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A History of Our Diversity, with Voices
Copyright © 1998 Ronald T. Takaki
All right reserved.
A Larger Memory
The Ties That Bind
Roots: A Multicultural Memory
"THIS SECTION OF HOUSES was called 'lunas' row,'" my cousin Minoru Takaki remarked as he drove me down a tree-lined street on the Puunene Plantation. "Lunas" were foremen, and he was showing me the sugar plantation where my grandfather had worked decades before I was born. "Only the white lunas could live in these houses," my cousin noted. Next we drove to the camps where the workers were housed. The plantation had Japanese camps and Filipino camps as well as camps named "Young Hee Camp," "Ah Fong Camp," "Spanish A Camp," "Spanish B Camp." "There was," added Minoru, "one called 'Alabama Camp.'" Surprised, I asked: "Alabama?" "Yeah," he explained, "we used to have Negroes working on the plantation."
As my cousin described the racial and ethnic diversity of the laborers in the camps, I remembered growing up in Palolo Valley on the island of Oahu, where my neighbors were Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Filipino, Hawaiian, and Portuguese. Ours was an ethnic diversity that had not been explained to me in school:why were there so many different peoples, speaking different languages and sharing different cultures, living together in Palolo?
Minoru's storytelling also led me to think about some documents I had come across in the archives. As the planters began to develop the sugar economy in the late nineteenth century, they pursued a plan: "Get labor first, and capital will follow." For supplies, they sent requisitions to the mercantile houses in Honolulu. In a letter to a plantation manager, July 2, 1890, the Davies Company of Honolulu acknowledged receipt of a list of an order:
A letter, May 5, 1908, from the vice president of H. Hackfield and Company to manager George Wilcox of the Grove Farm Plantation had itemized sections, listed alphabetically, for
Though they requisitioned workers along with supplies, planters were conscious of the nationalities of their laborers. They were systematically developing an ethnically diverse labor force in order to create divisions among their workers and reinforce management control. Plantation managers devised a policy: "Keep a variety of laborers, that is different nationalities, and thus prevent any concerted action in case of strikes, for there are few, if any, cases of Japs, Chinese, and Portuguese entering into a strike as a unit."
These workers from many different countries found themselves in a world of regimented labor. Early in the morning, they were jarred from their sleep by the loud scream of the plantation siren. A work song captured the beginning of the workday:
"Awake! stir your bones! Rouse up!"
Shrieks the Five O'clock Whistle.
"Don't dream you can nestle
For one more sweet nap.
Or your ear-drums I'll rap
With my steam-hammer tap
Till they burst.
Wake up! wake up! wake up! w-a-k-e-u-u-u-up!
Filipino and Japanee;
Porto Rican and Portugee;
Korean, Kanaka and Chinese;
Everybody whoever you be
On the whole plantation--
Wake up! wake up! wake up! w-a-k-e-u-u-u-up!
"All the workers on a plantation in all their tongues and kindreds 'roiled out' sometime in the early morning, before the break of day," reported a visitor. In front of the mill, they lined up, shouldering their hoes, and were organized into gangs. Each of them was supervised by "a luna, or overseer, almost always a white man." The ethnicity of the gangs varied: some were composed of one nationality, while others reflected a mixture of Hawaiians, Filipinos, Puerto Ricans, Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, and Koreans.
For everyone, field work was punishing and brutal. "We worked like machines," a laborer complained. "For two hundred of us workers, there were seven or eight lunas and above them was a field boss on a horse. We were watched constantly." Harvesting the cane was dirty and exhausting work. The workers whispered to the wind, come, please come and cool our sweaty backs. But the breezes often could not reach them because they were surrounded by the green thicket. Twelve feet in height, the cane was like a formidable forest, and the workers were like miniature soldiers as they cut the stalks.
Fighting back against the cane, workers also refused to be intimidated by management. Contrary to the stereotype of Asians as quiet and accommodating, these immigrants repeatedly engaged in strikes, inspired by fierce visions of what their labor and lives in Hawaii should be.
