Richard Aoki, the Asian American Black Panther, was an FBI informant

When journalist Seth Rosenfeld wrote in a San Francisco Chronicle article in August that Richard Aoki, the mysterious Japanese American who was one of the leaders of the radical Black Panther Party, was an FBI informant during the turbulent 1960s, the revelation exploded within the Asian American community.

The bombshell brought on a fussilade of defenses of Aoki’s place as a revered activist and civil rights leader.

Aoki had become a godfather of Asian American activism for his role as “Field Marshall” for the Panthers, and getting the revolutionary group its first guns and firearms training. After his time as the only high-level Asian with the Black Panthers, he became an educator and counselor, and committed suicide in 2009 after an illness and hospitalization.

Rosenfeld’s article was a sham, and not based on credible or complete information, claimed the critics. After all, it ran in the Chronicle the same week that his new book about the FBI’s long history of surveillance and infiltration of radical groups at the University of California at Berkeley, “Subversives,” was published. But after the FBI released stacks of more documents that confirmed Rosenfeld’s assertions, even diehard Asian American supporters and Panther-era friends had to admit that Aoki must have lived a double life.

He was apparently recruited in the early 1960s as an informant starting when he was a student after getting out of the Army, and stayed on the FBI’s payroll well into the 1970s, when he had settled into a career as a college counselor and teacher, and had no more radical organizations he could inform on.

Here’s a video about Aoki and the FBI that was produced by the Center for Investigative Journalism, where Rosenfeld works:
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Richard Aoki: The Asian American Black Panther

The poster for the documentary "Aoki" about Richard Aoki, the Japanese American who was a founding member of the Black Panthers.Here’s another reason why we wish we lived on the West Coast: “Aoki,” a new documentary about Richard Aoki, the third-generation Japanese American who was one of the founding members of the revolutionary African American Black Panther Party in the late 1960s, is premiering in Oakland (where the Black Panthers were formed) on Nov. 12.

At “Here and Now,” an event for Asian American non-profit organizations in San Francisco yesterday that Erin and I participated in, someone handed out cards promoting the premiere. And this morning, Angry Asian Man had more information about it.

Like most Americans, and probably many Asian Americans, I wasn’t aware of the role Aoki played in such a turbulent period of our history. It turns out (the documentary reveals for the fist time) that Aoki, a veteran by the mid-’60s, was the man who gave the Panthers their first guns, from his personal collection, and taught them how to use firearms. Although there were AAPI members of the Panthers, Aoki was the only one in a leadership poition, given the rank of Field Marshall.

He went on to be one of the leaders of the emerging Asian American consciousness of the 1970s. He died just this year.

It humbles me to learn how little I still know about the history of Asian America.

I’m glad people like filmmakers Ben Wang and Mike Cheng are making documentaries like “Aoki.” On the “Aoki” website you can read about see clips from the film. Continue reading

Velly bad old TV commercial for Jerr-O

Our friend JozJozJoz came across this TV commercial on YouTube and posted it on the excellent team blog, 8 Asians, with a poll asking what aspect of the commercial was most racist.

For me, it might be the fact that the person who posted it to YouTube titled it “Borderline Racist 1960’s Jell-O Ad” and in the description says it’s “arguably” racist. Dude, it was racist back then, it’s just that it hadn’t been pointed out to white people yet.

That’s like saying that lynchings weren’t racist because attacking African Americans was common back in the day.

These types of commercials and other cultural artifacts are important to preserve because they were racist and yet accepted by the mainstream, like this commercial for Calgon water softener (I don’t remember the Jell-O ad but I certainly do the Calgon one).

So it’s important to see these old spots, and accept them for they were, but also for what they are: a reminder that Asians have been subjected to stereotypes for a long time… and that some of them still return to haunt us, even in the 21st century.

Peter Paul & Mary, the sweetest voices of the 1960s folk era

Although I covered pop music at a time when punk, hardcore, “alternative” rock, rap and hip hop were the coolest sounds, I always had a soft spot for the sweet sugar of pure pop. I once wrote an essay comparing Michael Jackson to Prince, as if Jackson were the Beatles and Prince were the Rolling Stones. In my essay, MJ won out (but this was before MJ got weird).

