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