Outside Muskego High School, where educators were stopped from teaching a book about the US incarceration of Japanese Americans in WWII, over 100 residents and allies gathered Monday night to demand the school board approve the book.
Holding a “teach-in” before the Muskego-Norway School Board met Monday night, the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Coalition of Wisconsin handed out 100 copies of the novel.
The book, “When the Emperor Was Divine” by Julie Otsuka, had been chosen by a team of school staff but needed approval from a school board committee. After a June 13 school board committee meeting, staff were told to start their selection process over .
Board members have shared little about what happened at that committee meeting, which was not recorded. But emails obtained by the Journal Sentinel show there was concern that the novel focused too much on the Japanese-American experience.
The book was not on the agenda for Monday night’s board meeting and the coalition’s requests to speak at the meeting were rejected, coalition members said. Board members watching the event from afar, before their meeting, declined to speak with the Journal Sentinel.
For now, the book remains out of the curriculum for the next school year.
Community organizers are still hoping to change that, pushing a petition and working to educate as many people as possible about the importance of learning about the WWII incarceration, as well as broader histories of AAPI communities.
Coalition distributions book in Muskego
At the teach-in Monday, Muskego residents and AAPI leaders shared demands for the board: to approve the book, trust “teachers’ expertise,” recommit to the district’s social justice planand convene a staff working group to implement a resolution passed by the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, which encouraged districts to develop curriculum around the AAPI contributions to the state and country.
Ron Kuramoto, president of the Wisconsin Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, whose family was incarcerated during WWII, said the characters in Otsuka’s book represent real experiences. He said his mom’s family was forced to live in the horse stables at one of the sites, the Santa Anita racetrack.
“My mom would always talk about how you could still smell the horse manure,” he said.
After the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941, US authorities forcibly removed nearly all of the 120,000 Japanese people in the country from their homes and incarcerated them in remote areas under harsh conditions for most of the war. Two-thirds were US citizens.
A congressional commission that studied the incarceration concluded it had been based on racism, pointing out that no mass detention was ordered against German and Italian Americans.
President Ronald Reagan later officially apologized on behalf of the US government and authorized $20,000 in reparations for each internee who was still alive.
Ellie Catania, a 2021 graduate of Muskego High School, addressed the crowd and called on the board to accept the book into the curriculum.
“I fear that if left unchecked, the school board will only continue to silence important stories without regard to the public,” she said. “We cannot be complacent… While we are here today to discuss this one text, it is so much bigger than that. It is so much more dangerous than that.”
Ann Zielke, a Muskego parent who has helped raise awareness about the book, announced the formation of a community book club, with “When the Emperor Was Divine” being the first book, including a talk with the author.
The AAPI Coalition of Wisconsin also called for action at the state level. In 1989, Wisconsin lawmakers passed Act 31 requiring schools to provide education regarding American Indians, Black Americans and Hispanics.
The coalition is pushing for a new law that would require instruction on Asian American history, said MJ Wong Engel, a former teacher and current co-chair of the education committee for the AAPI Coalition of Wisconsin.
“That may have been an oversight back in 1989, but it is no longer acceptable,” Engel said.
The coalition itself formed in the face of a rise in anti-Asian sentiments and violence, tied to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
“As anti-Asian hate and violence rises in Wisconsin and across the United States, the Muskego-Norway School Board’s arbitrary decision to go against the recommendation of their teacher-led Curriculum Planning Committee for this award-winning book is alarming,” Pardeep Kaleka , Co-Chair of AAPI Coalition of Wisconsin, said in a statement.
Emails illuminate tension
The debate over the book comes as conservative school board candidates nationwide, including in Muskego, have run campaigns demanding more oversight of curriculum materials and opposing diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.
Emails show the book was chosen by educators for the high school’s Accelerated English curriculum after an extensive search.
In the process, a team of school staff read multiple options and discussed how each would align with class goals, according to an email sent by Kristi Brooks, director of student learning at the time. Their pick was read by an instructional coach, administrator, librarian and department director, followed by a larger discussion before presenting to the school board committee in May.
On May 11, board member Brett Hyde reached out to Brooks with a concern that the book was on the same subject as an excerpt used in the class from “Farewell to Manzanar.” In a later interview with the Journal Sentinel, Hyde suggested adding material about the Pearl Harbor attack.
“I know the ‘Farewell to Manzanar’ is only an excerpt, but adding a second source to a subject that has become very controversial in the past few years can be seen in a very negative light,” Hyde wrote. “Are there alternatives to this that would provide the same literary comparison?”
In response, Brooks explained that having two pieces of literature on the same topic was intended to allow students to read about it “through different genres and perspectives, so they can synthesize connections as well as draw contrasts.”
Brooks, who left the district to be assistant superintendent in Slinger in July, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
In an email June 3 to Terri Boyer, chair of the school board committee, Brooks outlined what she understood to be the “overarching concerns” with the book, from what she’d heard from a community member:
- “Both the Farewell to Manzanar (10 page excerpt) and When the Emperor was Divine are about the same topic (Japanese Internment), which feels like an overwhelming, singular focus.”
- “Both texts represent individuals from the same [Japanese-American] experience/perspective.”
- “Japanese Internment is taught in US History, so there was a question about why it needed to be explored again in English.”
In response, Boyer did not dispute Brooks’ outline of the concerns. Boyer said she was worried the book was chosen because of the identity of the author, a Japanese American.
“One of the main concerns of the committee, that has been shared more than once by myself, is that part of why the book was selected because of the race, ethnicity, gender etc…. of the author.” Boyer wrote, ellipses included. “The committee does not support limiting resource selection by race, gender etc….”
Brooks, in her email, said she saw three ways forward: they could cut the 10-page “Farewell to Manzanar” excerpt to “eliminate the extended focus on a singular topic.” Or, they could eliminate the excerpt and add an article about the bombing of Pearl Harbor to “help round out the historical event.” Finally, they could pull their request entirely and explore other options.
In response, Boyer didn’t entertain the first two options. She said Brooks could provide the third option as guidance to the board: “to pull the book and explore other options without limiting the selection pool.”
As community members caught wind of the debate and emailed board members urging them to support the book, board member Chris Buckmaster responded to an email with a “side note” about his concern about books being decided based on “political correctness.”
“This is a challenging effort given that text book companies loath to portray any person or culture in an unfavorable light for fear it will prevent their textbooks from being adopted,” Buckmaster wrote June 10. “The result is confusing books devoid of narrative, packed With disjointed information, and tremendously boring.We are vigilant in avoiding texts or curriculum that stress political correctness over analysis.”
The morning of the June 13 meeting, another board member, Tracy Blair, emailed Brooks with her own complaint: “I honestly read the book and really didn’t enjoy reading it because of how it was written.”
Brooks responded, explaining the literary rationale: “The plot/storyline is pretty flat, meaning that there isn’t a traditional bell curve with momentum, climaxes, and resolutions, so if someone is reading it for pleasure or out of context, it may not be a ‘fun’ or ‘entertaining’ read; however, that is not the purpose for this text – or this unit.”
Despite Brooks’ explanations, the book didn’t pass the committee June 13.