By Kathryn Lloyd, Director of Programs at the Tenement Museum
“It wasn’t until he pulled something out of a display cabinet, did we really begin to have a conversation.”
These words, written by Kaipo Iseda, accompany a photograph of an aluminum drinking cup, scratched with the name “Yasushi” and an identification number. This cup sat in Kaipo’s grandfather’s cabinet, an unknown link for Kaipo to his Japanese-American family’s experience being in an internment camp during World War II. Beginning in 1942, the US Government imprisoned over 117,000 Japanese-Americans, many of them US citizens, in internment camps. The story of the cup continues, “The quality, the dents, the name, became a symbol of his experience. It breathed life into a struggle, I knew once only as stories.”
Kaipo shared this story of talking to his grandfather on Your Story, Our Story, a national online platform hosted by the Tenement Museum to share personal experiences of migration, told through objects and traditions. During the Tenement Museum’s tours of historic buildings at 97 and 103 Orchard Street, objects in recreated apartments become anchors for stories about the actual former residents and their descendants. These objects carry powerful memories, emotions, and connections between families past and present, and they can lead to conversations that wouldn’t otherwise occur between family members. Inspired by these conversations with visitors, the Museum created Your Story, Our Story to share these stories and explore how objects connect us across time and place. Your Story Our Story participants come from a network of organizations and schools nationwide—including the Wing Luke Museum, Minneapolis Institute of Art, Chicago History Museum, Berkshire Community College, and California State University Fullerton, who all gather stories in their communities and share them in this exhibit. Any group or individual can participate in the project and contribute stories to the collection.
Taken together, these stories build a collection that reveals the complexities in American families’ cultural heritage. Search for “cup” on the site and over thirty stories will appear next to Kaipo’s—among them porcelain teacups that symbolize a family’s return migration to China, Turkish coffee cups used as an unspoken form of communication between friends, and a cup for carrying water, contributed by Maia, whose family migrated from South Carolina to New York in the 1920s. These stories, by participants from California to Oklahoma, from Louisiana to Minneapolis, connect in ways far beyond the similarity of objects. Consider Kaipo’s cup next to a Walkman used in the 1980s to study naturalization test materials, and a pocket constitution carried by a Jewish refugee in the 1940s, and a picture begins to emerge about rights to citizenship throughout America’s history. Who has been given the right to American citizenship, or denied it, and why? Historians study these questions, but there are answers found in objects in our own homes. With our country currently in debate about immigration and heritage, Your Story, Our Story opens important conversations about what we know or don’t know about our own family’s migration history.
And often, these conversations lead to surprises: as one Your Story, Our Story participant pointed out, “No one had ever asked me those questions before.” We hope this project inspires us to ask these questions of ourselves, our families, and our country.
Click here to explore migration stories across the United States through an interactive map on Your Story, Our Story.