Review: They Called Us Enemy

They Called Us Enemy, George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott. Illustrator: Harmony Becker. Marietta, GA: Top Shelf Productions, 2019.

Summary: A graphic non-fiction account of the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War 2, through the experience of George Takei and his family.

They were American citizens and legal resident aliens. Many of the children had been born in the United States. They lived on the West Coast of the United States when Pearl Harbor was attacked by surprise on December 7, 1941. In the following year over one hundred thousand were removed from their homes to internment camps. They lost their businesses, homes, and any possessions they could not carry. They had not committed any crime, nor been subject to any trial. None of this mattered. They were people of Japanese descent and considered a threat.

One of the children who lived through this experience was George Takei, one of the original Star Trek stars, with a distinguished list of credits on stage and screen and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. His parents met and were married in Los Angeles and owned a profitable dry-cleaning business that allowed them to buy a home. Three children followed, the oldest of whom was George. Months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a knock came at the door ordering them to pack and prepare to be transported to a camp. Their first stop was a farm, their home a former cattle stall, still smelling of cow manure. Then they were transported by train to Camp Rowher in Arkansas that would become their home for the next several years. Surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers, it became home and George’s father became block representative while his mother used the sewing machine she smuggled to make clothes for the children. It almost seemed fun at times.

Then a crisis arose. The American government, needing troops, went through the camps questioning the adults whether they would be willing to serve and to pledge their allegiance to the US alone and renounce all foreign allegiances. Takei describes the different choices Japanese made from military service to active resistance. George’s parents answered “no” to both, not being able to say “yes” to a country that had imprisoned them. Consequently, they were moved to the strictest camp at Thule Lake in Utah, and George’s mother faced deportation. Only the efforts of a persistent ACLU lawyer saved her and others in her situation. When the war ended, the question arose of whether they could safely return to Los Angeles. They did. It wasn’t easy and George encountered anti-Japanese discrimination.

The story is narrated by George, speaking at an event at Hyde Park on the 75th anniversary of Order 9066. He describes both the irony and wonder of telling the story of his internment in the home of the president who signed the order. That reflects a thread running through this narrative–the flawed but still great character of American democracy. George learned this from his father in his angry younger days. This was a country under President Ronald Reagan that formally acknowledged its wrong, and subsequently paid each interned person $20,000 in reparations. War heroes were honored It was a country where Takei could be portrayed as a strong figure on a television and movie series and have a distinguished career on stage and screen. A moving moment is when George, acting in the play Allegiance is reunited with the elderly woman who had served as his father’s secretary in the camps.

There is both truth and grace in this story and something more. Takei notes the juxtaposed Supreme Court decisions in 2018 striking down its World War 2 ruling against Fred Korematsu who had resisted relocation orders, and upholding travel restrictions banning immigration from certain countries. He portrays a country that continues to fear the “other” and discriminate against them. Will we learn from the experience of the Takei family or will we repeat it with a different group of people? This only occupies a few panels on a couple pages. Takei focuses more on narrative than polemics, leaving the reader to draw the connections.

They Called Us Enemy is a great resource for teaching this history. It is neither anti-American nor a whitewash, threading the needle between these contended spaces in our national discourse. In the words of Takei’s father: “Roosevelt pulled us out of the Depression and he did great things but he was also a fallible human being and he made a disastrous mistake that affected us calamitously. But despite all that we’ve experienced, our democracy is still the best in the world…” (p. 196). Would that more of us could speak in terms of “both-and” as George’s father does.

Review: March: Book Three

March: Book Three, John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell. Marietta, GA: Top Shelf Productions, 2016.

Summary: The culmination of this three part work, focused on the movement to obtain voting rights in Alabama and Mississippi, the March on Birmingham, and the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Book Three of March begins with the SNCC decision to focus their efforts on voting rights in Mississippi and Alabama during the election year of 1964. John Lewis has already been working along those in Selma trying to register to vote, rebuffed each day by Sheriff Clark. Bob Moses and Al Lowenstein went to Mississippi, recruiting volunteers to teach Freedom schools, resulting in the death of three volunteers driving from the north.

