When Asian America was a Movement

A Movement Veteran Rethinks the History of Asian American Activism
Seattle March on the Department of Housing and Urban Development (Photo: Eugene Tagawa, via Verso)


As a generation of veteran activists—sometimes known as "movement elders"—enters an age of wisdom, new reflections on past movements have cropped up in the form of memoir and historical scholarship. Karen L. Ishizuka weaves together history and memory in Serve the People, a biography of the postwar Asian American civil rights movement. She takes a critical look at a social uprising that she herself was part of, and details the people, places, organizations and campaigns that formed what became known as the Asian American Movement. It may be seen in some ways as a relatively brief moment in Asian American history, but in many ways, it was the Big Bang that created Asian and Pacific Islander America as a political and cultural phenomenon. In a dialogue with CultureStrike's Michelle Chen, Ishizuka reflects on what the Asian American Movement was, what became of it, and what it still means today.

Read an excerpt of Serve the People.

—Michelle Chen, August 19, 2016


Michelle Chen: Why does Serve the People appear now?

Karen Ishizuka: The "Sixties" was a critical time in world history that gave birth to a radical and global consciousness that continues to reverberate and rumble five decades later. Unlike previous historical eras, over the past 50 years there have been hundreds of books and articles dedicated to deconstructing and analyzing its impact and influence, evidence of its continuing significance not just for the past but for the present and future. Most of these books and articles have been written from a white male perspective. And although the general public is aware of the Black Liberation movement, and some have heard of the Chicano/a movement, very few know about the Asian American (and Native American) movement. That's why, when I originally proposed a much narrower (geographic and topical) focus on the Asian American movement, Verso felt it was time for a broader, more comprehensive, national overview. So I owe that vision to the editorial board of Verso and my editor Andy Hsaio.

Another reason to write this book now is that on the long road to social change, sometimes you take one step forward only to go back two. Diagnosis: historical amnesia. For example, as I write in the book, a 2012 Pew Research report basically concluded that Asian Americans are still the model minority—a dangerous stereotype that we fought so hard to get rid of 50 years ago. And in 2013 an API tweet calling for “a space to use our voices, build community and be heard” went viral attracting the attention of mainstream news outlets around the world. But to those of us who made such a space in the Sixties—or so we thought—it was déjà vu.

What inspired this book personally for you?

"Kill that Gook" (Alan Takemoto, Gidra, 1972, via Verso)

I began a Ph.D. program in the late 1970s and dropped out to work on the ground in the area of Asian American history, culture and community. I wrote and produced films primarily on the Japanese American experience, curated museum exhibits and advocated for the significance of home movies as the only motion picture documentation of people of color who were routinely overlooked in American newsreels and mass media. All good but I realized that the written word still rules in terms of getting us out of the margins and positioning us within the canon of U.S. history and culture. The written word doesn’t require projectors or other playback machines, are less ephemeral than museum exhibits, and are the primary educational tool. Moreover, the written word can be cited by other scholars and writers thereby taking on an after life. Of the over 1 million books per year that are published in the U.S. alone, more than a handful should be on and by Asian Pacific Americans. And, oh, after a thirty year hiatus I went back to school and am now a recently minted Ph.D.

As I read contemporary API commentary and listen to young people, I am struck with the realization that today’s APIs know nothing to little about how Asian America came to be. Just as my generation was never taught about the history that came before us, the current generation—as well as recent immigrants—don’t know the history of how and why Asian America came to be. Before the Sixties and the Asian American Movement (AAM), there was no such thing as an Asian American. We were primarily Chinese, Japanese and Filipinos, the majority of Asian ethnic groups in the U.S. at the time. We were not born Asian American but rather gave birth to ourselves as Asian Americans as a political identity to be seen and heard. Now the terms Asian American and Asian Pacific Islander have been neutralized into a mere adjective.

But as Jeff Chang incisively stated in the Foreword he wrote for Serve the People, “There was a time…when the term ‘Asian American’ was not merely a demographic category, but a fight you were picking with the world.” We cannot change mainstream America’s stereotype of us as model minorities until we realize, like it or not, that we are in a fight.


