Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941, a day President Roosevelt said would “live in infamy.” And for that generation it did. It was their “I remember where I was” moment, the event that changed their lives forever. We memorialize world-changing events with “Never forget!”s. But in time the way we memorialize them changes.
And that, I believe, is the worthier legacy.
When I was in elementary school, two kids whose Japanese-American fathers had proudly served as GIs, were bullied as “J-ps.” Nothing about those actions honored the memory of Pearl Harbor Day. In fact, they dishonored it.
Many years later, Pat Morita, the Japanese-American comedian (beloved as Mr. Miyagi in the original Karate Kid movie) was booked to perform at a naval officer’s club in Honolulu. Shortly before he walked on, he realized it was December 7th. Deciding it would be better to acknowledge the obvious, he opened with the line, “Sorry about messing up your harbor.” There was a moment of terrifying silence, followed by the biggest laugh he’d ever received. Why?
The officers hadn’t lost respect, they’d gained perspective. Pat, who was American-born, had been “relocated” with his family during the paranoia that followed Pearl Harbor to a Japanese-American internment camp. Now, after decades of healing and good relations with Japan, and in recognition of Pat Morita’s own mistreatment, he and the officers were laughing together.
America’s modern “I remember” moment is the soul-searing image of the crumbling Twin Towers on 9/11/2001. We memorialize the event every year with speeches and candles. But there are also grammar school bullies who hadn’t even been born yet who harass Middle Eastern-American kids because they don’t look “American.” And as long as that happens, the legacy of 9/11 will be incomplete.
But we may be getting there. There’s a moment in the romantic comedy The Big Sick when it’s star, Pakistani-American Kumail Nanjiani, is asked what he thinks about 9/11. He takes a breath, and says, “It was a tragedy. We lost 19 of our best guys.”
I did two things when I heard the “is-it-too-soon-to-say-this?” line: 1) gasped, and 2) laughed–loudly. Not out of disrespect, but rather perspective. Nanjiani’s line is funny because of its “just because I’m brown doesn’t mean I’m a terrorist” inference. But it’s also a healing line because it allows us and the very non-terrorist Nanjiani to laugh together.
The way we memorialize our Pearl Harbor Days–and we all have them–indicates whether we are truly healing. Our remembrances should not be about what we hate, but about what we love. The posters say, “Never forget!” And indeed we should not. But let us remember not just what was. Let us remember what is, and what can be, together.
I can’t imagine a worthier legacy.