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Carrying the Fire in the Windy City

A personal history of race and the American outdoors, from Chicago’s Red Summer to Japanese American incarceration

By Kenji Kuramitsu

Before the war, very few Japanese in diaspora called Chicago home. After Pearl Harbor, federal authorities began to surveil the city’s Nikkei residents, deeming them “suspicious” and deserving of monitoring and imprisonment. As the war wound down and the major prison camps began to close, Dillon Myer—the Director of the War Relocation Authority (WRA)—saw Chicago as an ideal location for reentry and resettlement: a place far from west coast ethnic enclaves like Los Angeles and San Francisco where former incarcerees could join assimilationist social institutions and shed their Japanese-ness, dissolving into white Americana. Postwar, Myer would go on to direct the Bureau of Indian Affairs, implementing similar tactics of disruption under the policy of Indian Termination.

When resettled Japanese arrived in Chicago, they did not know the conditions of this new climate, nor the purpose their bodies would serve in the city’s carefully-segregated ecosystem. We were not so much an apex predator as a buffer species, alien elements delicately introduced into the petri dish of a city long-wracked with redlining and restrictive covenants. Our families’ debuts were designed as convenient stopgaps, shielding white renters on the South and West sides from the black tenants whose bodies represented the plummeting of property values, the “changing of the neighborhood,” the beginning of the end.

My grandparents arrived in the city some dozen years after the war’s conclusion. In 1959, they left the island of Hawai’i, selling their Honoka’a home for flights to the American continent. My father and uncle in tow, they moved in with my grandmother’s brothers who rented an apartment in Hyde Park on the South Side. Her siblings, under Myers’ aegis, had been propelled to the Midwest at the closure of the concentration camps alongside thousands of their peers.

My grandmother Tsuyoko began teaching at an elementary school in the Woodlawn neighborhood, helping to fill a racial quota for “white” teachers in black schools. My grandfather Hawai began his studies in youth work, working part-time with the local Y. After graduation, he found a measure of pride when he was offered a position as director of a YMCA summer camp located in West Michigan. My grandfather’s new position split his time between the bucolic and the metropolitan, leading special outreach to “urban youth” in the Cabrini Green housing projects to recruit young people of color to “come to camp.”

The novel idea behind Camp Channing was to serve as a youth intervention by introducing “at-risk” black and Puerto Rican boys, pathologized by white society, to the wonders of the great outdoors. We just need to get them out of the city—the gentlemen who dreamt up the camp sighed, around gleaming tables—let them run free and swim and breathe fresh air like any other child, away from the animal cages of this concrete jungle. They could think of no one better to direct this campaign than my grandfather, a former Scout leader, athletic coach, and youth worker with an Oriental face.

Forty summers before my family’s transoceanic migration, five black youth from the South Side met for a day of adventure and play. On a thick July afternoon in 1919, Chicago sweltered. Thousands of city dwellers flocked to Lake Michigan, seeking refuge from the oppressive heat in the rolling waves. In a lakefront spot called “Hot and Cold,” named for the runoff from a nearby ice company that chilled the stirring waters, the boys set off into the lake on an improvised raft. The group may not have noticed when they began to drift away from the “neutral” zone and towards the whites-only beach area. As they floated southwards, a white man lounging in the sands spotted the group and began hurling stones. Fourteen year old Eugene Williams was swimming alongside his friends when a large rock hit its target. He slipped quickly and permanently beneath the green surface.

When Eugene’s murderer was identified to police by his friends, a white officer refused to arrest the assailant, instead confronting black residents who had begun to gather in anger. The crowd surged and the police flailed, arresting a protestor. Someone fired a revolver. The inferno had begun: a second Great Chicago Fire. The resulting riots, in which the city’s white residents systematically hunted, scorched, and demolished black life throughout the metropolis, secured Chicago’s central place in the wave of racist terror known as The Red Summer of 1919. Harlem Renaissance writer and later Chicago resident Claude McKay would dedicate his best-known poem to this scarlet saga:

If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.

Four years before my grandmother began teaching in Woodlawn, the neighborhood convulsed. A fourteen year old boy named Emmett Till was disappeared while spending the summer with relatives in Money, Mississippi, his maimed body later discovered by children fishing in the Tallahatchie River. The subsequent acquittal of Emmett’s killers shook the nation and thrust the violence of white supremacy into fuller view. As The Staple Singers recount in their ballad “Freedom Highway”:

Found dead people in the forests,
Tallahatchie river and lakes.
The whole world is wondering
What’s wrong with the United States.


It is often observed that Emmett was a city flower, bloomed in an urban north far from the brimming volume of racial codes into which black Southerners were pressed with daily violence. Yet similar social contracts and legacies existed across the north and south when it came to bounding the access of African Americans to nature. From the segregation of public parks and swimming areas against the “contamination” of black flesh, to the morphing of wilderness spaces into sites of cruel spectacle through lynching, black access to outdoor leisure has always been violently constrained under the surveillance of white society.

