There is more to Yuri’s Life than Malcolm’s death.
This is the phrase that kept looping through our heads as we searched the web for Yuri Kochiyama, the incomparable civil rights leader who passed away on Sunday June 1, 2014. To our knowledge, there was nothing at the Smithsonian that represented her life. Online, Yuri’s most iconic image is the grisly 1965 Life Magazine photo of her cradling the head of the assassinated Malcolm X. It didn’t take long to realize that this image was one of the only “objects” representing Yuri’s life to the public.
The notion of a Folk Hero often emerges from the blurring of fact and fiction; America is full of these figures. Their lives are kept alive through stories and songs, performance and art, on the tongues of those who believe in the richness of preserving their legacies.
But Yuri is real – and she is more than a footnote in the life of another man. Yuri survived forced relocation during World War II, eventually urging the apology from the U.S. government for the internment of Japanese Americans. She was Malcolm X’s pen pal during his trip to Africa, receiving his postcards from nine different countries. She was a cornerstone in the Black Power and Asian American liberation movements alike, and was a fierce voice for a range of global civil rights efforts until her death. Yuri’s life could be the stuff of tall tales – if it were not so true.
In this age of digital excess, the collection of artifacts in the public domain for Yuri Kochiyama is unfortunately sparse. Yet, there is a wealth of drawings, songs, poems, flyers, and other expressions that mark her memory. While tapping artists and organizers to share works for this tribute, we realized this: for an Asian Pacific American community whose experience remains at margins in the national collections, even our titans are considered niche.
It is up to us to fashion our history. Tomorrow’s canon is stored in our drawers, hard drives, and minds. This tribute contains just a few artifacts from a range of artists and organizers who have been impacted by Yuri Kochiyama. It is an exhibition of the people. It is a museum of us.
This is for Yuri. This is for you.
Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center
Yuri Kochiyama (1921–2014)