Okay, I’ll go even more public with this project – in the funny sense that the internet and 43 things are “public”: If I declare a new project that no one else has mentioned (junk into art, e.g.), is this discoverable? will anyone else be interested? and “more public” in the sense that I’ve discussed this project with a number of friends and acquaintances, made at least one grant proposal (rejected) and talked to a couple of museums about it.
I bought a 1942 yearbook from Covina (California) High School at a garage sale in Solana Beach, California about 35 years ago. It inspired me to collect yearbooks very selectively, because it shows both a general story and a particular story. The general story is about the culture of high schools in the US and in California in particular. Yearbooks (for those from other countries who might not know) are memory books – a photo gallery of all the students attending a school in a particular year, grouped by age (grade in school), by social and athletic activities (student government, Spirit club, chess club, girls’ swim team, the football team as individuals, as a team, and in motion as players), and in random or traditional groups (a particular classroom, a lunch table of friends, the crowd in the stands cheering at some football game, and so on).
I read something recently that suggested that yearbooks may not be produced anymore since the production costs are prohibitive and that fewer people are buying them. I’ve heard for several years about yearbooks being distributed on CD or DVD, which is certainly cheaper to produce and distribute, but doesn’t allow for the traditional activity of “signing the yearbook”, and produces a “book” only in the metaphoric sense.
My copy of “Your Cardinal 1942” has photos of abougt 700 students in the school, grades nine through twelve. Even though the photos are tiny, I can make out which are boys and which are girls: for all the classes other than seniors (12 graders) only first initials are given. And I have a pretty good guess about ethnicity from last name and the image. The class is overwhelmingly white, which is quite a contrast to today’s populations of Asian Americans and Latinos in this community of eastern Los Angeles county. There are quite a lot of signatures, mostly addressed to the girl from the junior class who moved away, a few addressed to her friend from the junior class who was carrying it around for her. None of the Japanese American students signed the yearbook – they make up about 10% of the class but of course they had been moved out of their homes and communities to either the “assembly centers” (such as Santa Rita racetrack) or east to the camps (Poston, Manzanar, Hear Mountain, etc.) [Densho, the Japanese American Legacy Project” has a thoughtful piece on the terminology to refer to these events and the people who were affected.]
Why is this junk? Someone’s old yearbook that was unwanted and sold for a dollar or less is probably categorized as “junk” by most people.
Why is this art? The art is about yearbooks as an artifact and style of photographic presentation. It’s also history about the changing face of Southern California, from agricultural past to a surburan sprawl present.
When I visited Covina in fall 2004 trying to get more information about the town and the community for this project, I was struck quite a few juxtapositions: the Historical Society maintains a large display of photos of Covina from about 1850 (or slightly before) through the 1950’s. Many of the contributions to the Historical Society are from a single photographer who took various photos of the town in between his primary occupation as a portrait photographer. Who could pay for portaits? Why, quite likely the (white) burghers of the town. Other than the first few images in the collection which show the (Mexican) daughters of wealthy landgrant ranchers who married the new Americans, there were essentially no Latino faces shown. Nor were there any Japanese surnames among those pictured and identified.
So far I have
- read through the yearbook several times
- made a spreadsheet of names and the presumed ethnicity of each student, in order to get a count of males, females, etc.
- read several interesting historical or sociological accounts of the Japanese American experience during WWII times.
- visited the Japanese American Museum of San Jose (closer to home)
- visited (and joined) the Japanese American National Museum (in Los Angeles)
- visited the Covina Historical Society (once) and the Covina Public LIbrary (where there is another yearbook from just before this period)
- chatted with the principal of Covina High School
- gotten myself added to the alumni mailing list (not yet active)
My current goals are
- digitize the whole yearbook
- transcribe the inscriptions
- start looking for the people pictured, from classes of 1942, 1943, 1944, 1945 in order to collect their accounts of high school experiences, as well as their lives post-high school, especially related to residences, marriage, and their views on categories of ethnicity)
- collect and transcribe these stories, edit them into a book or a film or both.
I feel like I”m much better at non-fiction than fiction, so my goal is related to the former, than attempting to put it into some invented narrative. And, I feel that this is an important story to tell soon, as many of those pictured may no longer be alive, or are likely in ill health.