By Evelyn Chen '01
Many of the fundamental ideas that drove the genesis of
the Asian American Movement came from the Black Power Movement. Likewise,
much of the legislation that has come to have the most profound effect
on the history of Asians in America occurred during the Civil Movement,
a time that is often associated with the struggle for black equality.
But the struggle was not limited to that of African Americans. In a
time where minorities often find themselves in competition for similar
resources, it behooves us to look back at history and the way that minorities
have been linked not only by common experiences of oppression and racism,
but also by striving for goals that idealize freedom and equality for
all individuals. In a time where we enjoy unprecedented freedom and
opportunities lie thick before us, it is often too easy to ignore those
times in which we lacked simple rights or to forget the shared struggles
fought to forge present circumstances.
The earliest linkage between Asians and Africans in America
can be traced back to the early history of the nation, in the manner
by which many of the earliest peoples were brought here: after the Emancipation
Proclamation and the freeing of the black slaves, Americans attempted
to replace the black slave with a yellow one. Sailing over to China
and luring Asians with false promises, slave traders placed Asians on
the exact same ships that were previously used in carrying black slaves
from Africa. The history of oppression goes back centuries farther than
many people realize, and it is an important aspect of American history
often left out of textbooks. Contrary to what we are taught, America
has not always been a land of the free.
During the 1960s, some of the most prominent advocates
for Civil Rights were members of the African American community. However,
what is perhaps lesser known are the Asian Americans that aided them
and took inspiration from their struggles. One such individual is Yuri
Kochiyama, who describes the impact that Malcolm X had on the Asian
American Movement, in his views of self-determination and of knowing
one’s history and how it relates to politics of the present (Kochiyama
131). One of the greatest aims of the Asian American Movement has been
to reclaim a sense of the history of Asians in America and determine
a culture that is neither Asian nor specifically American. Many of the
early ideals of self-determination and rejection of assimilation came
from ideologies espoused by the Black Power Movement and its participants.
Another often-overlooked fact is in the effect of the Civil Rights Act
of 1964: in declaring discrimination by the government, small businesses,
and public facilities a federal law, legislators did not distinguish
between ethnicity. Many of the laws which are commonly taught in secondary
school history classes highlight the effect that these laws had in black
history, but in a time where the Asian American community is seeking
its own roots, it is important to remember that many of the battles
fought for equality and fair treatment are the same battles.
In a time where Asians still find themselves looking down
upon blacks, and are often pitted against one another in stereotypes
like the “model minority,” it is crucial to remember that it is not
always as easy as it looks to determine what is the truth. So many histories
are shared between peoples who often feel that they lack anything in
common, and it is ignorance to these differences that will drive us
apart. In determining Asian American identity, one must have a sense
of history. Only by knowing where we have been will we be able to understand
where we are and where we are going. It is impossible to look upon history
as an isolated set of circumstances that apply to one ethnic or racial
group: oppression is multifaceted and affects many people, and only
by working together can racial and cultural oppression be overcome.
When we come to understand that fact, we will realize that despite skin
color, language, or culture, a shared history makes us all more alike
than we think.
~ Kochiyama, Yuri. “The Impact of Malcolm X on Asian-American
Politics and Activism.” in Blacks, Latinos and Asians in Urban America:
Status and Prospects for Politics and Activism. ed. James Jennings.
London: Praeger, 1994. 129-141.
~ Wei, William. The Asian American Movement. Philadelphia:
Temple University Press, 1993.