The Legacy of Yuri Kochiyama

When I first heard that Yuri Kochiyama had passed away, I was still reeling from the death of Maya Angelou, who had passed just a few days before.  The death of these two incredibly strong women of color, advocates, voices of those who often went voiceless hit me extremely hard.  While there were many public expressions of sorry for Maya Angelou, the impact that Yuri Kochiyama had was much less heard about in the mainstream media so I took to social media to find as much as solace as I could in hashtags and posted articles about Yuri’s life.

So, when I heard that there would be a memorial for Yuri’s life in Los Angeles, I knew that this would be an opportunity for me to pay tribute to this amazing woman whose activism has been such an influence on my life.

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Yuri is perhaps best known for being the woman holding Malcolm X’s head in her lap as he lay dying on the stage at the Audubon ballroom.  However, Yuri’s Civil Rights activism spanned over 65 years, from her internment (and later her advocacy reparations for interned Japanese Americans) through her alliance with various organizing groups including the Organization for Afro-American Unity, Puerto Rican Independence movement and her tireless advocacy for political prisoners held in the United States including Mumia Abu-Jamal.

As the various speakers, including members of Yuri’s family and many friends from various activist organizations, came forth to speak about Yuri, what was clear in all of their remembrances was that Yuri Kochiyama was a woman of incredible integrity and humility.  She served brothers and sisters of every race, nation and creed out of love and a strong desire for justice.  She was authentic, clear in her mission, generous, and interested in everyone she met.  She was courageous and full of conviction.  She was a woman who never stopped believing that individuals working as a collective could make a difference in the world.  She was a woman whom life did not frighten so long as she was honoring what she knew was right.

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Scott Nagatani & Friends performing “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me” by Maya Angelou
(Music by Scott Nagatani)

Every semester, in my literacy course, I teach the creed that Yuri Kochiyama wrote when she was just 18 years old.  Today, as I listened to the words of Yuri’s creed read by her granddaughters, I was struck by how that creed had been enacted in her life:

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Yuri’s granddaughters, Maya & Aliya Kochiyama, reading “My Creed…22”

“To never humiliate or look down on any person, group, creed, religion, nationality, race employment, or station in life, but rather to respect.”

“To always keep in mind, that any opportunities, achievement, or happiness I have had, I owe to someone else; to be grateful for whatever has come my way through the aid of another, to repay every kindness, but should such a circumstance not arise, to pass it on to someone else.”

“To love everyone; to never know the meaning of hate, or have one enemy. (An enemy, to me, is only created in one’s mind).”

“Regardless of whatever my actions seem wrong in the eyes of society, I will do that which I am doing as long as I am not infringing on the happiness of another, hurting another, and as long as I can look at myself without feeling ashamed.”

“To never harbor a feeling that someone has been unfair to me, but rather to feel in such a case, that I deserved it; to take every disappointment, disillusion, sorrow, and grief as a part of life; to never expect another to be indebted to help me, but should I be able to help anyone, to be grateful that I could be of use.”

These words, Yuri’s creed, her life and her mission.  They are as powerful today as they were in 1939, 75 years ago, when she wrote them.  And they remind me of the work that there still is to do, a labor of love, a fight for justice.  Her counsel and her legacy to those of us who seek to honor her, printed on the front of the memorial program, was, “Keep expanding your horizon, decolonize your mind and cross borders.”

Thank you, Yuri, for being such an incredible inspiration and such a gift to the world.  Your impact, the ripples from your “single stone,” continues on.

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