The first major strike was organized in 1909 by Japanese laborers who constituted 70 percent of the workforce. In their strike demands, the laborers called for equal pay for equal work: they wanted the same pay as workers from Puerto Rico and Portugal. "It is not the color of his skin or hair, or the language he speaks, or manners and customs that grow cane in the field," the strikers declared. "It is labor that grows cane."
Their strike demands reflected the transformation of these sojourning laborers into settlers. "We have decided to permanently settle here [and] to unite our destiny with that of Hawaii, sharing the prosperity and adversity of Hawaii with other citizens of Hawaii." Significantly, these Japanese immigrants were framing their demands in "American" terms. They argued that the deplorable conditions on the plantations perpetuated an "undemocratic and un-American" society of "plutocrats and coolies." Fair wages would encourage laborers to work more industriously and productively and enable Hawaii to enjoy "perpetual peace and prosperity." Seeking to create "a thriving and contented middle class -- the realization of the high ideal of Americanism," these strikers wanted to share in the American dream.
But the planters were determined to make theirs a dream denied. They crushed the strike and then began importing Filipino laborers in a divide-and-rule strategy. By 1920, the Japanese workers represented only 44 percent of the labor force, and the Filipino workers constituted 30 percent. However, the laborers of both nationalities began to realize that the labor movement in Hawaii would have to be based on interethnic working-class unity.
In 1920, the Japanese and Filipino laborers went out on strike together. The Filipinos initiated the action when three thousand of them stopped working. Japanese newspapers urged the Japanese laborers to join the Filipino strikers: "Laborers from different countries" should take "action together." Between Filipinos and Japanese, there should be "no barriers of nationality, race, or color." At their strike rallies, Japanese and Filipinos waved American flags.
Though the strikers held out for months, they were finally forced to return to work. But the strike had demonstrated the power of workers of different nationalities to struggle together for equality. Moreover, the strike represented the political expression of a cultural transformation. Coming from different countries, these immigrants had been transplanting customs and traditions to the islands.
The plantation camps had become places for ethnic holidays and celebrations. One of the most colorful and noisy festivals was Chinese New Year. During the midsummer, Japanese held their traditional "obon," or festival of souls. The most important celebration of Filipino laborers was Rizal Day -- December 30, the anniversary of the Spanish execution of the famous revolutionary Jose Rizal in 1896.
In the camps, these immigrants from many countries enjoyed and shared their ethnic foods. The daughter of a Portuguese laborer remembered how her mother would make gifts of "little buns for the children in the camp. The Japanese families gave us sushis and the Hawaiians would give us fish." Everybody took their own lunches to school, Lucy Robello of the Waialua plantation said, and they would trade their foods with one another. Meanwhile, in the fields, their parents were also sharing their lunches. Together workers of different ethnicities would taste each other's foods and exclaim in Hawaiian: "Ono, ono!" "Tasty, tasty!"
Initially, the laborers of each ethnic group spoke only their native tongue. But soon workers of different nationalities began to acquire a common language. Planters wanted the immigrant laborers to be taught a functional spoken English so they could give commands to their multilingual work force. "By this," explained a planter, "we do not mean the English of Shakespeare but the terms used in everyday plantation life. A great many of the small troubles arise from the imperfect understanding between overseers and laborers." Over the years, a plantation dialect developed called "pidgin English" -- a basic English that incorporated Hawaiian, Japanese, Portuguese, and Chinese phrases as well as the rhythms and intonations of these languages. Though it had begun as "the language of command," this hybrid language with its luxuriant cadences, lyrical sounds, and expressive hand gestures soon became the language of the community. "The language we used had to be either pidgin English or broken English," explained a Filipino laborer. "And when we don't understand each other, we had to add some other words that would help to explain ourselves. That's how this pidgin English comes out beautiful."
