A Book by Its Cover


Today I read an article (Vincent Chin and Asian-American Civil Rights) that described the 1982 beating death of a young man, Vincent Chin. The article stated that two auto workers beat him to death because they “blamed him, an assimilated Chinese-American whose parents were immigrants, for the success of the Japanese auto industry and equated him with Japanese automakers.”

Stories of people being judged by the color of their skin are countless. But Vincent Chin’s story reminded me of two stories in particular. First, that Chinese Americans wore badges that said I AM CHINESE during World War II, so they would not be mistaken for Japanese in America.

Life magazine, in December 22, 1941, posted photos with an article, “How to Tell Japs from the Chinese.”

Jamie Ford’s novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, about the persecution of Japanese Americans as seen through the eyes of a Chinese American boy, touches on this discrimination.

And secondly, the major theme in The Red Kimono is the tragedy of judging by the color of someone’s skin. The inciting incident–besides World War II, of course–is when Terrence, a young African-American boy, learns his father has been killed at Pearl Harbor. Influenced by two trouble-maker friends, he decides the only thing that will make him feel better is to “get a Jap” as revenge for his father’s death.

In the following scene, Terrence and his two friends find Sachi’s and Nobu’s father, sitting in the park.

* * *

They hid behind a bush at the edge of the park and watched the Japanese man sitting on the bench. Nobody else around, except for a paper boy riding on his bike. A dog chased behind him, yipping and barking.

“Hey,” Ray whispered. “You two ready?”

Joe rubbed his nose. “Yeah, I guess. Looks like an easy enough target.”

Terrence felt a chill on the back of his neck and pulled his collar up. A memory busted into his mind. Two summers ago. He and Daddy had been waiting in a long line at the hardware store. It was hot, and he’d been swatting at a mosquito buzzing around his ear.

When they finally reached the counter, the clerk slammed the cash drawer shut and said, “You know, last week a Negro man robbed this store.” He squinted and stared at Daddy like he was already behind bars. “Looked kind of like you. ‘Course, you all look alike.”

Daddy smiled and placed a hammer and nails on the counter. “Well, it wasn’t me.”

“Sorry. This register’s closed. I’m not selling to a Negro who might be the man who robbed me. Matter of fact, you better get before I call the cops.”

Daddy nodded and left the hammer and nails. “Let’s go, Terrence.”

Terrence had wanted to hit something. Sweat trickled down his forehead. “You’re not gonna let him get away with that, are you?”

Daddy was quiet until they got in the car. He shut the door and said, “Son, it ain’t my problem if the man’s plain stupid. And if I react to it, I be just as stupid. ‘Sides. With that kind of folk ever where, I’d wear myself out.” He chuckled. “We’ll get the hammer and nails somewheres else.”

Yeah, Daddy. Look where not reacting got you. Dead!

His fevered anger had even boiled over onto memories of Daddy.

He stared at the Japanese man sitting alone on the bench, his hands folded on his lap. Yeah, an easy target.

Still, maybe beating up a Jap was, as Daddy put it, plain stupid. But hell, what was he supposed to do? He had to do something.

“Hey, Terrence. You chickening out on us?” Ray asked. “We’re doing this for you, y’know.”

The Japs killed Daddy. He couldn’t get that out of his head and it fanned his emotions like a bellows, pumping him with hatred, revenge, until he was ready to explode. No. Wondering what Daddy would think wasn’t helping him at all. Besides, it didn’t matter anymore what Daddy thought. He was gone. Dead.

“Let’s go.” He clenched his fists, keen to make contact with the skin of a Jap. His vision narrowed in on the man sitting on the bench. Nothing else mattered. Only the Jap.

The man stood up and faced them with questioning eyes.

Ray snickered. “You a Jap?”

“I am Japanese. Is there a problem? What do you want?”

Joe poked him in the chest. “We wanna get us a Jap.”

Ray grabbed the man’s coat and threw him to the ground, then kicked him once.

Now! Now! Do it for Daddy!

Everything. Everyone. All blurred together.

