largest auditorium....