Eugene and Emmett’s murders at sites of historic waterfront play reveal whiteness’s ongoing claim to areas of camp and recreation, cementing the manifest mythos that this land is our land—it has always been our land, we can treat it as we please, and we can do likewise to you.

My islander family, long-accustomed to largely-unfettered access to air and sea, naturally floundered in their new home in the landlocked Midwest. But Lake Michigan and its shores provided some comforts, and late-night octopus hunts and Mauna Kea campouts soon spiraled into beach days and frequent road trips. Every weekend during the school year my grandparents made the long drive northwards, hauling gear and children, bed frames, pots, and firewood to the sprawling grounds of Camp Channing.

I learned to drive on those roads, my father tells me. Long nights, headlights in front of you, making your way through miles and miles of dark. You tried everything not to fall asleep – open the windows (no A/C), blast the music, light another cigarette, draw out the thinnest conversations.

We used to dress like Native Americans, he smiles, shaking his head. We’d take off our shirts and swell our lungs and swish lighter fluid between our cheeks and blow it out through a torch, dancing. On opening night, everyone leaned in around the fire pit, hearing the old legends. Your grandfather would weave worlds, put flesh on dry bones and I’d climb in a tree and wait for the signal. When he raised his hands and shouted “Great God Manitowa, light the fire!” for the second time I’d light the knot of old clothes, send it swinging down the wire into the wood soaked with kerosene. WHOOSH! The flames’d jump into the night! Everybody would scream and clap, sometimes fall over laughing.

As a child, tales of camp would stumble towards me on quiet car rides with my father, or when I was being put to sleep. The stories of the fires were my favorite. I could picture them most clearly: dark faces crowded around a circle, lit green by whistling flames. I could hear the sing-alongs, taste the thick smoke drifting over my clothes and hanging in my dark hair for days.

At family parties, camp would also emerge. Once the children tottered off, after bellies filled and cups rimmed with warm froth, camp nearly always appeared. Camp was a lie, an uncle says. They told us we were there for our own protection. So why were the machine guns always pointed inwards? An aunt nods. Camp was very hard for my mother, she sighs. I was born there with no father and I barely remember it. I still feel so alone. A friend that we call uncle raises his voice. My dad drank himself to death when he got out. He never got over what it did to him.

Of course the stories begin to blend in your young mind.

Camp is where your dad learned to drive, where your grandmother received letters from her brothers that arrived with every other word blacked out.

At camp you pledge allegiance to the flag, you tell tall tales and sing songs to America the beautiful—you eat in mess halls and wash dishes every night, for hours and hours until your fingers prune.

At camp you swim until your body aches, and you are always thirsty.

At camp, you stretch your limbs and look around and everybody looks just like us.

At camp, you hold hands and stay up late and peer out from gaps in the slats so far apart every night is sleeping under the stars.

After being housed in temporary “assembly centers,” frequently fashioned from fairgrounds and horse tracks, most Nikkei families were herded into one of ten major incarceration camps throughout the nation’s interior. Two of these facilities, Arizona’s Gila River and Poston camps, were built on Native American reservations, against the consent of tribal councils who formally protested by recounting the suffering of their own people under similar policies of forced removal. There are surviving photographs of the Harvest Festival Parade held at Gila River camp in the early 1940s. In them, schoolchildren form a disarming display as they march down a dusty path. They play the parts of settler and settled upon, donning lace bonnets and buckled pilgrim hats, billowing shaman’s shawls and trimmed feather headdresses. A child at the end of the procession holds a blocky sign overhead: “This Is Our Native Land.”

My own time in camp began in middle school, in rugged Wisconsin forests that felt galaxies from Chicago. Wearing our starchy uniforms, we started each morning lining up by troop, in military formation around a large flagpole, waiting for the raising of the American flag. Stand still, don’t scratch, our leaders glowered, don’t swat at the bugs or bristle or you will be dismissed last to mess hall.

At camp, we practiced making fires, coaxing laughter from dying embers, beckoning flames back to life after counselors stamped them out to help us practice conjuring such magic. At camp, we learned to swim and tread water, to run through fields with tall grass, to tell native species from invasive and poisonous ones, to always drink lots of water. A Scout had to be able to survive anywhere.

At camp, you play baseball, you duck the barbed wire, you wade deep and wave to the life guards glassy-eyed in their towers.

At camp, you hang your clothes on lines and the outside comes in and you make a home on a land whose true name you do not know.

And no matter how hard you try, the dust always covers everything.

