I live in a town of about 50,000 in the Midwest, but because it’s a college town, I’m grateful to have access to unique experiences I might not otherwise encounter in a town of this size. Last night, I got to hear actor and author George Takei speak on the college campus where I work.
The Original Series is my favorite Star Trek era — a love I inherited from my dad, a long-time Trek fan. I am deeply saddened that I never got a chance to see Leonard Nimoy speak at a convention, and anytime I get a chance to see one of the Original Series actors in person, I want to take it.
This past year, William Shatner came to my regional con, Planet Comicon in Kansas City, and it was amazing to get to be in the same room as such an influential television and sci-fi icon. And when I heard the announcement that George Takei would be coming to my local university, I knew I had to get a ticket.
Takei spoke for a little over an hour, primarily about his graphic novel-style memoir, They Called Us Enemy. I have unfortunately not had an opportunity to read this book yet, but I immediately placed a hold request at my local library.
In this book, Takei shares his eyewitness account of a very dark chapter in American history, one that I am ashamed to say I did not know very much about prior to listening to Takei’s talk.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor during World War II, the U.S. president ordered that people of Japanese descent on the west coast be imprisoned in “relocation centers,” hundreds or thousands of miles from their homes. They were kept there under armed guard for years, their rights as Americans and their dignity as humans brutally stripped away.
It was sobering to hear about an event like this taking place on American soil, especially since at the exact same time people across the globe were fighting against racist atrocities committed by the Nazis.
Takei described how it felt as a young child to be taken away from his home, and for his family to lose everything: their house, their bank account, and their community. His family was made to sleep in a filthy stall that had been used for horses before being transported to a concentration camp. Japanese-Americans were forced to take “loyalty surveys” while in these concentration camps, and the ones who were drafted into the U.S. military were often used as cannon fodder for high-risk missions.
Takei also talked about how powerful it was when, many years later, the U.S. government formally apologized for this horrific violation of human rights. An apology doesn’t undo the pain and loss experienced in the past, but it is an important moment of confessing wrongdoing and offering a warning to future generations.
I feel very honored that I got a chance to hear Takei speak and to learn about a period of history I did not know much about but now feel compelled to educate myself. Takei encouraged the students in the audience to stay active in their democracy, to prevent events like what happened to him from occurring again.
Hearing Takei speak about his book gave me a renewed appreciation for the power of storytelling — both fiction and nonfiction. Sometimes I hear people dismiss fictional stories as “oh, that’s not true, so why does it matter?”
However, I believe that imagination and creativity are a core part of the human experience. After the traumatic events of his childhood, Takei went on to appear in Star Trek, a fictional world that treated people of diverse backgrounds with more respect and dignity than they often received in contemporary culture. Star Trek depicted a better world, and that has the power to inspire shifts in real-world culture.
As a well-known actor, Takei also uses his platform to share important real-life stories from history. It’s vital that we keep telling the events from our past, so we can learn from the mistakes and endeavor to build a better future.