Gradually, over the years, the immigrants were planting roots in Hawaii through their children. In the schools, however, students were taught lessons that made them critical of the plantation system. From their teachers, many of whom were whites from the mainland, they learned about freedom and equality as they recited the Declaration of Independence. "Here the children learned about democracy or at least the theory of it," said a University of Hawaii student. They were taught that honest labor, fair play, and industriousness were virtues. But they "saw that it wasn't so on the plantation."
However, their parents were determined to open equality of opportunity for their children. They had earned the right to claim America. After all, they had transformed the islands into a profitable sugar economy. "When we first came to Hawaii," the 1920 strikers proudly declared, "these islands were covered with ohia forests, guava fields and areas of wild grass. Day and night did we work, cutting trees and burning grass, clearing lands and cultivating fields until we made the plantations what they are today."
"The Vast, Surging, Hopeful Army of Workers"
What happened in Hawaii was, in many significant ways, illustrative of a larger American narrative. The U.S. mainland in the nineteenth century also witnessed the making of a modern multicultural America. Workers of different ethnicities and races were laboring on the railroads in California and Utah, in the cotton fields of Georgia, the textile mills of Massachusetts, the garment factories of New York, the orchards of Washington, the steel mills of Pennsylvania, and the copper mines of Arizona.
Connecting the different regions of the nation and opening the way for the industrialization of America, the railroad system was the achievement of a diversity of workers. Hired out by their owners, twenty thousand slaves were used to build the rail lines of the South -- the Mississippi Railroad, the Georgia, the South Carolina, the Raleigh and Gaston, and others. Laying railroad ties, black laborers sang:
Down the railroad, urn-huh
Well, raise the iron, um-huh
Raise the iron, um-huh.
Working on the rail lines for the Western and Atlantic Railroad from Atlanta to Chattanooga and the Union Pacific segment of the transcontinental railroad, Irish laborers heard their foremen yelling: "Now Mick do this, and Mick do that." And the Irish shouted back: "The divil take the railroad!" As they were laying the tracks, they tuned their bodies to the rhythms of a work song:
Then drill, my Paddies, drill--
Drill, my heroes, drill,
Drill all day, no sugar in your tay
Workin' on the U. P. railway.
While falling asleep at night, the Irish workers continued to feel the vibrations of the sledgehammers in their hands and to hear the pounding ringing in their heads. Then they felt the merciless biting of insects:
When I lay me down to sleep,
The ugly bugs around me creep;
Bad luck to the wink that I can sleep,
While workin' on the railroad.
During the early twentieth century, ten thousand Japanese laborers worked in railroad construction, many of them for the Northern Pacific. Shuttled from one construction site to another, they lived in boxcars, sleeping in double-decked bunks. "We slept in the freight cars," one of them recalled, "suffering a lot from troops of bedbugs. In order to protect ourselves from these despicable insects we each made a big sleeping sack out of cotton cloth, crawled in with our comforter and blanket, and then pulled the string tight at the top to close up the sack." Japanese workers complained about the fickle and fierce weather in song:
A railroad worker --
I am great.
Yes, I am a railroad worker.
"It is too hot!"
"It is too cold!"
"It rains too often!"
"It snows too much!"
They all ran off.
I alone remained.
I am a railroad worker!
Mexican laborers laid tracks in the Southwest and California. When they began working in Santa Barbara, a local newspaper reported that the "Chinamen section hands" of the Southern Pacific Railroad had been replaced by "a gang of Mexicans." By 1900, this company had forty-five hundred Mexican workers. A song in Spanish told what it was like to work on the railroad:
Some unloaded rails
Others unloaded ties ...
Those who knew the work
Went repairing the jack
With sledge hammers and shovels,
Throwing earth up the track.
And others of my companions
Threw out thousands of curses.
Brought together to build the industrial economy, workers of various ethnicities and races were often swept into antagonisms. Ethnic stereotypes and employment competition divided them by groups and drove them into conflicts. Even though they shared much in common in terms of class, they found themselves separated by languages, cultures, and identities based on their countries of origin.