Resistance arises not only in the violence of the south but also the political maneuverings of the north. The SNCC’s hope was to seat a black delegation from Mississippi at the Democratic Convention. Despite powerful testimony, especially that of Fannie Lou Hamer, they are rebuffed and seats are removed so they cannot participate. Johnson lost the south anyway but won the election. Somehow, if voting rights would happen, they would have to force his hand.

After a trip to Africa where he encounters Malcolm X for the last time, he returns to the people in Selma. Marches to the courthouse end in beatings and arrests, even when the city’s black teachers show up, toothbrushes in hand, prepared to go to jail. After repeated failures, the SNCC debates whether to march to Birmingham to protest for voting rights, joining other civil rights leaders. The SNCC decides they are out. John Lewis will go alone, representing only himself. We see Lewis in his trenchcoat and jail backpack, the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the armed police blocking their way, the marchers kneeling to pray, and then the attack. Lewis was beaten senseless, believing he was seeing his own death.

King had not been present. While Lewis is in the hospital recovering from head injuries, King comes to Selma, leads a march and stops when confronted–and calls on them to turn around. Lewis was in the vanguard of “Bloody Sunday, King in front of “Turnaround Tuesday.” One senses the tension here. Lewis and others take the beatings, King gets the Nobel Prize. There was both admiration of his leadership and the ways he had demonstrated courage, and resentments that he avoided the most violent confrontations.

Subsequent hearings exposed the brutal violence and Governor Wallace’s support. Johnson refuses to placate him and initiates the legislation to pass a voting rights act with one of the most inspiring speeches Lewis had ever heard. The injunction to prevent the marchers to go to Birmingham was lifted, and the march took place. On August 6, 1965, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, striking down all the obstructive maneuvers of the Jim Crow south.

John Lewis kept marching until this year (2020). He exemplified a movement determined to fight without violence or weapons, but with the willingness to put his body on the line, suffering indignities to press for the dignity of his people. He exemplified the unflinching resolve to “march!” when others shrunk back, and the courageous quality of a leader who would not ask others to do what he would not do himself. These volumes capture not only the violence but the man–resolved and yet human–capable of being discouraged, but never giving in. John Lewis left a great gift in leaving this narrative that throbs with his passion, a rendering of history by one who helped make that history.

My reviews of the other volumes in this set:

Review: March: Book Two

March: Book Two, John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell. Marietta, GA: Top Shelf Productions, 2015.

Summary: The second part of this graphic non-fiction narrative of the Civil Rights movement from the experiences of further sit-ins and marches to the Freedom Rides, the children’s marches, and the March on Washington.

At the beginning of Book Two of March, John Lewis and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) are seeking to extend the gains they made in desegregating downtown Nashville lunch counters. They go to other restaurants and movie theaters, being met again and again with refusals, violence, and prison.

Then the first Freedom Rides of 1961 were organized. The Supreme Court had overturned segregation on buses and bus facilities. But the question was whether southern authorities would uphold or resist the decision. The Council on Racial Equality (CORE) invited John to join the efforts to test this decision. Groups of riders leave on buses from Washington, DC to Louisiana. March graphically chronicles the violence and harassment they faced, including the bus John would have been on were it not for a call back to Philadelphia. He had planned to rejoin the bus. He never got a chance. It was firebombed. Later, he is sent to Parchman farm, a former plantation and subjected to all its indignities. During one of the attacks, government agent John Siegenthaler is badly hurt when he tries to intervene.

The account then turns to the confrontation between Birmingham’s children and Bull Connor’s dogs and fire hoses. One senses in the drawings the horror and the terror of the children who face this onslaught, displayed on televisions across the country. This led to a breakthrough with the city taking steps to desegregate. But victories are punctuated with tragic setbacks like the murder of Medgar Evers.