I was too soft for the sharpness of camp, and felt trapped by the tight regimen and routine. Partway through my first week, I was wildly homesick, scraped dry by the strictures of camp life. Some thick depression gradually sent me into panics that would rise and subside several times an hour. After some debate, I packed my things and set off on a winding trail. My budding plan was to wander or hitchhike to a McDonalds several miles away, phone home, and wait there patiently until my father repeated the winding drive seven hours north to retrieve me. As I hiked up the road making my escape, a vehicle crossed a bend ahead, and I ducked into the bushes. The man in the car peered out, asked me what I was doing and told me to get in. I was delivered sobbing to the staff. When I returned to camp years later, no one remembered my name, but everyone greeted me: weren’t you the kid who ran away?

Closing campfire had bubbled from some primordial broth, beamed from an earlier dimension. Walking into the clearing, I gasped at logs and firewood stacked nearly forty feet into the air. Great gravity imbued the moment, and after an opening liturgy of very serious vows and creeds, the blaze was lit by some form of magic. I had seen this before, through my father’s eyes. The staff, this time all white, had clothed themselves in flesh they imagined extinct. Drums pounding, slathered in brown face paint and polyester feathers, they ran around the fire flailing, yelping with wide eyes, whisking away campers for selection into some secret order of honor and brotherhood. I left dizzy, head full of old ghosts and Scout legends, eyes burning with smoke and wonder.

If camp is gloss for cementing our fraudulent ownership of indigenous land, it is only natural that this fiction be garbed in the language of legend—in the gory raiment of sun gods and ravenous spirits, great wolves and glowing shells leading a young man to triumph over the fierce and feminine forces of nature.

The Hawaiian people tell the story of the god who stole fire from the ‘alae birds, teaching humankind how to kindle flames of their own—to warm, to cook, to nourish and sustain life. The creatures quickly mastered the craft, carrying the fire to other lands. Before long, the gift was distilled, digitized, its native origins obscured. Around new campfires, the Promethean gift continued to enchant. But their descendants no longer believed in the old gods. We conjured the blazes on our own, they told themselves, with buckles and bootstraps and sheer force of will.

Drunk with divine flame, we hewed new deities, ones all our own. We conscripted their myths to our service, trimmed tales that only sparked dully on wet tongues. We crushed the old languages, commissioning thin facsimiles of native speech. The camps that formed me, like my city and state, bore indigenous names that we imagined once held great power—Makajawan, Anokijig, Chicago, Illinois—the butchered words of butchered peoples, earthy syllables that tasted fibrous and strange in our plastic mouths.

As the children of settlers, many of us learn only dim histories of the original inhabitants of the places where we live, catching faint glimpses of their stories amidst otherwise ascendant curriculum. Rarely do we recognize that we ourselves are the beneficiaries of their demise—that the bones and memory of those who came before may be located directly under our feet. Upon our arrival to these shores, these stories were as hidden to my family as the tale of the Red Summer, the slaying of Emmett Till, the rupturing neighborhoods into which we were thrust with decadent malice. Yet the story of human life on this continent began several chapters before our arrival, in the long chronicle of forced labor, migrations, and concentrations, terror-backed land theft and lynchings and white flight.

While synthetic claims to indigenous sites of life and rest persist through camp and its attendant mythologies, the movement towards emancipation from the forces of fiction and confinement surges with equal measure. As we spend our lives here on stolen land, in cities and neighborhoods we do not know, the work remains to unearth and unmask those sections of the narrative that have been hidden from view. We carry the fire within us still. If we can name its true beginnings, with this living memory we may yet immolate the forces of whiteness and death.

With the consent of moneyed and liberal whites, my grandparents entered into the lives of black and Latino youth, seeking to open for them areas of education and recreation from which they had been historically barred and stripped. In the Windy City and beyond, the ongoing struggles for good schools and clean streets, for open access to safe water and leisure, continue to burn brightly.

In a settler society unable to envision meaningful possibilities beyond the carceral state, ardent calls for abolition may appear to be the summoning to a kind of death. At times, total conflagration, the loss of our bodies, seems a more likely fate than the full decolonization upon which we insist. Indeed, such has traditionally been the end of many who have risked greatly to play and breathe free.

Yet if we must die, let it not be like animals, hemmed into some sordid spot. Let us risk bad escapes and let us die free, burning with longing—beyond the surveillance cameras and the red lines, far from the projects and prisons, miles outside the harsh walls of Gaza and Gila River, the wire cages of Manzanar and Cook County Jail.

An anonymous writer in Poston once captured a similar sentiment in a popular poem that circulated among their fellow campers:


We seek the softness of the midnight air,
But that DAMNED FENCE in the floodlight glare
Awakens unrest in our nocturnal quest,
And mockingly laughs with vicious jest.


This story is part of a special issue of The Margins around the theme “Camp.” Look out for more essays, stories, and poems in the issue in the coming weeks.