Initially, many Irish saw parallels between themselves as an oppressed people and blacks in bondage. In Ireland, they saw themselves as the "slaves" of the British and supported the abolition of slavery in the United States. For example, in 1842, thousands of them signed a petition that declared: "Irishmen and Irishwomen! Treat the colored people as your equals, as brethren." But Irish sympathy for black slaves often turned to hostility in America. Frederick Douglass criticized the Irish immigrants for abandoning the idea of "liberty" they had nurtured in their homeland by becoming "the oppressors of another race" in this country. Irish freedom fighter Daniel O'Connell scolded the immigrants for their racism: "It was not in Ireland you learned this cruelty."
What the Irish learned in America was a painful and complex lesson. Stereotyped as an ignorant and inferior people, they were forced to occupy the bottom rungs of employment. In the South, the Irish were even made to do the dirty and hazardous jobs that slaveowners would not assign to their slaves. A planter told a northern visitor that he had hired an Irish gang to drain a flooded area rather than use his own slaves. "It's dangerous work," he explained, "and a negro's life is too valuable to be risked at it. If a negro dies, it's a considerable loss, you know." In the North, the Irish competed with blacks for jobs as waiters and longshoremen. During the 1830s, a Philadelphia newspaper reported that these immigrants were displacing blacks as hackney coachmen, draymen, and stevedores.
As they pushed blacks out of the labor market, many Irish promoted their whiteness. "In a country of the whites where [white workers] find it difficult to earn a subsistence," they asked, "what right has the negro either to preference or to equality, or to admission?" Targets of nativist resentment, the Irish sought to assimilate by attacking blacks. Complaining that blacks did not know their place, many Irish shouted: "Down with the Nagurs!" "Let them go back to Africa, where they belong."
But blacks resented being told by immigrants to leave the country of their birth and "go back" to Africa. They complained that the Irish were taking jobs from them. "These impoverished and destitute beings, transported from the trans-Atlantic shores," a black observed, "are crowding themselves into every place of business and labor, and driving the poor colored American citizen out. Along the wharves, where the colored man once done the whole business of shipping and unshipping -- in stores where his services were once rendered, and in families where the chief places were filled by him, in all these situations there are substituted foreigners."
Irish laborers competed with not only blacks but also the Chinese. One instance of this occurred in New England in 1870. Irish workers in the shoemaking industry were struggling against low wages and the introduction of labor-eliminating machines; consequently, they organized the Secret Order of the Knights of St. Crispin. Demanding higher wages and an eight-hour day, the Crispins went out on strike at a shoe factory in North Adams, Massachusetts. The owner, Calvin T. Sampson, fired the disgruntled workers and pursued a strategy of divide-and-rule. He transported a contingent of seventy-five Chinese workers from San Francisco and used them as scabs to break the Irish strike. Sampson's bold action caught the attention of other employers as well as the national news media. Within three months after their arrival in North Adams, the Chinese workers were producing more shoes than the same number of white workers had been making before the strike. The success of Sampson's strategy was celebrated in the press. Writing for Scribner's Monthly, William Shanks contrasted the Chinese with the Irish workers. The Chinese "labored regularly and constantly, losing no blue Mondays on account of Sunday's dissipations nor wasting hours on idle holidays," he reported. "The quality of the work was found to be fully equal to that of the Crispins." The striking Crispins tried to promote working-class solidarity by organizing a Chinese lodge of St. Crispin. But their effort failed, and in the end, Sampson prevailed and broke the strike.
Clearly, the expansive economy of the nineteenth century was the crucible for the making of America's modern multicultural society -- what Walt Whitman saluted as the "vast, surging, hopeful army of workers." Irish immigrants worked in New England factories manufacturing textiles from cotton cultivated by enslaved blacks on lands taken from Indians and Mexicans, and settlers moved west on railroads built by the Irish and Chinese. The stories of all these groups were different, but they were not disconnected. Besides the economy and labor, however, there was something else, something deeply rooted in our very founding as a nation that tied us together as Americans.
