Last issue I wrote about working with students on reading political cartoons as primary sources, but you may have noticed that both of the political cartoons I chose were recent ones, drawn in the last few years and focused on issues that current students would recognize. I chose them because they’d be “easy,” which is to say, enough students would get them quickly enough that we could focus on the mechanics of reading and interpreting work in a medium (comics/cartoons) that most students have never studied.
That’s kind of a stretch for talking about primary sources, though, isn’t it? Usually when we talk about primary and secondary sources we’re learning (or teaching) about history, some event or time period from long ago. I can ask my students to think about what people in the future might learn from our contemporary comics — how, for those future people, they could be primary sources — but that’s a pretty big imaginative leap, especially considering how much we take our own time and culture for granted.
That’s where the second lesson in this mini unit comes in: we start off once again with a modern comic, Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese, but then we use it to help us consider a primary source political cartoon from the era of World War II and the internment camps for Japanese Americans. And while the first lesson had two key points, this lesson really boils down to one: how we draw (or otherwise represent) people matters.
We start by reading through several pages from American Born Chinese as a class: I project them on the board, one spread at a time, and ask the students what they notice. For some pages I’ll specifically ask them what’s different from the previous spread we looked at, or focus on some aspect of how Yang conveys information (for example, putting brackets around dialogue that characters would actually be saying in Chinese). The main thing I want them to notice, though, is how the characters are drawn. I’m going to quote a couple of pages so you can see what I mean.
I start with this page because I want students to see how different these characters look from each other. In each panel we have four boys, all Chinese American and all about the same age, and they are easy to tell apart. They have different faces, different hairstyles, different outfits — they are drawn as four distinct individuals.
After we’ve read through several more spreads, though, I show them part of another storyline in the book, including this page:
For those of you who haven’t read American Born Chinese yet, this is Chin-Kee, an embarrassing, larger-than-life racist caricature who is meant to make readers as uncomfortable as he makes his cousin Danny. Unlike the boys in the first image I quoted, who are drawn with tan skin, Chin-Kee’s skin is distinctly yellow. His eyes are squinted shut. He has huge front teeth. More than one student has suggested he looks like a chipmunk. He speaks with a stereotyped rather than a realistic accent. And of course, his name is a variation on a racial slur.
Because students have already seen other Asian characters (both Chinese American and Japanese American) from the same comic, they know that Chin-Kee does not need to be drawn this way. We discuss the fact that he’s an exaggeration, a caricature: not only is he literally larger than other characters, but of the three storylines that come together at the end of the book, this is the only one presented as a sitcom, complete with laugh track and applause written across the bottoms of the panels. Unlike the caricature of the young woman in our first lesson, though, this caricature is hurtful.
Then I show students the following political cartoon:
One of the first things I tell students about this political cartoon is that it’s from 1942, and one of the first questions I ask them is: who do these people look like? Do they look like Jin and his friends in the first page I quoted above? Or do they look like Chin-Kee? From there we can also discuss setting (west coast of the United States), what the characters are doing (handing out/receiving explosives), and what they think the caption at the top means, particularly the implication that these caricatured Asian Americans do not consider the United States their home.
After that the conversation depends in part on how much students already know about Japanese American internment during World War II, though often I’ll have at least one or two students who can offer an initial overview. Mostly I try to help students make the connection between how Dr. Seuss chose to represent a group of people (Japanese Americans) and how our country collectively chose to treat that same group of people, and to think about how this political cartoon can help us understand the social atmosphere that would lead people to believe that the internment camps were a good idea.
There’s one other reason I like to use this particular political cartoon, and that’s the artist. Often I don’t even have to bring this up because a student will notice it first, but this was drawn by the beloved Dr. Seuss. I find it heartening how disappointed students are when they realize this, but I think it’s a great opportunity to discuss the fact that even people we admire and who make good points in some situations can be wrong in other situations.
Dr. Seuss. “Waiting for the Signal From Home . . .” Cartoon. Paperless Archives. BAC Marketing, n.d. Web. 4 April 2015. <http://www.paperlessarchives.com/ wwii_dr_seuss_cartoons.html>.
Yang, Gene Luen. American Born Chinese. New York: First Second, 2006. Print.
Emily Tersoff is the librarian at the Norwell Middle School