From the September-October 2022 issue of News & Letters
Kei was already “old” when I met him some 30 years ago, but he was one of the youngest people I ever knew. His energy had no bounds. I remember dancing with him at a bar and him getting down! He could talk for hours with great excitement about the movement, his conversations with the people he’d met at protests or on the street, about Marxist-Humanism, art, addiction, nutrition, alternative medicine, music. He had an openness most adults don’t. Some of that was because he was unsure of himself. The openness to rethinking, to hearing others’ thoughts, was a measure of how much he respected the oppressed and the seriousness with which he took his responsibility as an American revolutionary Marxist-Humanist. When the U.S. government finally paid reparations for having traumatized Kei and thousands of other Japanese Americans in the internment camps, he got up at a News and Letters Committees convention and donated every penny to the organization. He wanted it to be put to building a new society, one that would never intern anyone again, and so much more. This, from a man who lived in poverty, was marginally housed, and who could have really used the money. Kei was willing to do whatever it took to build a new world. That was his love, his life, his passion. It wasn’t a sacrifice as far as he was concerned. And I loved him.
Kei was a superb and attentive listener. When he took minutes of a meeting, they arrived neatly handwritten and accurate and you could feel as though you were there. When you spoke to Kei, he would often check back with you to be sure that he fully understood what you said. He seemed much younger than he was, with his energy, spontaneity, generosity, upbeat personality, and openness of spirit. Those who had the privilege to know and work with him will remember him with fondness and deep respect.
Journalist Basho is already missed by me. He worked for the freedom of all. His writing conveyed that clearly. He marched with freedom-lovers over and over again. He was brave. After Rodney King’s murder, Basho was determined to work with Black people seeing justice in a Black-Korean neighborhood near his home. He wanted freedom and justice for Korean-Americans as well.
What a loss we feel with the passing of Kei Utsumi. Despite his small stature, he was a fearless revolutionary, heedless of threats to his safety if he could spread the voices of freedom. One Black activist in Los Angeles expressed awe at Kei’s personal courage when he attended meeting after meeting in the Black community in the aftermath of the Los Angeles Rebellion after a Korean-American shopkeeper had murdered 15-year-old Latasha Hawkins and got off without jail time. Kei demonstrated solidarity with Black revolutionaries even in the face of bitterness toward Koreans, when some he encountered didn’t know that Kei wasn’t Korean himself.
Nova Scotia, Canada
On a visit to Los Angeles, I watched Kei distribute N&L to college students. To watch was to learn about the importance of ideas. He thought that everyone he encountered—from students, to professors, to the janitorial workers—had something important to learn from a copy of this paper as well as something to contribute to it. Even though walking was difficult for him, he practically ran after people to offer them N&L and tell them about why they should read it. That irritated some people, but it seemed that most people caught what I did, the sincerity of his interest and the importance to him of these ideas of Marxist-Humanism. He really humbled me that day. I’ll miss him and his passion for ideas that today seems so rare.