Taking Away the Children

From “Eliza Harris” by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

With her step on the ice, and her arm on her child,

The danger was fearful, the pathway was wild;

But, aided by Heaven, she gained a free shore,

Where the friends of humanity open’d their door.

From Laura Tohe’s “Introduction: Letter to General Pratt

“Your quotation, ‘Kill the Indian, save the man,’ binds you to the attitudes … that would subject Indian people to cultural genocide. . . . I voice this letter to you now because I speak for me, no longer invisible, and no longer relegated to the quiet margins of American culture. . . . Writing is a way for me to claim my voice, my heritage, my stories, my culture, my people, and my history.”

From “Evacuation” by Mitsuye Yamada

As we boarded the bus…

the Seattle Times

photographer said



Many outraged voices over the past few days have been responding to the Trump administration’s new policy of taking children from their parents at the US border by decrying the practice as morally repugnant and fundamentally un-American. The first, I hope everyone would agree, is certainly true. The second, unfortunately, is not.

American women writers have, in fact, repeatedly resisted this recurring moral horror of state-imposed parent-child separation—whether, for instance, during slavery, as a strategy linked to the Native American assimilation movement, or in connection with the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. Turning to these examples reminds us that such evil has a habit of recurring when we, as citizens, fail to inform ourselves about such cases within a moral rather than merely a political context and then combine our voices in opposition.

Stowe Decrying Slavery’s Inhumanity

Harriet Beecher Stowe hoped that the bond between parents and their children was so sacred that she could successfully invoke that tie in Uncle Tom’s Cabin when trying to convince her readers to oppose slavery. In an oft-revisited plotline in her bestselling novel, Eliza, a slave mother, flees with her son from their home in Kentucky when she learns that young Harry is about to be sold. Separating parents from their children was hardly a rare practice for the US slavery system. But Stowe understood that some Northerners who had been able to maintain a safe sense of their own moral immunity from directly supporting slavery were in new territory with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850. Hence the Eliza-Harry plotline.


After somehow managing to cross the teeming river that divides the slave South from the “free” North at the Kentucky-Ohio border, Eliza and Harry are in imminent danger of being sent back to permanent separation. The new law requires anyone who finds them to help “owners” reclaim slaves trying to escape. As luck would have it, the home Eliza approaches after climbing the riverbank border belongs to a US Senator and his wife. In her chapter 9, “In which it appears that a Senator is But a Man” chapter, Stowe addresses head-on the moral conundrum of Northerners who oppose slavery, but who are now legally required to support it. Her mouthpiece is the Senator’s wife, Mary, whose arguments promoting moral justice over official legal law win the day—both with the initially-unsure politician and, evidently, many of Stowe’s original readers.

Early in the chapter, the Senator counsels his wife on the subject: “Your feelings are all quite right, dear—and interesting—and I love you for them; but, then, dear, we mustn’t suffer our feelings to run away with our judgment—you must consider it’s not a matter of private feeling—there are great public interests involved—there is such a state of public agitation rising, that we must put aside our private feelings.” Mary is unpersuaded. Citing the Bible’s moral guidance as a rationale, the Senator’s wife declares: “Now, John, I don’t know anything about politics, but I can read my Bible; and there I see that I must feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and comfort the desolate—and that Bible I mean to follow.”

Zitkala-Ša Resisting Indian Assimilation

Slavery officially ended in the US at the close of the Civil War, but the government’s implementation of policies that broke families apart did not. Facing what was then often dubbed “the Indian problem”— the question about how best to control the Native nations whose confinement to reservations had not eliminated the perceived need to further suppress them, the US government proceeded to take over the education of their youth. From the perspective of white so-called educational leaders like Richard Henry Pratt (founder of the Carlisle assimilationist boarding school that became a model for many others), the goal was to “kill the Indian to save the man.” From the viewpoint of Native parents, as David Wallace Adams noted in Education for Extinction:

For tribal elders who had witnessed the catastrophic developments of the nineteenth century—the bloody warfare, the near-extinction of the bison, the scourge of disease and starvation, the shrinking of the tribal land base, the indignities of reservation life, the invasion of missionaries and white settlers—there seemed to be no end to the cruelties perpetrated by whites. And after all this, the schools. After all this, the white man had concluded that the only way to save Indians was to destroy them, that the last great Indian war should be waged against children. They were coming for the children. (336–37)

A number of women writers of this era—as Stowe had done in response to the Fugitive Slave Law—took out their pens in protest. And no voice resonated more forcefully than that of Zitkala-Ša, a former student-turned-teacher herself, who could describe the trauma of being taken far from home to the oppressive foreign space of an Indian boarding school. In a three-part series for the Atlantic in 1900, especially in “The School Days of an Indian Girl,” she revisited her own terrifying experiences being lured by the promise of knowledge into what turned out to be a terrifying and soul-crushing captivity experience.  White, middle-class readers had been receiving a steady dose of pro-boarding-school propaganda, carefully managed by leaders like Pratt. But Zitkala-Sa’s autobiographical story-telling took Atlantic subscribers inside the experience of being punished for speaking your home language, having your hair cut off and your familiar clothes replaced with military-type garb, being assigned to a grueling schedule of manual labor blending with limited opportunities for genuine learning, and—most of all—being cut off from your home. By the time she and others finally could take a return journey back to their tribal communities, they had lost all sense of self and had no stable cultural space in which to locate.

