New Scholarly Book of Interest: Concentration Camps on the Home Front: Japanese Americans in the House of Jim Crow

This book sounds fascinating for a couple of reasons. “Concentration Camps on the Home Front” by John Howard (University of Chicago Press) is not only the story of some 20,000 Japanese internees held in Arkansas during World War II; it is also the story of Earl Finch. This “lanky white Mississippian” was quite unusual for his time:

“He was the Christian servant, a disciplined Southern Baptist who followed Jesus’ parable on eternal life: he fed the hungry; he visited the sick; he went to those in prison; he welcomed the strangers. The strangers to the Deep South during World War II, those most in need, as Earl Finch saw it, were Americans of Japanese descent. Finch’s altruism was focused on the victims of U.S. concentration camps, the 120,000 Japanese American citizens and longtime residents forced from their homes on the West Coast and indiscriminately incarcerated in the interior, particularly those locked up in the two camps in nearby Arkansas. And he was especially concerned with the second-generation (or Nisei) men who, despite all this, had volunteered to serve in the war effort, those soldiers training in the segregated 442nd Regimental Combat Team at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, just down the road from Finch’s hometown.”

As it turns out, “Earl Finch’s involvements with the 442nd were not merely financial but also social, perhaps sexual.” As you may recall, head of the FBI J. Edgar Hoover had a deep and abiding interest in everyone’s sex life, especially as it could be held for ransom to use later on. Yet no one the FBI interrogated could get interested in harming Earl. As the author notes:

“Indeed, as I’ve shown elsewhere, rural queers successfully negotiated an environment of quiet accommodation not so much because they were invisible or undercover; but rather—to repeat the words of Finch’s neighbors—because they were known. Embedded in local communities, bound by relations of kinship and familiarity, sexual nonconformists often were known as queer but not as subversive. Because their queerness was known or assumed, it could thereby safely be disregarded.”

The author makes the fascinating observation:

“If early twenty-first-century theories privilege the metropolis as the key site of queer sexualities, similarly many mid-twentieth-century representations cast the city as the logical home for sexual difference. For rural Americans negotiating their own sexual and gender nonconforming desires, behaviors, and identities, such biases of understanding could be manipulated to circumvent oppressive forces and carve out enabling social and physical spaces. In his dealings with locals and in his interviews with the press, Earl Finch seemed particularly adept at such negotiation.”

With a history that combines the politics of the “other” from three different perspectives, it is bound to be an interesting book. For counterpoint, you might also want to check out another new scholarly book: Soldiers of Conscience: Japanese-American Military Registers in World War II by Sharley Castelnuovo (Praeger Publishers) which discusses the 200-some Japanese-American draftees who refused to serve in the army while their families were being held in American concentration camps.


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