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[ACTIVISM] Inspired by Malcolm X, Asian American activist makes her own history

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  • eugenia_beh
    Oakland: Inspired by Malcolm X, Asian American activist makes her own history Annie Nakao, SF Chronicle Staff Writer Friday, September 9, 2005 She s 84 and
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 9, 2005
      Oakland: Inspired by Malcolm X, Asian American activist makes her own

      Annie Nakao, SF Chronicle Staff Writer

      Friday, September 9, 2005

      She's 84 and once in a while, she has trouble remembering a detail or
      two. But for Oakland resident Yuri Kochiyama, one memory remains
      unclouded: the day she met Malcolm X.

      "...Malcolm looked up and seemed to be looking right at me. He was
      probably wondering, 'Who is this old lady, and Asian at that.' I
      stepped forward and called out, 'Can I shake your hand?' He looked at
      me and demanded, 'What for?' I stammered back, 'I want to congratulate
      you.' And he asked, 'For what?' I was trying to think of what to say
      and said, 'For what you're doing for your people.' 'What's that?' he
      queried. 'For giving them direction.' He abruptly burst forth with
      that fantastic Malcolm smile and extended his hand. I grabbed it."

      Kochiyama's first encounter with the man who was to inspire her
      lifetime of activism is described in "Yuri Kochiyama, Heartbeat of
      Struggle," (University of Minnesota Press, $19.95) written by Diane C.
      Fujino, an associate professor of Asian American Studies at UC Santa
      Barbara. It is the first American biography of one of the most
      prominent Asian American activists in the country, whose work on
      behalf of radical political and social causes took root in Harlem more
      than 40 years and continues today.

      "Most people make life; some people make history," Fujino said from
      Santa Barbara. "Yuri organized her life around making history. I think
      of her as a very ordinary person, who's done extraordinary things."

      Fujino and Kochiyama will be at UC Berkeley's Heller Lounge on
      Saturday at an event hosted by the Asian American Studies department
      and Asian Pacific Student Development, and Eastwind Books of Berkeley.

      While Kochiyama's name may not spark instant recognition, four decades
      ago she became part of a dramatic moment in history as she knelt on
      the stage of Harlem's Audubon Ballroom, cradling Malcolm X in her arms
      as he died of assassins' bullets.

      "He was only 39 years old," recalls Kochiyama, who was in the audience
      that day.

      Despite a debilitating 1997 stroke that has slowed, but not stopped
      her work, Kochiyama remains a committed revolutionary. Barely 5 feet
      tall, she hardly takes up much of her tiny studio apartment at the San
      Pablo, a downtown senior residence. A halo of wiry gray hair framing
      her slender face, Kochiyama clutches a pen and pad on her lap as she
      talks, so as not to miss anything important.

      All around her are file cabinets, bookshelves, stacks of rubber-banded
      letters from prison inmates all over the country, cardboard boxes of
      papers, a computer, fax and copier -- accoutrements in her continuing
      efforts to keep "the Movement" alive.

      "I can't walk any more," she says. "So the only prisoner I'm visiting
      is close by -- Marilyn Buck."

      Buck, who is serving an 80-year sentence in a federal prison in Dublin
      for her involvement with the Black Liberation Movement, is only one of
      many prisoners to whom Kochiyama writes.

      "Do you know there are 2 million people in prison in America?" she
      asks in slow, deliberate speech. "That's almost a country. The
      treatment of prisoners is so bad that Abu Ghraib has nothing on places
      like Corcoran and San Quentin."

      Kochiyama moved to Oakland from New York in 1999 for health reasons
      and to be closer to two of her children, who live in the East Bay. But
      she didn't leave her politics behind.

      On her walls are plastered her credentials of decades of radical
      liberation politics: portraits of Death Row inmate Mumia Abu Jamal,
      assassinated African nationalist and former Congolese Prime Minister
      Patrice Lumumba and South African anti-apartheid martyr Steve Biko,
      bumper stickers that proclaim, "Free Palestine" and "Impeach Bush,"
      and "Police Brutality Didn't Die on 9-11," a Che Guevara clock, a
      poster of "Women of Color Against War," and, of course, pictures of
      Malcolm X.

      "I dare not think about what would have happened if I hadn't met
      Malcolm," Kochiyama says. "I was totally apolitical when I was
      younger. I didn't even like to read."

      Kochiyama's unconventional life -- a mother of six who took to
      revolutionary causes, brought her children to protests and was
      arrested for occupying the Statue of Liberty -- would make plenty of
      fodder for a book. But as one of the few Asian Americans who, early
      on, forged deep bonds with blacks in some of their most important
      struggles for equality, she is also admired and revered as a mentor to
      young activists.