At his time, John was called to an emergency meeting of SNCC in Atlanta, elected as its chairman, and representative among national civil rights (the Big Six) leaders in the March on Washington. The final part of the book narrates the controversy over Lewis’s hard-hitting speech draft, the discussions and edits to tone him down and his unwillingness to compromise. Finally he accedes to Philip Randolph but still gives the hardest hitting speech of the day, overshadowed by King’s “I have a dream.” The book depicts the reception afterwards at the White House and the cool response Lewis received from Kennedy: “I heard your speech.”

As in Book One, the narrative is interleaved with the inauguration ceremonies for Barack Obama including the embrace of the two and the juxtaposition of two moments at opposite ends of the Washington Mall. These inspiring moments are in turn juxtaposed with the terrible violence and hatred Lewis and so many faced.

The strength of this graphic non-fiction is that it captures both the glimpses of the dream and the awful realities of racial hatred. The drawings bring out both the noble and the ignoble. At the same time, the rendering of persons is rough, often only vaguely recognizable as the person being rendered. Nevertheless, the power of graphic portrayals is akin to the original images displayed on our televisions. The violence is set amid the noble aspirations of young marchers, some still children. The moral claim of the marchers stands in stark contrast to the brutal actions of whites who can only resort to force and distortion of the law to resist what is just. This is an effective way to teach this history!

Review: March, Book One

March: Book One, John Lewis, Andrew Aydin (co-author), Nate Powell (artist). Marietta, GA: Top Shelf Productions, 2013.

Summary: A graphic non-fiction biography of John Lewis. Book One focuses on his youth, the contact with Martin Luther King, Jr. that changed the course of his life, and his early efforts in the desegregation of lunch counters in Nashville.

We lost one of the last great civil rights leaders of the 1950’s and 1960’s with the death of Congressman John Lewis this past July. Jon Meacham recently published His Truth is Marching On on the life of John Lewis (review). In this graphic non-fiction set of three books, we hear from John Lewis himself.

Book One begins, after the scene of the confrontation on the Edmund Pettus Bridge and the brutal beating of Lewis, on January 20, 2009, the morning of the inauguration of Barack Obama. Lewis makes his way to his congressional office, preparing for his procession and seating to witness the swearing in of the first Black president. A family from Atlanta stops into his office to see the office of this famous civil rights pioneer. They receive far more, as they meet John Lewis, who narrates the course of his life.

He begins with life on his parent’s farm in Pike County Alabama, his early religious awakening and his “ministry” with his chickens. He describes the trip north with his Uncle Otis, and his discovery that racial segregation wasn’t the same in the north. He describes his passion for education, first encounters with the preaching of Martin Luther King, Jr on the radio, his opportunity to go to seminary, and discovery of the social gospel. This led to his decision to transfer to Troy State and his first meeting with Dr. King.

The next stage in his development was his training with James Lawson in the practice of non-violent resistance. He describes the workshops and the verbal and physical assaults to see if any would break under the stress. The graphic depiction of this training, and the supplement practice of that discipline helps one grasp in a new way the costliness and courage of the non-violent way. Be sure to read the instructions given every volunteer on page 97.

The beginning of their activism was to press for the desegregation of Nashville’s lunch counters. The refusals, the abuse, the beatings, and the refusal of the police to intervene are all shown. Then the arrests are followed by jail, court hearings, refusals to pay fine, and more jail. The book ends with the confrontation at city hall and the mayor’s agreement to allow the lunch counters to integrate.

Lewis represented the daring edge of the civil rights movement, refusing to heed older leading lights like Thurgood Marshall, being willing to risk life and limb to continue to non-violently protest segregation. This leads to formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC or “Snick”) with Lewis in leadership.

One comes away from reading this appreciating the deep spirituality, discipline, resolve and courage of Lewis and so many of those who marched, sat at counters, and shared beatings and jail cells with him. One also grasps the power of their courage and nonviolent resistance to unmask the dehumanizing character of racism-a story Lewis wants to pass to the next generation listening in his office.

Review: Renegade: Martin Luther, The Graphic Biography


Renegade: Martin Luther, The Graphic BiographyAndrea Grosso Ciponte (illustrator), Dacia Palmerino (text), Michael G. Parker (translator). Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2017.