A Nation That Did "Not Perish from the Earth":
A Legacy of Black Men in Blue
In his rough draft of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson had included a paragraph on slavery in his long list of charges against the King -- "facts" to be "submitted to a candid world":
he has [violated] the most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people ... captivating [sic] and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere ... he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.
Jefferson was blaming the King for the fact that slaveholders like himself were violating the liberty of African Americans, and was denouncing the ruler for inciting slaves to seize their liberty by taking the lives of their masters. To include this paragraph in the Declaration would have been hypocritical. Many delegates to the Continental Congress quickly insisted that it be crossed out. In his notes on the revising of the draft, Jefferson explained the reason for the deletion: "The clause ... reprobating the enslaving the inhabitants of Africa, was struck out in complaisance to South Carolina and Georgia, who had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves, and who on the contrary still wished to continue it. Our Northern brethren also I believe felt a little tender under those censures; for tho' their people have very few slaves themselves yet they have been pretty considerable carriers of them to others."
Jefferson and his fellow revolutionaries were unwilling to submit the "fact" of their slave trading and slaveholding to a "candid world." Instead, by deletion, they attempted to conceal the contradiction between the proclaimed ideals of liberty and equality and the practice of violating the "unalienable" rights of African Americans.
This contradiction, however, was unshrouded by the black poet Phillis Wheatly during the American Revolution. Born in Africa and transported as a slave to Boston, she had learned English and become a published poet. In one of her poems, Wheatly candidly submitted to the world the "fact" of Jefferson's deletions -- "the iron chain," the "wanton tyranny" of slavery, how she had been "snatch'd from Afric's fancy'd happy seat" and forcibly separated from her parents, and how her song had sprung from her "love of Freedom."
Many years later, during the Civil War, African Americans helped end the "tyrannic sway" of slavery by fighting in the Union army. Initially, concerned that the use of black soldiers would alienate the border states and also be resented by white soldiers, President Abraham Lincoln had refused to allow African Americans to serve in the military. In early 1863, however, the North was on the verge of losing the war. "Manpower now posed a real problem," observed historian David Donald. "There had been severe losses in a contest that had now lasted nearly two years. The terms for which many regiments had enlisted were about to expire, and soldiers wanted to go home.... There were almost no new volunteers. It would be months before a new conscription act could bring in recruits." At this moment of military crisis, Lincoln announced that African Americans would be received into the armed services. He wrote to the military governor of Tennessee, Andrew Johnson: "The colored population is the great available and yet unavailed of, force for restoring the Union." By the end of the year, General Lorenzo Thomas, commander in the Mississippi Valley, had enrolled twenty regiments of African Americans.
Lincoln decided he would free all of the slaves in order to save the Union and made emancipation a war aim. Without "the physical force which the colored people now give," Lincoln thought, "and promise us ... neither the present, nor any coming administration, can save the Union." Noting that there were nearly 200,000 blacks in the Union army, Lincoln explained that without them "we would be compelled to abandon the war in 3 weeks." In other words, black men in blue made the difference in determining that this "government of the people, by the people, for the people," did "not perish from the earth."
The military sacrifices of African Americans were particularly horrendous: one-third of the 186,000 black soldiers were listed as missing or dead. In an editorial, "Men of Color, To Arms!" Frederick Douglass had explained the reason for their willingness to fight and to die for the Union: "From East to West, from North to South, the sky is written all over: 'Now or never.' 'Liberty won by white men would lose half its luster.' 'Who would be free themselves must strike the blow.'... The chance is now given you to end in a day the bondage of centuries, and to rise in one bound from social degradation to the plane of common equality with all other varieties of men." Black men, Douglass pointed out, were "on the battlefield mingling their blood with that of white men in one common effort to save the country." Declaring that the nation belonged to all Americans regardless of race, the black leader forcefully noted that the Constitution stated, "We, the People," not "We, the white people."
