Blog September 29, 2020

What Does It Mean to Be an American?: A Web-based Curriculum Toolkit

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What Does It Mean to Be an American?; image courtesy Mineta Legacy Project

For several years, I had been anticipating September 2, 2020—the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II—to be a momentous day. And, with the approach of the 75th anniversary of the permanent closing on November 28, 1945 of the Poston Relocation Center, the concentration camp that detained my family during World War II, I also anticipated that 2020 would be a time of reflection on the question, “What does it mean to be an American?”

In 1942, approximately 120,000 people of Japanese descent—approximately two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens—primarily along the West Coast were incarcerated by their country, the United States. My grandparents and parents were among them. They were sharecroppers in Salinas, California, prior to the Pearl Harbor attack and following Executive Order 9066, which was signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on February 19, 1942, they were forced to leave their homes and move to the Salinas Assembly Center, which was hastily built on the Salinas fairgrounds and racetracks. A few months later on the Fourth of July, they were sent to the Poston Relocation Center, Arizona, one of the ten permanent concentration camps for Japanese Americans.

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Hachiro Mukai grave, Epinal American Cemetery, Dianozé, France; photo courtesy American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC), Virginie Beniot-Erhard
From behind barbed wire and guard towers, hundreds volunteered or were drafted to serve in the U.S. Army. Several of my relatives served in the U.S. Army’s segregated 442nd Infantry Regiment, which was composed almost entirely of second-generation Japanese Americans. “Go For Broke”—risk everything in an all-out effort—was its motto. One of them, Hachiro Mukai, was killed in action on October 22, 1944. Because his family was incarcerated and could not have a proper burial at their family gravesite in California, they decided to have him buried in the Epinal American Cemetery, France. Another relative, Shinichi Mukai, survived and shared searing stories with me about the irony of being drafted out of a concentration camp, training in Mississippi and not knowing if he should enter “White” or “Colored” entrances, and fighting bigotry in Europe.


This month, in addition to reading about solemn ceremonies marking the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, I read “Trump: Americans Who Died in War Are ‘Losers’ and ‘Suckers’,” in The Atlantic, September 3, 2020, with difficulty as I thought about Hachiro and others who had given the ultimate sacrifice and their Gold Star Families. Through Shinichi, I know that Hachiro and the other Japanese American soldiers wanted to prove that they were every bit as American as anyone else. As a high school student from 1968 to 1972, I struggled with accepting what my family had endured during World War II in part because my high school U.S. history textbook mentioned nothing of their experience, as my family was not part of the “master narrative” of U.S. history.

I had anticipated that the 75th anniversary of the end of the war would prompt unity and reflections on how far we have come as a nation in terms of embracing diversity. Instead, I will remember 2020 as one of the most divisive years in my lifetime. My hope is that the free educational web-based curriculum toolkit—“What Does It Mean to Be an American?”—will help us in a modest way to move toward “a more perfect Union.” Authored by SPICE’s Rylan Sekiguchi for use at the high school and college levels, the curriculum examines what it means to be American. The website was developed by the Mineta Legacy Project’s Dianne Fukami, Debra Nakatomi, and Amy Watanabe in partnership with SPICE. Inspired by the life and career of Secretary Norman Y. Mineta, the six themed lessons are: Immigration, Civil Liberties & Equity, Civic Engagement, Justice & Reconciliation, Leadership, and U.S.–Japan Relations. Mineta, as a 10-year-old boy, was incarcerated with his family at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center, Wyoming, one of the ten permanent concentration camps. In the video “Bridging Two Countries: Norman Y. Mineta,” Mineta notes the following when asked why he wears an American flag pin on his lapel.

I still get treated like a foreigner and feel that… Am I really being fully accepted as an American citizen?… and so I want to make sure everyone knows I am one.
Secretary Norman Y. Mineta

The six standards-aligned lessons use primary source materials, interactive exercises, and personal videos that connect to students’ lives and showcase a diverse range of American voices—from young adults to former U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush whose replies to “What does it mean to be an American?” are highlighted here.

Well, we’re debating that now again. It’s almost like right after the Civil War. We’re debating, “Should we restrict the franchise or expand it?”
President Bill Clinton
It means that we value and cherish the right for people to express their will in the public square without recrimination. It means that we believe in freedom.
President George W. Bush

The curriculum is designed to encourage critical thinking through class activities and discussions and introduce new voices and perspectives on issues that are as relevant today as they have been for much of America’s past. One of the most compelling videos focuses on “What Does It Mean to Be a Young Black Man in America?,” which prompted me to reflect on Shinichi’s encounter in Europe with the segregated 92nd Infantry Division, composed of African Americans, who along with the 442nd helped to break through the Gothic Line, the final main German defensive line in northern Italy. My hope is that young students today—when considering civil liberties-related issues—will also remember the sacrifices of those before them.

There are three objectives of the curriculum. The first is to empower educators to foster student inquiry around the question “What does it mean to be an American?” The second is to help educators discover how best to leverage the resource for their own classrooms. We hope that teachers will reflect on the toolkit vis-à-vis specific curricular needs and assess its optimal integration into their existing practice. The third is to have students consider the importance of the six themes in their lives and to know that they too have important voices in the shaping of what it means to be an American.

I wish that my high school U.S. history teacher had introduced curriculum like this to me. To learn, for example, that the 442nd Infantry Regiment had become the most decorated unit in U.S. military history for its size and length of service—including 21 Medals of Honor and eight Presidential Unit Citations—would have given Hachiro a voice in the curriculum. Many Americans like Hachiro remain buried in Europe. Each year, French people, whose towns were liberated by the 442nd, kindly pay their respects at Hachiro’s grave. I hope that future U.S. presidents will visit cemeteries like the Epinal American Cemetery as well.

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