The Asian American Movement, as you define it, is difficult to periodize, even though (or perhaps because) it spanned a relatively short period of time. Talk about how you periodize this history in your scholarship?

What is generally known as the "Sixties" actually spans three decades. As a global, political era with far reaching social consequences, most scholars mark its beginning as starting in the late 50s with the decolonization of British and French Africa and ending in the mid 70s with the end of the Vietnam War. Within this elongated decade, the AAM arguably began in the late 60s - with the spontaneous arising of organizations such as the Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA) on the campus of the U.C. Berkeley, Asian Coalition for Equality (ACE), a primarily middle aged, professional group in Seattle, and Asian American for Action (Triple A), a multi-generational, anti-imperialist coalition in New York City. It wound down in the mid-late 70s with the corporatization of the U.S. and return of power to the upper class. It was a relatively short period of time, but without it we would not have the Asian Pacific America as we know it today. Although people don’t connect the dots between then and now, it was the cause and impetus for Asian American Studies, API health and welfare agencies, API professional organizations as well as API cultural institutions.


How did you structure the book to cover the movement as it spread throughout the country?

I struggled with many attempts to come up with the structure of the book—to tell the history of Asian American movement that was both national in scope yet local in execution. I thought about laying it out chronologically, but too much took place simultaneously and I didn’t want to reduce the dynamics and passion of the AAM into a timeline. I thought about structuring it around geographical hubs, but that would further shroud the many other places that sprouted grassroots activism of their own that I wasn’t able to include. I thought about structuring the AAM into major spheres of activism—cultural, political and social—but such realms overlapped and fed into each other. Like all social movements, the AAM was like a cosmic Venn diagram in which personal meaning, political activism and cultural production intersected.

In the end, I took advice from Paulo Freire: “Discovery cannot be purely intellectual but must also involve action; nor can it be limited to mere activism, but must include serious reflection.” Rather than a history of the AAM per se, I focused on the making of Asian America and presented the story in three acts, not that there is a strict linear progression from one to the other. Act I: “American Chop Suey” is on Discovery –why and how Asian America came to be, with chapters on “Growing Up Alien in America” and “Living in B&W.” Act II: “Once in a Movement” is on Activism—various spheres of activism in anti-war, community building, arts, etc. Act III: “Finding Our Truth” is on Reflection—self-appraisals and evaluations. (I took the title from Tom Hayden who said, “If the sixties are not over, it is up to the sixties generation to continue to find our truth.”) This three-act structure of Discovery, Activism and Reflection allowed me to encompass, but not be restricted by, chronology, geography or sociology.

The other key structural element was to foreground individual stories. A movement doesn’t make itself. As much as the AAM was a grassroots movement wherein we worked in a spirit of collectivity rather than individuality, I wanted to put at least some of the names and faces to the many deeds and ideas to remind ourselves of a kinship and mutuality that would otherwise remain unknown. I am a firm believer in the power of stories—with people learning and engaging more from stories than from facts and figures.


Does the Asian American movement still exist?

Of the many Sixties activists I spoke to about the Asian American movement—specifically regarding how and why it ended—only those in Seattle said it hasn’t ended, that an Asian American movement continues to this day. Home to the International District, Seattle is the only place in the continental U.S. where Chinese, Japanese and Filipinos historically comprised one pan-Asian community, they also had strong alliances with the Black, Latino and Native American progressive communities. As Chinatown/Manilatown in San Francisco and Little Tokyo in Los Angeles were overtaken by redevelopment, the International District has managed to thrive, having cultivated continuity between old and young activists in a strong multi-generational, multi-ethnic front.

In general, however, as I conclude in the book, the Asian America of the Long Sixties no longer exists—nor should it. Social movements are not meant to be continuing entities because they must respond to the internal and external conditions of the times. My objective in writing the book was not to resurrect the AAM as it was then, but to know that it indeed existed in order to build upon it. I quote from Jean-Paul Sartre as the epigram of the last chapter: “What is important is that the action took place…If it took place, it can happen again.” Or as our beloved poet Al Robles murmured, “Ah Pilipinos, if you only knew how brown you are.”


Learn more about Serve the People at Verso Books.


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