The Making of
I HAD FLOWN from San Francisco to Norfolk and was riding in a taxi. The driver and I chatted about the weather and the tourists. The sky was cloudy, and twenty minutes away was Virginia Beach, where I was scheduled to give a keynote address to hundreds of teachers and administrators at a conference on multicultural education. The rearview mirror reflected a white man in his forties. “How long have you been in this country?” he asked. “All my life,” I replied, wincing. His question was one I had been asked too many times, even by northerners with Ph.D.’s. “I was born in the United States,” I added. He replied: “I was wondering because your English is excellent!” Then I explained: “My grandfather came here from Japan in the 1880s. My family has been here, in America, for over a hundred years.” He glanced at me in the mirror. To him, I did not look like an American.
A Different Mirror
Suddenly, we both became uncomfortably conscious of a divide between us. An awkward silence turned my gaze from the mirror to the passing scenery. Here, at the eastern edge of the continent, I mused, was the site of the beginning of multicultural America. Our highway crossed land that Sir Walter Raleigh had renamed “Virginia” in honor of Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen. Taking lands from the Indians, the English colonizers founded Jamestown in 1607, and six years later they shipped the first four barrels of tobacco to London. Almost immediately, tobacco became an immensely profitable export crop, and the rise of the tobacco economy generated an insatiable demand for Indian land as well as for labor from England, Ireland, and Africa. In 1619, a year before the arrival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock, a Dutch slave ship landed the first twenty Africans at Jamestown. Indeed, history saturated the surrounding landscape.
Questions like the one that my taxi driver asked me are always jarring. But it was not his fault that he did not see me as a fellow citizen: what had he learned about Asian Americans in courses called “U.S. history” ? He saw me through a filter—what I call the Master Narrative of American History. According to this powerful and popular but inaccurate story, our country was settled by European immigrants, and Americans are white. “Race,” observed Toni Morrison, has functioned as a “metaphor” necessary to the “construction of Americanness” : in the creation of our national identity, “American” has been defined as “white.”1 Not to be “white” is to be designated as the “Other”—different, inferior, and unassimilable.
The Master Narrative is deeply embedded in our mainstream culture and can be found in the scholarship of a long list of preeminent historians. The father of the Master Narrative was Frederick Jackson Turner. In 1893, two years after the Census Bureau announced that Americans had settled the entire continent and that the frontier had come to an end, Turner gave a presentation at the meeting of the American Historical Association. Entitled “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” his paper would make him famous. Turner would become the dean of American history, his influence spanning generations of historians to come.
In what would be hailed as the “frontier thesis,” Turner declared that the end of the frontier marked “the closing of a great historic movement”—the colonization of the Great West. He explained that the frontier had been “the meeting point between savagery and civilization.” At this intersection, the Europeans had been “Americanized” by the wilderness. Initially, “the wilderness masters the colonist. It finds him a European in dress, industries, tools, modes of travel and thought. It takes him from the railroad car and puts him in a birch canoe. It strips off the garments of civilization, and arrays him in the hunting shirt and moccasin. It puts him in the log cabin of the Cherokee and Iroquois.… Before long he has gone to planting Indian corn and plowing with a sharp stick; he shouts the war cry and takes the scalp in orthodox Indian fashion.” But “little by little he transforms the wilderness” ; in “a series of Indian wars,” the “stalwart and rugged” frontiersman takes land from the Indians for white settlement and the advance of “manufacturing civilization.” “The outcome is not the Old Europe,” Turner exclaimed. “The fact is that here is a new product that is American.”2
In Turner’s footsteps came Harvard historian Oscar Handlin. In his 1945 prizewinning study The Uprooted, Handlin presented—to use the book’s subtitle—The Epic Story of the Great Migrations That Made the American People. In his introduction, Handlin wrote: “I once thought to write a history of immigrants in America. I discovered that the immigrants were American history.”3 However, Handlin studied only the migrations from Europe. His “epic story” overlooked the indigenous people of the continent and also the “uprooted” from Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
Contrary to the views of historians like Turner and Handlin, America is a nation peopled by the world, and we are all Americans.
The Master Narrative’s narrow definition of who is an American reflects and reinforces a more general thinking that can be found in the curriculum, news and entertainment media, business practices, and public policies. Through this filter, interpretations of ourselves and the world have been constructed, leaving many of us feeling left out of history and America itself.
Today, our expanding racial diversity is challenging the Master Narrative. Demography is declaring: Not all of us came originally from Europe! Currently, one-third of the American people do not trace their ancestries to Europe; in California, minorities have become the majority. They already predominate in major cities across the country—Boston, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Detroit, Houston, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Diversity is emerging as America’s “manifest destiny.”