      "To Yuri, one of the major problems in society is polarization; the
      other is racism," Fujino writes "Opposing polarization takes on
      greater significance when one believes, as does Yuri, that social
      change comes through collective action."

      Fujino's book, together with Kochiyama's recent memoir, "Passing It
      On," published by UCLA's Asian American Studies Center Press, shine a
      rare light on Kochiyama, who still remains relatively unknown.

      Fujino's exhaustive account traces Kochiyama's transformation from a
      California nisei, or second-generation Japanese American who
      experiences the Japanese American internment of World War II, to a
      busy mother in Harlem who begins to awaken to social injustice and
      racism, and to mature womanhood, when she is inspired by Malcolm X's
      vision for black self-determination.

      It was an unlikely path for Kochiyama, who grew up in San Pedro, a
      small coastal town south of Los Angeles. Her parents were
      well-educated immigrants. Her father owned a successful fish store,
      and she and two brothers were raised in a custom-built house in the
      white section of town.

      Mary Yuriko Nakahara, as she was then known, was popular -- she and
      twin brother Peter were school class officers. Full of energy, she
      loved teaching Sunday school, organized drives for the poor and even
      started writing about sports for the San Pedro News-Pilot.

      This life was shattered after Pearl Harbor, when her father, a
      well-known community leader, was arrested and imprisoned briefly. The
      elder Nakahara, who had just undergone ulcer surgery before his
      arrest, died shortly after being released. The family, along with
      120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, most of them American citizens
      like the Kochiyama children, were then forced into internment camps
      during the war.

      The trauma of internment and her father's death would be themes in
      Kochiyama's later activism. But back then, Fujino observes, Kochiyama
      appeared optimistic, even "Pollyanna-ish" as the family did their best
      to adjust to camp life.

      "Today, Yuri Kochiyama is regarded as one of the most prominent Asian
      American activists to emerge from the 1960s," Fujino writes. "But at
      the time of her father's death, she was apolitical, provincial, naive
      and ultrapatriotic."

      At camp, Kochiyama met and fell in love with a handsome nisei from New
      York, Bill Kochiyama, who served with the legendary, all nisei 442nd
      Regimental Combat Team. Continuing her community service, the
      energetic Kochiyama began a letter-writing campaign so nisei soldiers,
      including her fiance, could get notes from home. She later ran a USO
      in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, for nisei GIs from Hawaii and the mainland.

      After marrying and settling in New York City, the Kochiyamas began
      raising a family. But soon, their little apartment became "Grand
      Central Station" for visiting former nisei GIs and San Pedro friends.
      The family's "Christmas Cheer" newsletter went to about 3,000 people.

      When a larger apartment opened up at the Manhattanville housing
      projects in Harlem, they jumped at the chance. The move would put them
      squarely in the cultural brew of the 1960s, with its fight for better
      schools and jobs, and a nascent black nationalist movement that
      Kochiyama soon became immersed in.

      As an Asian among blacks, she was always sensitive of her place,
      working more as a facilitator and supporter. Her genius was
      networking, and as many leaders began being arrested in FBI
      crackdowns, she became the point person for those arrested, as well as
      those released from prison.

      "... our first call went to WA6-7412," recalls activist Mutulu Shakur
      in the book, rattling off Kochiyama's phone number from memory 30
      years later. "Anybody getting arrested, no matter black, Puerto Rican,
      or whatever, our first call was to her number. Her network was like no

      The "K-kids," as Kochiyama's children called themselves, had an
      unusual family life. The older ones protested, often alongside their
      mom. Kochiyama lost two children in tragically early deaths, one by
      suicide, and the other in a car accident. Husband and helpmate, Bill,
      who found his own activist voice in the Asian American Movement, died
      in 1993.

      Neither he nor his children ever knew who would be at their house, as
      members of SNCC, CORE, the Black Panthers and the Revolutionary Action
      Movement, along with anybody else who needed help, would show up.

      One evening, Malcolm X arrived to meet some Japanese journalists,
      atomic bomb survivors who wanted to meet him more than "anyone else in

      Kochiyama's relationship with the black leader, who met her only 16
      months before he died, is often mythologized by admirers, Fujino says.
      What isn't exaggerated is his pivotal influence on her life as an

      Kochiyama's relationship with the iconic black leader, Fujino notes,
      also reflects the potential of bonds that cross racial lines.

      "Malcolm X used to admonish: Study history," Kochiyama says in the
      book. "Learn about yourselves and others. There's more commonality in
      all of our lives than we think."

      Yuri Kochiyama and Diane Fujino are scheduled to appear at 2 p.m.
      Saturday at Heller Lounge in the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union
      Building on the UC Berkeley campus, Bancroft Street and Telegraph
      Avenue. Call Eastwind Books at (510) 548-2350 or e-mail books@e...

      E-mail Annie Nakao at anakao@s...

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