Remembering and Re-telling: Local Story

New book by UH Mānoa professor examines the Massie-Kahahawai case

John P. Rosa
John P. Rosa

When UH Mānoa assistant professor of history John P. Rosa was growing up on O‘ahu, almost no one talked about the Massie-Kahahawai case.  In 1931 and 1932, the rape trial involving Thalia Massie, a Naval officer’s wife, and the subsequent killing of Joseph Kahahawai, a Native Hawaiian accused as one of her assailants, were splashed across newspapers in Hawai‘i and on the mainland. But in subsequent generations, a hush fell over the story and its retelling.

Only after two popular “true crime” novels about the case surfaced in the 1960s did people start talking about it again. The UH Mānoa Ethnic Studies department began looking for ways to bring the case into curriculum in the 1970s, and by 1990 the story had made its way into Hawai‘i high school classrooms.

Rosa’s new book, Local Story  (University of Hawai‘i press, 176pp. April 2014), chronicles the Massie-Kahahawai case itself and how it has shaped and been shaped by public perception. Local Story  was recently named as one of Honolulu Magazine’s18 Hawai‘i Books to Read This Summer,” (June 11, 2014).

Local_Story“I take a look at the ways in which memories about this specific case have changed over time,” said Rosa, who has taught at UH Mānoa since 2008.  He relied on oral history and accounts from local ethnic and Hawaiian language newspapers as key sources for his research.

Writing about the case as an anthropologist might, Rosa says he was careful to consider his own role as a storyteller and participant in the story he described. He takes this responsibility seriously.

“Being in Hawai‘i, and as a historian of modern Hawai‘i, I come face to face with the families and the communities that I write about,” Rosa said.

“When I did interviews for the project in the mid- to late-1990s, there were still some people alive who had firsthand knowledge of the case.  And of course there are still children and grandchildren of the families involved,” he said.

Much of the book is focused on why people remember the case in a particular way, in a particular moment in time. Local Story also sheds an important light on the creation of a local identity for working class Native Hawaiians, Asians, Portuguese, and Puerto Ricans coming of age in the 1920s and 30s.

Rosa, who taught at Arizona State University from 1999 to 2006 before coming back to Hawai‘i to teach high school history at Kamehameha Schools, Kapalama, for two years, says the Massie-Kahahawai case is still a vivid part of today’s discussion about race and identity.

The case is certainly still being discussed in Rosa’s family. Driving through their quiet Mānoa neighborhood earlier this summer, Rosa’s wife Jolyn Okimoto Rosa casually pointed out the house where Kahahawai was killed. Their eight-year-old daughter Mei jumped on the comment, demanding to know what happened.

They chose to spare her the details:  “He was accused of doing something bad,” Rosa said.

And so the telling continues.