Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Reclaiming Asian History

One Story at A Time.

A call went out a while back from photographer, Corky Lee, asking for volunteers to participate in a photo-shoot that coincided with a decision by the Department of Labor to induct the Chinese rail workers who constructed the US railways back in the 19th century into their Hall Of Honor. Once the railroad was completed, the Chinese laborers were excluded from participating in the official photograph ceremony, and their contribution was more or less wiped from the historical and, more importantly, the cultural consciousness. So this is a long overdue acknowledgement of the Chinese contribution to American history and development.

In addition to the above mentioned efforts to bring Chinese railroad workers to historical recognition, other articles highlight the lack of historical recognition for Filipino activists in gaining rights for farm workers, the poorly understood and recognized atrocities of American imperial aggression in the Philippines in the late 19th and early 20th centu─▒ries. Also, recently, Canadian authorities issued an official apology for racist policies of the past, and in New York's Chinatown a street was renamed in memorial of Private Danny Chen, the US soldier who committed suicide after being racially bullied by fellow soldiers.

I am always a little shocked whenever I am reminded that Asian-American history is so invisible, misunderstood, or its general facts and details unknown, outside of the Asian-American community. For a country like the US - which is the most significant power in the Asia/Pacific region - to be basically ignorant of the Asians in their midst is frightening to contemplate. As a nation and leader in the entire Pacific basin, our policies and attitudes towards the various races of Asia can - and do - have significant repercussions in the region. Yet, America - as evidenced by its cultural dehumanization of Asians - is largely content to view Asian-Americans through the purveyance of demeaning stereotypes and certainly not through the accurate or empathetic cultural understanding of their historical experience.

There may be a number of reasons for why Asian-American history and historical experience remains so invisible and unknown in the popular cultural consciousness of America. First and foremost, there is little empathy amongst mainstream America's cultural gatekeepers for Asian subjects in general - seeming to prefer promoting demeaning images of Asians outside of any historical (or social) context at all. Secondly, Americans may have a general ignorance or general lack of interest in history of any kind. This second point is of particular significance because without a grounding in the facts of history, it may be via the platform of popular culture that mainstream ideas about history in general and Asian-American history in particular are being generated.

This is important because the third possible reason for Asian-American history being so invisible and unknown could be that Asian-Americans themselves may not, to any large degree, be promoting Asian-American history through creative cultural endeavours. Simply put, Asian-American artists seem to not be pursuing many creative historical narratives that tackle, or allude to, the extremely uncomfortable (for mainstream America) developmental pattern of violent and xenophobic anti-Asian prejudices that over the years have evolved into the kind of casual, "second-nature", anti-Asian bigotry of the present.

In order for the Asian-American historical and racial experience to be taken seriously and become integrated into the fabric and consciousness of the wider American mainstream it it is up to Asian-Americans to themselves integrate those same experiences into their own cultural consciousness. In other words, if we want our Asian-American historical experiences to become simply American experiences then we have to set about promoting that history. Of course, this presents a significant challenge for Asian-American artists of how to produce creative work that is original in scope, sufficiently interesting to attract a reasonable audience, but also stays true to the Asian-American historical narrative in such a way that it might appeal to audiences beyond the Asian community itself.

Those who think these "audiences beyond the Asian community" is a reference to white people, then give yourself a slap, because white people are not the only audience beyond the Asian community that could be potential audiences for Asian-American arts. In fact, an exploration of the Asian-American historical experience through cultural endeavours that seeks specifically to attract audiences from other minorities may well be more likely to be successful since such work might - if it were to be historically accurate - strike a chord of empathy with the shared experience of prejudice that is common to all of America's ethnic minorities.

This approach could solve two problems; firstly it would enable Asian-Americans to explore their own history of oppression at the hands of white supremacy without having to compromise historical truth in order to appeal to a white audience that simply might not want to be reminded of past brutalities committed in their name. Secondly, it seems logical that other minorities who have themselves experienced oppression would be more open to viewing historical narratives that echo their own narratives of oppression. The outcome of such an approach could be a major game-changer for Asian-Americans in that it could open up opportunities for artists that are not forthcoming from the white mainstream, but even more importantly it could serve as the basis for greater unity, understanding, and cooperation between ethnic minorities that could have positive repercussions beyond the artist/audience dynamic. In some ways, this approach is a movement towards a counter-culture that can challenge mainstream domination and control of the Asian-American historical narrative.

To summarize, true mainstreaming of the Asian-American historical experience can only occur if and when we make it integral to our own cultural endeavours. This means that Asian-American artists need to concern themselves with exploring our historical narrative through culture as a means of cementing our place in the cultural consciousness of America. Furthermore, by striving to appeal primarily to the non-white mainstream - as opposed to the white mainstream which we seemingly tend to do - we could be laying the groundwork for greater understanding and commonality between us and other oppressed groups, whilst simultaneously slowly mainstreaming our history.

Furthermore, the whims and tastes of white audiences have often been cited as explanations and excuses for the invisibility and stereotyping of Asian-Americans in the media and, thus, may itself have served as a deterrent for Asian artists who have sought to explore Asian-American history. This means that it is possible that the only avenue to disseminate the knowledge of our historical experience beyond the classroom and into the popular consciousness is by prioritizing its appeal to other minorities, as opposed to the white mainstream.

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