More recently, Native leaders’ re-visitings of the boarding schools’ policy of separating youth from their parents have emphasized the long-term impact on individual children, families, and entire Indian communities. Here, as we see in some other areas of social justice leadership, the Canadian government has provided a model approach for seeking Truth and Reconciliation by working with Native peoples to shed a spotlight on the longstanding hurt, to accept responsibility, and to collaborate on fostering resilience and forgiveness supported by spirituality.

Remembering Post-Internment Trauma

Whenever I teach Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s Farewell to Manzanar (co-written with her husband James and originally published in 1974), many of my university students say they had never been taught in high school history (or literature courses, for that matter) about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Once we’ve read this narrative—or any one the multiple others now available for studying this topic—those same students often express a mix of shock, shame, and puzzlement. How could our nation have carried out such a policy? Why were Japanese Americans interned, but not German Americans? Why were many of the fathers—as Jeanne Wakatsuki’s was—sent off to prison, away from wives and children, even if they had done nothing wrong? Why were young Japanese American men allowed to enlist in the armed services, but limited in where they could serve? And, they’ll also ask, why are we only learning about this policy and its longstanding impact now?

I trot out photographs from the 1940s of anti-Japanese-American signs in otherwise-welcoming American suburban neighborhoods; I show editorial cartoons that stoked up fear, not just of the Japanese enemy who had launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, but also of long-time citizens of Japanese descent. We read Dwight Okita’s poem, “In Response to Executive Order 9066,” written in the voice of teenage girl who sends a letter to American government authorities, promising to come to the internment camp as ordered, but already despondent over the behavior of some white classmates, formerly friends, who’ve been taunting her: “’You’re . . . giving secrets away to the Enemy.”

What prompted me to prepare this essay was a spate of twitter postings claiming that the children recently separated from their parents at the US border are actually being placed in spaces no one would complain about. They have nice beds, supervised play activities, good food, one poster insisted. The language resonated with language in a book review on Farewell to Manzanar, published in the Nation in 1974, soon after the memoir’s release. Reviewer Dorothy Bryant, who had seen the internment process executed while herself a young child, recalled both her initial response and her frustrated attempts to teach about it in the 1950s, in a San Francisco high school. When some of her 7th-grade classmates “disappeared suddenly one day in 1942,” she says, her “parents and teachers explained all the sinister differences that made it necessary to remove Japanese-Americans (but not Italian Americans like us) from the West Boast, for the sake of my safety. But I knew they were lying, even if they didn’t seem to know it.”

How did young Dorothy recognize the lie? Was it knowing Yoshio, one of those disappeared children, well enough to understand he and his family deserved to be trusted, to be treated as fellow community members. Fifteen years or so later, a schoolteachers, she found her students resistant to discussing the issue, some even accusing her of making up a story—what today might be dubbed “fake news.”

Her appreciative review for the Nation, strikingly subtitled “The School Yearbook with the Barbed-Wire Design,” lauded the book not only for its powerful humanizing of painful history, but also for its deep, potentially provocative insights. We can see these in photos of life in the camp—such as the vivid images by renowned visual chronicler Dorothea Lange, now on the National Park Service website.

Says Dorothy Bryant in her 1970s’ book review:

Life at Manzanar was full of the contradictions that may be ultimately harder to cope with than outright brutality. There was the very American school yearbook, with a barbed-wire design on the cover. There were dancing classes and criminally inadequate medical facilities. There were, eventually, lush gardens and orchards, where men like Jeanne’s father squatted in alcoholic despair. In 1942 the internees had arrived paralyzed by shock and fear. In 1945 many had to be forced to leave, paralyzed by fear of life outside (The Nation, November 9, 1974; 469).

Who Speaks to/for America Now?

Pundits sometimes claim that history, though it occasionally rhymes, doesn’t actually repeat itself. Yet the current policy of taking children away from their parents seems a sad—and scary—repetition of a dimension of American identity we should all want to reject.

If there’s something from this heritage we might draw from with hope, perhaps it’s the tradition of women leaders like those above calling for communal moral action.

A reporter in the White House press room urged Sarah Sanders to take such a stand, as a mother, herself—but to no avail. Maybe that’s why Laura Bush—Republican mother in multiple senses of that phrase–wrote a piece for the Washington Post. May others now follow her lead.

2 thoughts on “Taking Away the Children

  1. Pingback: Taking Away the Children — Sarah Ruffing Robbins | World4Justice : NOW! Lobby Forum.

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