Summary: A richly illustrated graphic biography of the life of Martin Luther, covering the major events of his life from boyhood to death, and the setting in which that life took place.

I’m not a graphic novel person. I’ve only reviewed one graphic novel on this blog and I was ambivalent about it. So I had my doubts when this new “graphic biography” of Martin Luther arrived for review. Add to that the spate of books on Luther on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and you had the recipe for skepticism. Instead, I have to admit that my encounter with this work was powerful, leaving me thinking about Luther’s life in a fresh way.

The artist’s palette is dominated by reds, earth tones, dark blues, grays, and black. Somehow, this worked in capturing the setting of Luther’s life–urban streets filled with rats, plague, poverty, and violent justice; castles and churches for isolated study and refuge, public disputation and conflict; sumptuously clothed churchmen and demonic figures; night-time journeys of lightning filled terror, kidnapping, scenes of slaughter from the Peasants War, and a final journey to death. This preview serves as a good sample of the graphic character and quality of the work.

The artwork and selection of episodes from Luther’s life brought a familiar story from church history to fresh life. We glimpse Luther’s strict upbringing amid the horrors of plagues and burnings at the stake, a severity of discipline and the justice of God. We trace the turmoil of a young man struggling under a sense of his own inadequacy before a righteous God, vowing to become a monk to the disappointment of his father, finding no relief in confessions, penances, journeys to Rome or counsel with Father Staupitz. We accompany him in his study of Romans at Wittenberg, until his stunning realization that the righteous lives by faith, that by faith we are made righteous.

Renegade-screen capture

Screen capture from trailer

We trace the beginnings of the Reformation to the posting of the 95 Theses in response to Father Johann Tetzel’s marketing of indulgences to build St. Peter’s Basilica. We glimpse the power of the newly invented printing press in circulating his ideas, and fomenting discontent, which must be quashed by Rome. We see the dawning realization of this monk that he is not defending Rome from excesses and errors but facing Rome’s power to excommunicate and condemn him, and his courageous statement before the Diet of Worms:

“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture or clear reason, I am bound by the biblical texts I have quoted. My conscience is captive to the Word of God. Therefore I cannot and I will not recant anything. I cannot act contrary to my conscience. So help me God! Amen.”

The artist imaginatively captures Elector Frederick’s daring ploy to secret Luther away to Wartburg Castle, the temptations he faces as he hides out in idleness, and the determination to translate the scriptures into the vernacular. Subsequently he goes free, returns to Wittenberg, and provides shelter for nuns who, influenced by Luther’s ideas, have left the convent. He marries one of these, Katharina von Bora, who basically tells him she should marry her!

What we encounter less in the histories of Luther are the Peasant’s War touched off in part by his ideas, particularly as they are extended by the radical theologian, Thomas Muntzer. Muntzer’s rallying cry, “Omnia sunt communia” (“all things in common”) fuels a violent peasant revolt leading to seizure of property, the execution of a count, and a bloody forceful suppression of the rebellion ending in the execution of Muntzer, supported by Luther who writes against their rebellion and disobedience, even while realizing how his own ideas have fueled their acts.

We also see, in the final narrative of his life, and his fatal trip to Eisleben and Mansfeld in February 1546, his increasing hostility toward the Jews, against whom he speaks in his last sermon in the town of his birth, the conclusion of negotiations with Count Albrecht to protect his family’s mining interests,  and his deathbed affirmation of faith, with his final written words, “We are all beggars, that is true.”

There are gaps, to be sure, particularly between 1530 and 1546 which are the period of consolidating this new movement of Reformation churches. It would have been delightful to have a chapter on “table talk” and Luther’s domestic life. But what this biography helpfully does is help us understand the arc of Luther’s life and the backdrop of disparities of wealth and poverty that made his ideas so volatile, beyond even his ability to control them. It highlight’s Luther’s breakthrough insight on justification by faith, and his climactic encounter at Worms.

As the book trailer for this work emphasizes, this is no “door stop” biography. But it could serve well as a means to educate a new generation on the anniversary of the Reformation about this pivotal figure and his times.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via LibraryThing. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.