I was, it’s true, a Beatles fan over the Stones. And a lot of the reason was the vocals, not just the pop brilliance of the Lennon-McCartney and Harrison songs. I loved the Beatles’ harmony. When I listen to Beatles songs, I can hear their voices dancing and meshing with each other; sometimes trading melody for harmony, sometimes taking an aural upfront position, sometimes laying back.

That’s the same quality that turned me on to artists such as Simon & Garfunkel in spite of Paul Simon’s brainy-nerdy lyrics (I was a brainy nerdy kid, after all, so I identified with him). Simon and Art Garfunkel’s voices were a natural fit, and I still love to hear their duet vocals, especially on their earlier, unadorned music. Their solo recordings, even when they’re great records, don’t thrill me as much as the ones they made together.

Peter, Paul and Mary were for me, the pinnacle of the melody/harmony interplay. Like the Beatles, they could sing high or low parts, and the sound was fuller than a duet to have all three filling in gaps. Yes, PP&M were an “artificial” group, the folk version of the Monkees, who were assembled as a hit-making enterprise by their manager to cash in on the urban folk boom of the times. Following the success of the Weavers, the Kingston Trio and others, Albert Grossman’s formula for pop success was to bring together “a tall blonde, a funny guy, and a good looking guy” and watch the cash flow in. That it did.

But they also rose above their commercial crassness and made some fine music for the ages. The trio, Noel Paul Stookey, Peter Yarrow and Mary Travers were earnest lefty-touchy-feely folksingers, a natural progression from the Woody Guthrie balladeer of the Depression era forged with the commercially viable groupthink of the ’50s Weavers (where Pete Seeger made his original mark).

They had a string of hits, including folk songs like “500 Miles,” pop ballads like “Lemon Tree” and protest songs like “If I Had a Hammer” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” They popularized the emerging voices of the new generation’s “protest singers” like Bob Dylan (the trio’s take of “Blowin’ in the Wind” is still my favroite of many cover versions and the original). They also sparked the public’s imagination with the silly controversy over “Puff the Magic Dragon” (was it or was it not about smoking pot?), and closed out their hitmaking career with a pair of terrific sunset singles, John Denver’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane” and ” the gospel-infused “Day Is Done.”

They caught the zeitgeist of their times — a spirit of searching and questioning of values, the possibilities of youthful exhuberance, and a lust for life. They still perform to nostalgic crowds, but their golden era was inexorably and permanently affixed to the folk era’s comet.
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Slinky, a truly classic Baby Boomer toy

Betty James just passed away. Who’s that, you say?

She’s the woman whose husband invented the Slinky, and the woman who headed the company that manufactured all the wacky variations of Slinky, from Slinky Dogs to Plastic Rainbow Slinkys, for decades. My friend Leland Rucker, with whom I co-authored “The Toy Book” in 1991, just posted his thoughts about the time we were lucky enough to meet her while researching the book.

I vividly remember meeting Betty James. She was appreciative that a couple of aging boomers like us were interested in her company. She was a giant, but unknown to the zillions of kids who grew up with her toy. She gave us brass special edition Slinkys after meeting us. I still have mine on my desk….

The story of the Slinky, which I’ll include below from “The Toy Book”‘s first chapter, is pretty fascinating, because it was discovered by chance, and was a bellwether — the first truly original toy for the nascent generation, because it was first sold in the fall of 1945 in the flush of the post-war holiday season. That’s why it led off the book.

But Betty James was a fascinating story herself. Richard James may have invented the Slinky but Betty made it a generational icon. Around 1960 Richard James left his wife and six children to join a religious cult in Bolivia. He died in 1974. Betty James took over as CEO of James Industries when he left, brought the company out of its debts (her husband had apparently “donated” a lot of profits to the religious group), and then started diversifying the Slinky product line and running the TV commercials that many Boomers can still sing along to.

It’s because of her efforts that to this day, if you say “Slinky” to almost anyone in in the US of almost any age, they’ll hold out there hands, palms up, and wave them up and down to mimic playing with the spring.

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