Within the lifetime of young people today, Americans of European ancestry will become a minority. Indeed, we will all be minorities. How can we prepare ourselves for this future, when the Master Narrative is such a powerful force in our thinking about the past? Analyzing the problem, fourteen-year-old Nicholas Takaki reported that his American history course had taught him “next to nothing about the significance of Asian Americans. I believe our education system as a whole has not integrated the histories of all people into our education system, just the Eurocentric view of itself, and the White-centered view of African Americans, and even this is slim to nonexistent. What I find is that most people don’t know the fact that they don’t know, because of the complete lack of information.”4
Increasingly aware of this ignorance, educators everywhere have begun to recognize the need to recover the missing chapters of American history. In 1990, the Task Force on Minorities for New York stressed the importance of a culturally diverse education. “Essentially,” the New York Times commented, “the issue is how to deal with both dimensions of the nation’s motto: ‘E pluribus unum’—‘Out of many, one.’” Universities from New Hampshire to Berkeley have established American cultural diversity graduation requirements. “Every student needs to know,” explained University of Wisconsin chancellor Donna Shalala, “much more about the origins and history of the particular cultures which, as Americans, we will encounter during our lives.” Even the University of Minnesota, located in a state that is 98 percent white, requires its students to take ethnic-studies courses. Asked why multiculturalism is so important, Dean Fred Lukermann answered: As a national university, Minnesota has to offer a national curriculum—one that includes all of the peoples of America. He added that after graduation many students move to cities like Chicago and Los Angeles and thus need to know about racial diversity. Moreover, many educators stress, multiculturalism has an intellectual purpose: a more inclusive curriculum is also a more accurate one.5
Indeed, the study of diversity is essential for understanding how and why America became what Walt Whitman called a “teeming nation of nations.”6
Multicultural scholarship, however, has usually focused on just one minority. Thus, Cornel West in Race Matters covers only African Americans, Dee Brown in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee only Native Americans, Irving Howe in World of Our Fathers only Jewish Americans, Mario Barrera in Race and Class in the Southwest only Mexican Americans, and even I myself in Strangers from a Different Shore only Asian Americans. While enriching and deepening our knowledge of a particular group, this approach examines a specific minority in isolation from the others and the whole. Missing is the bigger picture.
In our approach, we will instead study race and ethnicity inclusively and comparatively. While it would be impossible to cover all groups in one book, we will focus on several of them that illustrate and illuminate the landscape of our society’s diversity—African Americans, Asian Americans, Irish Americans, Jewish Americans, Mexican Americans, Muslim Americans, and Native Americans.
African Americans have been the central minority throughout our country’s history. Even fifty years after their first arrival in Virginia, Africans still represented only a tiny percentage of the colony’s population. The planters preferred workers from their homeland, for they wanted their new society to be racially homogeneous. This thinking abruptly changed, however, in 1676, when the elite encountered an uprising of discontented and armed workers. After quelling the insurrection with reinforcements of British troops, the planters turned to Africa for their primary labor supply; the new workers would be enslaved and prohibited from owning arms. Subsequently, the African population spiked upward, and slavery spread across the South. African Americans would remain degraded as unpaid laborers and dehumanized as property until the Civil War. What President Abraham Lincoln called “this mighty scourge of war” finally ended “the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil.” But a grim future awaited African Americans: Jim Crow segregation, lynchings, race riots, and what W. E. B. Du Bois called “the problem of the color line.” Still, they insistently struggled for freedom. Joined by people of other races in the sixties, African Americans marched and sang, “We shall overcome,” winning significant victories that changed society. Indeed, the history of African Americans has been stitched into the history of America itself. Martin Luther King, Jr., clearly understood this truth when he wrote from a jail cell: “We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny.”7
Asian Americans began arriving in America long before many European immigrants. Seeking “Gold Mountain,” the Chinese were among the Forty-Niners. Then they worked on the railroad, in the agricultural fields of the West Coast states, and in the factories of California and even Massachusetts. As “strangers” coming from a “different shore,” they were stereotyped as “heathen” and unassimilable. Wanted as sojourning laborers, the Chinese were not welcomed as settlers. During an economic depression, Congress passed the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act—the first law that prohibited the entry of immigrants on the basis of nationality. The Chinese condemned this restriction as racist and tyrannical. “They call us ‘Chink,’” complained a Chinese immigrant, cursing the “white demons.” “They think we no good! America cut us off. No more come now, too bad!” The Japanese also painfully discovered that their accomplishments in America did not lead to acceptance. During World War II, the government interned a hundred twenty thousand Japanese Americans, two-thirds of them citizens by birth. “How could I as a six-month-old child born in this country,” asked Congressman Robert Matsui years later, “be declared by my own Government to be an enemy alien?”8 In 1975, after the collapse of Saigon, tens of thousands of refugees fled to America from the tempest of the Vietnam War. Today, Asian Americans represent one of the fastest-growing ethnic groups in America, projected to represent 10 percent of the total U.S. population by 2050.
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