Themes and Meanings
The brief, austere statement of this poem offers little incentive to search for obscure or hidden meaning. Content and theme are the same: Injustice hurts everyone, perpetrator and victim alike. However, the irony and exaggeration in the speaker’s literal interpretation of “the lady’s” question—in the satirical picture of an individual responding personally as if she were an entire group—address the dangerous and finally antagonistic premise of “the lady’s” question. To ask the Japanese Americans “Why did [they] let/ the government” imprison them implies that the persecuted are responsible for their persecution: Victims are to blame for their mistreatment.
The speaker initially retorts to the woman as “other,” as the uninvolved outsider who would be the “you” that watches the speaker’s immolation on the evening news, or the “you” assaulted by the picture of the abused little girl. The first capitalized “YOU” emphasizes the distance between speaker and listener. However, the poem’s dialectic leads ultimately to collaboration and cooperation of the “I” and the “you” against the persecuting “them.” While historically both the speaker (representing all those unjustly interned) and the listener (representing all well-meaning people who do nothing) are united negatively in their failure to act, even this negative assessment implies potential for positive, and therefore effective, collaboration. Contrasting the analogy of Kitty Genovese, emblem of all those abandoned by their neighbors, the allusions in the poem to the march on Washington and to millions of letters sent to lawmakers are examples of such mass action. These references reflect the author’s philosophy as expressed consistently in the body of her writings and in her lifelong activism as a pacifist and as an officer of organizations promoting peace and justice.