Kicking.

Yelling.

Spitting.

The Jap. Weakened prey. Fuel for the pack’s rabid attack.

Minutes passed. Or was it hours?

Didn’t know. Didn’t care.

He gasped for breath. Stared at the man lying on the ground, motionless.

Was he alive? Yeah. He was breathing.

Terrence was hovering at the edge of a cliff. So very dizzy. Yet, he couldn’t make himself step away from the edge.

Anger. Sadness. Rage. Emptiness. Every emotion—violent and swirling inside—pushed, pushed, until . . .

He lifted his foot. Held it for a split second. Plunged it hard into the man.

He’d gone over the edge.

He felt the sickening crush of ribs giving way to the heel of his shoe. Sour tingled on the back of his tongue. He shook all over.

He leaned over the man and gritted his teeth. Bitterness overflowed. “You. Japs. Killed. My father.”

The man stared up at him with swollen, dark eyes. “I am sorry for your loss. But . . . I . . . am not . . . a Jap.”

Terrence panted. Fast. Shallow. Bile rose in his throat. A million thoughts raged in his head.

Daddy didn’t rob that store and this man’s not the Jap who killed my Daddy you all look alike we all look alike.

“Stop it! Stop!” The cry came from the playground.

Terrence blinked hard and looked around. He was cold again. The winter wind chilled through his sweat-soaked clothes. Ray and Joe were laughing. Slapping each other on the back. The man from the bench was on the ground. Moaning. Too loud. Blood. Red blood. On the man’s face. On the ground. On Terrence’s shoe.

“Stop! Leave him alone!”

Where did the cry come from? The swings? No. He turned to see a little girl coming off the slide. A Japanese girl.

“Stop! Please, stop!” she cried, running toward them.

He grabbed at Ray and Joe. “Okay! Okay! That’s enough. Let’s get outta here!”

But Ray kept kicking the man. His head. His stomach. He’d gone wild, frenzy in his eyes.

“That’ll teach you and your people a lesson,” Joe said, patting Ray on the back.

Terrence pleaded again. “Come on! We gotta go! You’re gonna kill him!” He ran away when the little girl approached.

“Papa!”

That’s her daddy.

He looked back and caught a glimpse of the girl’s tear-filled eyes.

A split-second. Forever.

He ran faster, harder; trying to escape what he’d done, knowing he never would.

Ray and Joe followed at last.

Someone yelled from the sidewalk behind them. “What have you done?”

Terrence stopped running and turned back again. Nobu?

His friend’s voice haunted. “Why would you do this to my father?”

Nobu’s father?

The world buzzed and turned gray again.

Daddy was dead, and the only thing left were his words, ringing in his head: just plain stupid.

He turned the corner for home. Did he feel better now? Hell, no.

God help me. God forgive me. Hell, there ain’t no God. No God.

This entry was posted in Excerpt, Prejudice, The Red Kimono and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to A Book by Its Cover

  1. Wow. This is powerful stuff. Today, when the whole country seems unable to meet in the middle and agree on anything, when the need to demonize those with whom with disagree is so prevalent, now, more than ever, we must remember the lessons of history.

    • janmorrill says:

      You make an excellent point, Pam. I think sometimes we forget about the terrible things we have done. It’s a very slippery slope, and now, perhaps more than ever, it’s important to remember.

  2. Whew, I got caught up in that scene! I liked how you got inside Terrence’s head, showing the back and forth pull of emotions until the rage bubbled over. And still the knowledge that he was wrong to do it.

  3. Pingback: Monday Morning Mashup: 06/25/12 | Jan Morrill Writes

  4. Good morning Jan, you are so clever in tying in daily happenings with scenes from your wonderful book, The Red Kimono. I really like your blogs.

  5. Good morning Jan, you are so clever at typing in timely stories with your book, The Red Kimono. Your blogs are outstanding.

    • janmorrill says:

      Thank you for your kind comment, Velda. I take that as a huge compliment from you. 🙂
      I’m learning a lot, even as I gather family stories to share with this blog.

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