The legendary Richard Aoki has passed into history. When I was an Ethnic Studies major at Cal, this picture was indelibly stamped into all of our impressionable young minds. Three bad-ass dudes (of course they were all dudes—it was the 60s) leading the struggle for the very education that we were now receiving, twenty years later!
By the time I fractured my pelvis & was wheeled off to aquatherapy, another 18 years later, the image was still easily called to my mind, but the bad-ass brothers’ names, not so much. Okay, not at all. At aquatherapy other things seemed much more pressing: getting in & out of clothes & swimsuit, hobbling from wheelchair to the funny little elevator chair that lowered me into the heavily chlorinated high school pool. Strapping the weights around my waist & grabbing a noodle? kickboard? (I can’t believe I’m not remembering what I held in my hands for stability!) to walk slowly across the pool & back again, backwards, sideways, frontways until that subtle moment when my body, fussier than Goldilocks, had had Just The Right Amount of exercise.
This is not a digression. You will see. Many other friendly aquatherapy regulars filled the shallow end of the pool: oldsters with the typical variety of oldster ailments, other (relative) youngsters like me who had been in accidents ranging from merely painful to truly terrible, like the man who had been shot up with 17 bullets & required an entourage of physical therapists to escort him slowly, agonizingly from one side of the pool to the other. Since this is an Ethnic Studies themed post, I am even more compelled than usual to point out he was a young African American man & statistically so much more likely to be suffering from bullet wounds than, say, me, the middle-aged, middle-class Chinese American woman who was bucked off a horse.
Anyway. While walking slowly across the pool one tended to fall into conversation with other aquatherapees (not a real word!) who were walking at similar speed & depth, so I started chatting with an older Asian American man who was recovering from a stroke. I don’t remember exactly what conversation bits soon led to me exclaiming with no small measure of excitement, “Wait! You mean that picture of the three bad-ass dudes, you’re the Asian one?!” Indeed, none other than the one & only Richard Aoki, Third World Liberation Front strike leader & Black Panther Field Marshal, was my pool-walking buddy! Awestruck, I gushed, “I owe my education to you!” (I think he appreciated hearing that.)
Water therapy got a lot more interesting. Along with re-learning how to walk, I picked up juicy nuggets of Panther lore, asked him Everything I Ever Wanted to Know About Firearms But Had Nobody to Ask, & played the Do-You-Know game, Ethnic Studies Edition—of course he knew everybody, & was even related to an artist I knew from a completely different department of my life.
He told me of his early heartbreak when his fiancee forced him to choose between the Panthers & her. I was surprised & touched by the bitterness he still expressed about that long-ago disappointment; it seemed to have turned him off to women permanently. While ranting about it, he even quoted Shakespeare: “Frailty, thy name is woman!”
“Hey,” I protested, “you can’t say that to me!” But he ignored my objection & went on & on about how women can never be as revolutionary as men. I held my tongue & thought, “well, not if you have a narrow definition of revolution that involves so many guns all the time…” but I didn’t really mind hearing him spout off about it; I knew it was much too late for anyone, least of all me, to change his mind, so I continued avidly listening to everything he said, history coming alive for me right there in the tepid pool.
Our conversations were casual & chatty but somehow also intense. It seemed to me that his very aura had a Black Panther flavor: that unique blend of militance & community orientation. We discussed the pros & cons of available options for elder care within the Japanese American community. We talked about Carlos Bulosan & Frank Chin. I noticed various aging Black Panthers shepherding him back & forth to aquatherapy, just as my friends & family took turns bringing me. Eventually I graduated to driving myself to aquatherapy, & then finally to swimming again back at my regular pool, where I walked the shallow lanes with a lot less pain, no weights, no noodle, & also no Richard.
I’m grateful for Richard’s open friendliness at a hard time in my life, & for his dedication & leadership throughout his life, sexist blind spots & all. I feel very lucky that fate threw me in the pool with him for those moments, & I’ll always remember that should I ever feel the need to acquire a gun, I would be best suited for a shotgun. Thank you, Richard. May you rest in revolutionary peace.