Samurai Among Panthers: Richard Aoki on Race, Resistance, and a Paradoxical Life
Title: Samurai Among Panthers: Richard Aoki on Race, Resistance, and a Paradoxical Life
Author: Diane C. Fujino
Publisher: Critical American Studies, University of Minnesota Press
Book Review By Abayomi Azikiwe
This is a combined autobiography and biographical account of the life and times of Richard Aoki, a Japanese-American, who along with his parents spent time in an internment camp in the United States during World War II. The book covers an important time period in history when the civil rights, left and black power movements had a tremendous impact on the political structures of the country.
Born on November 20, 1938, Aoki was three and a half years old when his family was relocated to the Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, California, just twelve miles south of San Francisco. They were later transferred to the Topaz, Utah concentration camp.
This fact of U.S. history which is often deliberately overlooked as a key component of the war mobilization against Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7,1941, lays bare the false notions of American democracy and the myth of non-discrimination against the “ideal Asian-American community.” The strain of the internment camps led to the separation of Akoi’s parents which had a tremendous impact on his life as a youth in the aftermath of the war.
Aoki and his brother would live with his father in Utah and later in Oakland. However, another traumatic occurrence took place when his father left town when he was a teenager leading him back to living with his mother and reestablishing a relationship with her.
His mother was a working class woman who raised her sons on a salary of less than two dollars an hour during the 1950s. He grew up in the predominantly African American community in West Oakland but had strong interaction and mentorship from other males in his family including a grandfather and uncles.
He would join the military prior to finishing high school and later the reserves. He read voraciously but admits to harboring a false consciousness. When he voted for the first time in the 1960 elections it was for Richard Nixon, the Republican candidate for president.
Akoi described himself at the time as anti-communist and even read the philosophical writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. Soon afterwards he would pick up a book by Eugene Victor Debs, the socialist organizer and candidate for president during the early 20th century.
He found the writings of Debs inspiring and would then go on to study the history of the labor movement involving the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). He landed a job in a factory during this period and participated in a strike.
However, it was during the Watts Rebellion of August 1965 that he learned a lesson in both race and class politics in the United States. Akoi recounted that “I remember when Watts busted loose in 1965. I was working in this one factory where 90 percent of the three hundred people working the line were White southerners. Half of them didn’t show up for work the day after the Watts riots.” (p. 86)
Akoi goes on to say “I asked the forman, ‘We got to get the show on the road. Where the hell is everybody?’ He said, ‘Man they’re at home in Richmond or wherever in the tract homes, and they got their front doors barricaded and their guns out for that invasion coming in from Watts.’ I said, ‘There ain’t going to be no invasion coming from Watts.’”
He therefore concluded that “on the one hand, these coworkers of mine were strong union people, you know proletarian-oriented, class-conscious workers. But when it came to race, half the workers, being White southerners, were freaked out over Watts. I was stunned.”
The first organizational contact he made with the left was through the Socialist Worker’s Party (SWP) and their youth wing, the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA). Fujino through FBI documents dates his involvement with the YSA to as early as 1961 when the U.S. hostility towards Cuba was intensifying.
When he entered the University of California at Berkeley after attending Merritt Junior College, where both Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale had studied, Akoi became involved with the Vietnam Day Committee (VDC) and the Tri-continental Movement. His emphasis was on the emergent Black revolutionary movement and Third World radicalism.
Akoi had known Huey P. Newton on another level through their involvement in street activities. In September 1966, Akoi would attend a Black Nationalist conference in San Francisco which brought together a number of militant organizations.
The following month the Black Panther Party for Self Defense was formed in Oakland with Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale as the co-founders. Akoi assisted in distributing the Panther ten-point program and soon he was appointed as a captain for the establishment of a branch in Berkeley, with him being the only member.
He recounts how a group of Asian Americans came to Bobby Seale and David Hilliard requesting to join the Panthers. At the time membership was restricted to Africans.
They soon came up with the idea of forming a Panther-like organization called the Red Guards in San Francisco. The organization was a close ally of the Panther Party.
Akoi was also a leading member of the Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA) which focused on issues from a revolutionary perspective. His activities with the Panthers, the Red Guard and the AAPA would soon cause him problems with the SWP/YSA.
After delivering a report on the Black Nationalist conference to the SWP, the party wanted to reassign him to work on other issues unrelated to the national question. He rejected this suggestion and would later resign from the SWP after they expressed concerns that his activities with the African and Asian revolutionary organizations may cause difficulty for the party.
Although Akoi left the SWP with no resentments, he felt that his linking up with the Panthers was “the greatest political opportunity of my life.” In regard to the decimation of the Panthers he attributed this to the heavy repression by the FBI and police agencies, the forcing into exile and imprisonment of its key leadership, the assassinations of officials within the organization and the turn toward reformism and electoral politics by 1973.
Nonetheless, Akoi notes that “Even with these problems, I stand behind my conviction that the formation of the BPP was one of the greatest things to happen to twentieth-century America as far as the struggle for freedom, justice, and equality is concerned. It may not have been the perfect organization, but I’m amazed at its importance not only in the world but in my personal life.” (p. 160)
In 1969 his attention would be focused on the Third World Liberation Front that led the student strike at Berkeley. Out of this struggle ethnic studies, encompassing Black, Latino/as and Asian curriculums were developed.
The battle for ethnic studies was nationwide. At San Francisco State College during 1968-69, students went on strike also with the Panthers as well as other revolutionary organizations playing a pivotal role in the winning of Black Studies and other alternative curriculums within the higher education system.
Toward Asian American Studies and Youth Mentorship
Akoi would finish his graduate work and become a counselor and administrator within the California university system. He would continue to acknowledge his role in both the Black Liberation and Asian Liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s.
During the 1990s he advocated for the freedom of Mumia Abu-Jamal and other political prisoners. He would also oppose the repeal of affirmative action programs by the State of California because these gains were won through the protracted struggles of students and the African American, Latino/as and Asian American communities.
Akoi died in 2009 and this book makes a significant contribution to the literature on this important period.
Abayomi Azikiwe is the editor of Pan-African News Wire , an international electronic press service designed to foster intelligent discussion on the affairs of African people throughout the continent and the world. The press agency was founded in January of 1998 and has published thousands of articles and dispatches in newspapers, magazines, journals, research reports, blogs and websites throughout the world. The PANW represents the only daily international news source on pan-african and global affairs. To contact him, click on this link >> Email