Black and white Union soldiers together had brought to an end what Lincoln called "this mighty scourge of war" as well as "the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil." But liberation from slavery did not lead to freedom from serfdom. After the failed Reconstruction, blacks found themselves in the de facto bondage of the exploitative system of sharecropping.
By then, the migration of "strangers from a different shore" had begun. The Chinese initially rushed to the gold fields of California in the 1850s, followed by tens of thousands as agricultural and industrial workers. In 1882, however, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. An immigrant angrily protested against what he saw as an unfaithfulness to America's founding principles. "No nation can afford to let go its high ideals," Yan Phou Lee wrote in the North American Review. "The founders of the American Republic asserted the principle that all men are created equal, and made this fair land a refuge for the world. Its manifest destiny, therefore, is to be the teacher and leader of nations in liberty. Its supremacy should be maintained by good faith and righteous dealing, and not by the display of selfishness and greed. But now, looking at the actions of this generation of Americans in their treatment of other races, who can get rid of the idea that that Nation, which Abraham Lincoln said was conceived in liberty, waxed great through oppression, and was really dedicated to the proposition that all men are created to prey on one another? How far this Republic has departed from its high ideal and reversed its traditional policy may be seen in the laws passed against the Chinese."
Lee's protest was undoubtedly dismissed by most Americans, but the struggle to make this republic adhere to its ideals sometimes surfaced at the workplace. Though laborers of different races and ethnicities were forced to compete against each other, they demonstrated a capacity for intergroup cooperation. In 1903, for example, Mexican and Japanese farm laborers went on strike together in Oxnard, California. They organized the Japanese-Mexican Labor Association, and conducted strike meetings in Japanese and Spanish. The Japanese branch was led by Y. Yamaguchi and the Mexican branch by J. M. Lizarras. In a joint statement, the leaders declared: "Many of us have family, were born in the country, and are lawfully seeking to protect the only property that we have -- our labor. It is just as necessary for the welfare of the valley that we get a decent living wage, as it is that the machines in the great sugar factory be properly oiled -- if the machines stop, the wealth of the valley stops, and likewise if the laborers are not given a decent wage, they too, must stop work and the whole people of this country suffer with them."
The Japanese and Mexican workers won their strike. Lizarras then requested a charter for their labor association from the American Federation of Labor. Samuel Gompers, the president of the federation, agreed to issue a charter but on one condition: "Your union will under no circumstances accept membership of any ... Japanese." This requirement contradicted the strikers' spirit of brotherhood as well as the nation's founding principle of equality. Refusing the charter, Lizarras protested:
We beg to say in reply that our Japanese brothers here were the first to recognize the importance of cooperating and uniting in demanding a fair wage scale.... In the past we have counseled, fought and lived on very short rations with our Japanese brothers, and toiled with them in the fields, and they have been uniformly kind and considerate. We would be false to them and to ourselves and to the cause of unionism if we now accepted privileges for ourselves which are not accorded to them.... We will refuse any other kind of charter, except one which will wipe out race prejudice and recognize our fellow workers as being as good as ourselves. I am ordered by the Mexican union to write this letter to you and they fully approve its words.
Without the AFL charter and the general support of organized labor, the Japanese and Mexican union passed out of existence within a few years. But they had passionately affirmed the American principle of equality. Three decades later, during the Great Depression, the poet Langston Hughes echoed their message when he urged his fellow citizens to "let America be America again," to let us breathe the equality in our air.
Our commitment to the nation's founding principles was tested again during World War II. Should minorities fight for a democracy that did not include them? Malcolm Little, later known as Malcolm X, recalled how one of his friends refused to serve. Trying to fail the physical examination, he took a drug to make his heart sound defective. "Shorty felt about the war the same way I and most ghetto Negroes did: 'Whitey owns everything. He wants us to go and bleed for him? Let him fight.'"
