We met with Landscapes of Injustice project director Jordan Stanger-Ross earlier this year, in advance of the forum launch. As Jordan keeps one foot in the trenches with his researchers and the other in the office as an administrator, we were interested to hear his perspective on the topic.
“People are already having conversations about history,” he started, in the spirit of historian William Cronan. “We just have to choose if we want to intervene.”
Two years into his public history project on the dispossession of Japanese Canadians, Jordan has likely explained its purpose more times than he can count and his answers are ever changing. Much depends on his audience. The language of funding applications, for instance, is not quite apt for explaining your work at the bus stop. To discuss the relation between scholarship and activism with us, Jordan drew from an experience speaking with Canadians outside the academy to illustrate his vision of ‘history with a purpose.’
In what has become a notorious call-in radio interview, Jordan found himself in conversation with a woman who was distraught at his portrayal of the interment-era earlier in the segment. Crying on the phone, she told Jordan that he could not understand the past without having experienced it first-hand. As he listened to her account of the 1940s–in which she vilified Japanese Canadians–Jordan realized that much of her received memories were based on harmful elisions and events that had not occurred. Contrary to her narrative, Japanese Canadians had never threatened British Columbian residents nor could they be held responsible, in any way, for the actions of Japan.
For Jordan, the conversation highlighted the various ways that scholarship may intervene in matters of social and political importance. Such scholarly projects such as Landscapes of Injustice, he explained, can bring into conversation topics—like the dispossession of Japanese Canadians—with enduring political relevance. It can also ground discussion in evidence, thereby disrupting harmful and pervasive misrepresentations. At a very basic level, it can insist upon precision of terms and concepts, the confusion of which carry social and political implications. Each intervention is a kind of activist work.
In the past year Landscapes of Injustice has brought new research on the history of Japanese Canadians into conversation with the alarming rise of islamophobia and nativism in North America. Unfortunately, there is still disagreement on “how civil rights should matter,” in Jordan’s phrasing, “in the context of perceived national insecurity.”
The project will conclude in 2021 with a nationally touring museum exhibit and a slew of outreach initiatives. Archival databases, oral history interviews, teacher resources, and published materials on the dispossession of Japanese Canadians will be available to a range of audiences. Children and adults will have new opportunities to learn the importance of engaging the past in present conversations.
And in these coming five years, exactly how Jordan answers the question “what for” will likely continue to change. But that’s the point. We do not revisit a traumatic history to re-open old wounds; instead, we visit it to better understand the past and world we live in today. “Even as much is obscured, as documents and memories are lost and the past recedes into history” Jordan explained, “there is a kind of perspective that is gained there.”
Our conversation with Jordan highlighted the various ways that scholarship can be activist but held one certainty: that revisiting the past with new questions will always offer the potential of new answers for the present.
– Kaitlin Findlay and Alissa Cartwright, spring 2016