They Called Us Enemy by George Takei calls us to shape a better future.
In Star Trek characters often make reference to “required reading at the Academy.” But at the U.S. Air Force Academy this year, a graphic novel by George Takei is on cadets’ reading lists: They Called Us Enemy.
Brigadier General Linell Letendre, dean of the faculty, says Takei’s graphic novel—written with Justin Eisinger and Steven Scott, and with art by Harmony Becker—is “focused on dignity and respect,” making it an exciting choice for this year’s “One Book, One USAFA” program.
Established last year, the One Book,One USAFA program strives “to create at least one shared experience among basic cadets, returning cadets, senior leaders, military trainers and more.”
Top Shelf published They Called Us Enemy in 2019. It was a New York Times bestseller and won critical acclaim and multiple industry awards.
In it, George Takei recalls how President Franklin Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066—which authorized the forced relocation and incarceration of some 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II for no reason other than their ethnicity—forever shaped his childhood and his adult life.
It’s a deeply nuanced and moving story, filled with moments that range from horrific to heartwarming to hopeful. Takei and his co-creators present a work calling for confrontation with and learning from sins of the past, in order to build a better present and future for all Americans.
The childhood of George Takei helped shape his lifetime of social activism
Unlike Allegiance, the Broadway musical George Takei developed as his legacy project, They Called Us Enemy is autobiographical, drawn directly from his memories, experiences, and reflections.
It begins as U.S. Army soldiers force five-year-old Takei and his family—his father, Takekuma; his mother, Fumiko; his younger brother, Henry (their Anglophile father named both George and Henry for English kings); and his months-old sister, Nancy—from their Los Angeles home.
Watching young George react to his family’s forced relocation with excitement and wonder is heartbreaking. “I thought everyone took vacations on a train with armed sentries at both ends of each car,” he writes. “It was an adventure.”
On one particularly moving page, Becker’s art juxtaposes the irrepressible delight on George’s beaming face, surrounded by stars, with the haunted and worried expression on his father’s face as he gazes out the train’s windows at the inhospitable Southwestern desert.
We follow the Takeis from the stables at the Santa Anita Racetrack, to Camp Rohwer in Arkansas—easternmost of the wartime prison camps, where more than 8,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated—to Camp Tule Lake, the largest, “maximum-security segregation camp” for so-called “No-Nos.” These were Japanese Americans who would neither declare their willingness to fight for the country that had uprooted and treated them like enemies instead of the citizens they were nor reject a “racial allegiance to the Emperor of Japan” they did not possess.
The book relates the positive childhood memories Takei retains—his first snowfall, an afternoon’s joyful Jeep ride beyond Camp Rowher’s confines—without ever letting readers forget those memories’ larger, deeply unjust context.
It also does an excellent job situating the Takei family’s story against its national, historical backdrop. Through cutaways to moments in his later life as a public advocate for equality and justice—events like his TEDxKyoto talk in 2014 and his visit to and speech at Hyde Park (the home of FDR) in 2017—They Called Us Enemy explores not only the wrongs the American government committed against these citizens but also the steps it has taken, albeit far too late and imperfectly, to redress them.
And Star Trek even shows up more than I expected it might!
We see not only panels faithfully recreating Sulu swashbuckling through the Enterprise corridors in “The Naked Time” and ordering the Excelsior’s helmsman to “fly her apart” in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, but also the substantial treatment of Takei’s conversation with Gene Roddenberry about the role of Sulu, an Asian character who would not be, in Takei’s words, one of the usual “buffoons, menials, or menaces” common in media of the day. We also see Takei’s first meeting with fellow Star Trek castmates and social activist Nichelle Nichols.
They Called Us Enemy doesn’t take long to read. But its lessons about our nation’s history and its implicit plea for readers to get involved in shaping our nation’s future will stay with you once you have.
As Takei’s father told him years after the incarceration,
"Our democracy is a participatory democracy. Existentially, it’s dependent on people who cherish [its] shining, highest ideals . . . and actively engage in the political process."
If Star Trek fans in the U.S. want to help make our nation more like the future of freedom, equality, justice, and dignity seen in our favorite science fiction show, putting They Called Us Enemy on our own required reading list is a small but important step we can take right now.