However, most young Americans, regardless of racial and ethnic backgrounds, chose to defend democracy. In a letter found on his body after he was killed on the battlefield, a Jewish soldier explained to his parents the reasons why he was fighting for America:
Mom, I want you to know that I asked for a combat assignment. I did so for several reasons. One is that I had certain ideals within my own mind, for which I had often argued verbally. I didn't feel right to sit safe, far behind the lines, while men were risking their lives for principles which I would fight for only with my lips. I felt that I also must be willing to risk my life in the fight for freedom of speech and thought I was using and hoped to use in the future.
Another reason ... is the fact that I am Jewish. I felt, again, it wasn't right for me to be safe behind the lines, while others were risking their lives, with one of their goals the principles of no race prejudice. I knew this meant fighting for me and my family because if Hitler won, my family -- you, Rolly and Pop -- would certainly suffer more than the families of other soldiers who died in the fight.
I felt that I must risk my life, on that point, so that I could earn the right of my family to live in peace and free from race prejudice.
African Americans, too, understood what it meant to risk their lives for the principle of "no race prejudice." For them, World War II was a campaign for "double victory" -- a fight against fascism abroad and racism at home. "There should be no illusions about the nature of this struggle," declared black scholar Ralph Bunche. "The fight now is not to save democracy, for that which does not exist cannot be saved. But the fight is to maintain those conditions under which people may continue to strive for the realization of democratic ideals. This is the inexorable logic of the nation's position dictated by the world anti-democratic revolution and Hitler's projected new world order."
"We are also children of the United States," Mexican Americans declared. "We will defend her." On his way to the European front, a Mexican-American soldier reflected on the possibility of dying and the meaning of such a sacrifice: "What if I were killed? What would happen to my wife, my three children? My mother? All the horrible thoughts imaginable would grip me, and before I could find the answers, other thoughts would begin to swirl in. I remembered about us, the Mexican-Americans ... how the Anglo had pushed and held back our people in the Southwest. Why fight for America when you have not been treated as an American?" But he was overwhelmed by "the feeling" he had for his "home" in America. "Ail we wanted," he decided, "was a chance to prove how loyal and American we were."
A year after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the New York Times reported that 8,800 of the 60,000 Native American males between the ages of twenty-one and forty-four were in military uniform, a higher rate than for the general population. A Native American soldier wrote home from the battlefield: "I don't know anything about the white man's way. I never went outside the reservation. ... I am proud to be in a [military] suit like this now. It is to protect my country, my people. ..."
World War II was particularly stressful for Americans of Japanese ancestry. Though they had been herded into internment camps and though they were angry over the denial of their constitutional rights, tens of thousands of Japanese Americans served in the U.S. armed forces. In a letter to his family written from the battlefront, one of them explained why he was ready to die for this country: "By virtue of the Japanese attack on our nation, we as American citizens of Japanese ancestry have been mercilessly flogged with criticism and accusations. But I'm not going to take it sitting down! I may not be able to come back. But that matters little. My family and friends -- they are the ones who will be able to back their arguments with facts. ... In fact, it is better that we are sent to the front and that a few of us do not return, for the testimony will be stronger in favor of the folks back home."
Altogether, thirty-three thousand Japanese Americans served in the military. As soldiers in the all Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team, they fought heroically in Italy and France, earning over eighteen thousand individual military decorations. At a White House ceremony in 1946, they received the Presidential Unit Citation from Harry Truman. "You fought for the free nations of the world ..." the president declared. "You fought not only the enemy, you fought prejudice -- and you won. Keep up that fight ... continue to win -- make this great Republic stand for what the Constitution says it stands for: 'the welfare of all the people, all the time.'"
