By Karen Stokes
The Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Coalition of WI and Muskego community members gathered outside the Educational Services Center Building in Muskego on Monday night for a ‘Teach-in’ in support of Asian Americans and a book the Muskego-Norway school board did not approve for a high school Accelerated English 10 course.
The book, “When the Emperor Was Divine,” is a 2002 historical novel by Julie Otsuka based on her own family’s experiences. The book, winner of the American Library Association’s Alex Award and the Asian American Literary Award, tells in varying perspectives the story of a Japanese American family uprooted from its home in Berkeley, California, and sent to an internment camp in the Utah desert.
The story, told from five perspectives, Otsuka’s novel details a Japanese-American family’s experience in a WWII internment camp.
Otsuka said, “I think if you limit what can be taught to students, then you end up with a generation of students that are really ill-prepared.”
The group handed out free copies of the book, voiced support for the teachers willing to teach it and called on the approximately 100 people present to share their voices with the board.
On February 19, 1942, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japanese forces, Japanese internment camps were established during World War II by President Franklin D. Roosevelt through his Executive Order from 1942 to 1945. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese-Americans were mass incarcerated.
The last Japanese internment camp closed in March 1946. President Gerald Ford officially repealed Executive Order 9066 in 1976, and in 1988 Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act. This law gave surviving Japanese Americans $20,000 in reparations and a formal apology by President Reagan, according to nationalww2.museum.org.
The novel has been a part of high school and college curriculum for years.
Kabby Hong, the first Asian American Wisconsin Teacher of the Year, was a speaker at the rally.
“We need more of these stories in our schools, not less,” Hong said. “Books serve as both a window and mirror for kids. They serve as a window because they’re able to see the lived experiences of somebody who is different from them. Books also serve as a powerful mirror for kids to be able to see themselves in the curriculum, many for the very first time.”
Board members said their decision to not approve the book last month had nothing to do with its content, but because it was not submitted according to district policy.
A statement reads in part, “Our policy states selection of instructional materials shall not discriminate on the basis of any characteristics protected under state or federal law.
Concerns were raised about whether this policy was followed. To ensure the policy is followed, staff will reevaluate their recommendation and will start the process over to ensure a fair and non-discriminatory process be used to select a book for this class.”
The superintendent says the teacher’s committee is re-evaluating the book recommendation and restarting the process to ensure it’s fair.
The next school board meeting is in August.