This war for "double victory" defeated fascism abroad but not at home. Nevertheless, it opened the way for the civil rights movement. Jailed in Alabama for protesting against segregation, Martin Luther King identified our country's true manifest destiny. "We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation," he wrote in a letter to his fellow Americans on April 16, 1963, "because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America's destiny." Then on August 28, at the March on Washington, as he stood before the Lincoln Memorial a century after the Gettysburg Address, King shared his vision: "I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.'"
This creed was still a dream deferred. Excluded from equality, Americans from minority communities felt a special reason to pursue our nation's "proposition" and a particularly passionate commitment to carry forward our "unfinished work."
Breaking Silences: Brushing Against the Grain
Our stories "aren't just entertainment," Leslie Marmon Silko cautioned. "Don't be fooled." But, then, what are they?
"I hope this survey do a lot of good for Chinese people," a Chinese immigrant told an interviewer from Stanford University in the 1920s. "Make American people realize that Chinese people are humans. I think very few American people really know anything about Chinese." After Harriet Jacobs escaped from slavery in the South, she wrote in her autobiography: "[My purpose] is not to tell you what I have heard but what I have seen -- and what I have suffered." "Our stories should be listened to by many young people," said a ninety-one-year-old retired Japanese plantation laborer. "It's for their sake. We really had a hard time, you know." In her autobiography, Jewish immigrant Minnie Miller wrote: "This story is dedicated to the descendants of Lazar and Goldie Glauberman. My history is bound up in their history and the generations that follow should know where they come from to know better who they are."
Most important, in the telling and retelling of what happened, the people of multicultural America brush against the grain of the master narrative of American history, the ethnocentric story told from the perspective of the English colonists and their descendants. They break a silence imposed on them. "It is very natural that the history written by the victim," explained a Mexican in 1874, "does not altogether chime with the story of the victor." In giving their own accounts, people reveal themselves not merely as "victims" but as actors in history, making decisions and taking actions in order to change the circumstances that surrounded their lives.
Finally, our stories tell about the making of Americans. "We got such good, fantastic stories to tell," seventy-five-year-old Tomo Shoji explained. "All our stories are different." Indeed, our narratives reveal the diversity of experiences and reflections among various ethnic groups as well as within a group -- differences of class, gender, national origins, generations, times, and places. These memories resist the essentialisms and the ethnocentricisms that seek to entrap the human spirit. Our recounted experiences show that ethnic identity is not something pure, static, primordial, natural, or eternal. Rather, as Lisa Lowe insightfully observes, who we are is only partly inherited. Our identities are fluid, negotiated, socially constructed, "imagined," and "invented."
America turned out to be an ideal site for such transitions and transformations due to its liminality -- the nation's ambiguous geographical and cultural location "betwixt and between all fixed points of classification." Here the "cake of custom" of the Old Worlds was broken. To be sure, as various peoples encountered each other here, they were often pulled into antagonisms, driven by narrow definitions of the "we" and "them." But diversity did not necessarily mean division. For example, groups like the Japanese and Filipino laborers in Hawaii or the Japanese and Mexican laborers in California discovered that ethnic boundaries were mutable and porous. Forging new associations and forming new identities, the people of multicultural America were able to unknot traditional ties that had bound them and to pursue possibilities for reinventing themselves. As they socially constructed their identity in different circumstances, they expanded the already extraordinary range of their identities as Americans. Ethnicity became a field for the making of "imagined communities." Swept into the "play" of history with all of its rushing events and forces, they made choices that revised and reformulated notions of themselves and also America itself.
As Americans, we have been, all along, more complex and multi-dimensional than many of us may think we are. Our ethnic identity does have inherited parts -- family, national origins, gender, and race. But what is ascriptive and what is achieved blur into one another in the dynamic and interactive process of becoming American. In the recovering and sharing of our "varied carols," we have been creating a community of "a larger memory."
Excerpted from A Larger Memory by Ronald T. Takaki Copyright © 1998 by Ronald T. Takaki. Excerpted by permission.
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