Wherefore Asian America?

Introduction to "Serve the People"


The following is an excerpt from the introduction of Serve the People: Making Asian America in the Long Sixties, a groundbreaking new history of the Asian American movement by Karen L. Ishizuka (Verso, 2016).


Wherefore Asian America?

Discovery cannot be purely intellectual but must also involve action; nor can it be limited to mere activism, but must include serious reflection.

—Paulo Freire

Up until the cultural revolution of the “Long Sixties”—the elongated decade that began in the mid 1950s and lasted until   the mid 1970s—there were no Asian Americans. Rather,  we were Americans of Japanese, Chinese, or Filipino ancestry: the ethnicities that constituted the majority of Asians in the United States at that time. Being non-white in a Eurocentric society, we were subject to the dominance of whiteness and subsequent subordination faced by all Americans of color. Yet not being black in a society that was defined and rendered in black and white rendered us inconsequential, if not invisible. And while we were Americans—by 1970 almost 80 percent of Japanese Americans and roughly 50 percent of Chinese and Filipino Americans were born in the United States—we were not seen as such.

And so, in the late 1960s, pushed by a racist war against people who looked like us and pulled by the promise of a Third World that called for self-determination instead of assimilation, Asians throughout the United States came together to create a home we never had. We called it Asian America.

The prehistory of Asian America began with the large-scale immigration of laborers from China, Japan, and the Philippines to the territory of Hawai‘i and the continental United States, beginning in the mid 1800s. Impelled by poverty and political unrest in their home countries, most intended to make their fortune in what the Chinese called the “Gold Mountain” and then return to their homelands. However, as the days became years, finding more hardships than riches, and despite exclusionary laws and discriminatory quotas, these “Birds of Passage,” as the Japanese called themselves, ended up staying and making America their home.

In the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, and even today, even though many of us have been Americans for generations, being neither white nor black, we are still routinely asked: “What are you?” “Do you speak English?” “Where do you come from?” Just as our forebears were considered “aliens ineligible to citizenship,” barred from naturalization, we too felt alien in America. After years of being treated, as Sharon Maeda put it, “like foreign exchange students” in our own country, by the mid 1960s we were chomping at the bit and ready to throw off the rider. Like Steve Louie, who jumped up and cried “Yes!” when he saw African Americans standing up to growling police dogs, water hoses, and fellow Americans on his black and white TV, and like Evelyn Yoshimura, who recognized the kinship of being called “sister” by a black Muslim, Asians in America identified with and were inspired by the civil rights and Black Liberation movements. And when Sharon, Steve, Evelyn, and others of our generation saw people who looked like us being slaughtered in a racist, imperialistic war, we were compelled to enlist in the anti–Vietnam War movement.

By the late 1960s, Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino Americans had formed a movement of our own—an Asian American movement. From the streets, the campuses, and even from middle-aged, middle-class urban enclaves throughout the United States, these self-defined Asian Americans linked destinies to defy white standards of truth and beauty, lay claim to our lost histories, and affirm ourselves as a political force. In light of decades of thinking that we needed to accommodate to an unjust system, the notion of self-determination was groundbreaking and profound. It provided a revolutionary new level of understanding that would anchor, as well as inspire, the development of an alternative epistemology. We burned the state-imposed effigy of “Oriental,” raised a collective fist, and in the poetics of Manong Al Robles, shouted “puckyooo  sunn-obbaa-bit, muderrpuckkerrrrrrrr!!!”

Looking like the enemy, we brought a new level of racial analysis to the fight against the Vietnam War. Learning about the expendability of Chinese railroad workers, the exploitation of Filipino cannery and farm workers, and the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, we deepened and expanded the history of US labor and the scope of civil rights. Spurred by the Black Liberation movement and anticolonial struggles around the world, we claimed our place in the United States as Americans of color and strengthened the multiethnic scaffold of US history and identity. This newfound consciousness and activism led to a political awakening that overhauled how Asians in the United States were viewed—and, more importantly, how we viewed ourselves.

Against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and the revelation of the Third World, the concept of “Asian American” was formed as a political identity developed out of the oppositional consciousness of the Long Sixties in order to be seen and heard. Simone de Beauvoir contended that one was not born but rather became a woman. Similarly, one was not born but rather willfully became an Asian American.

These days, however, the term has been neutralized into a mere adjective, barely more than a census label. As storyteller and musician Charlie Chin reflected,

Currently when you say Asian American, all it means is that you are of Asian descent. But originally, it was a loaded word, an explosive phrase that defined a position, a very important position: I am not a marginalized person. I don’t apologize for being Asian. I start with the premise that we have a long and involved history here of participation and contribution and I have a right to be here.

Charlie’s singing partner, Chris Iijima, added: “It was less a marker of what one was and more a marker of what one believed.”



Views from Within

In the history of social movement studies, a preoccupation with the external structures of organization and strategy tended to overshadow internal constructions of meaning and purpose for participants. But social movements are more than demonstrations, demands, political slogans, and ideologies. At their heart are moments of personal awareness that are strengthened through the life-pulse of collective ownership; lead to political, social, and cultural activism; and have resulted in new identities, agencies, and understandings. As social movement scholar James M. Jasper noted, research that focuses exclusively on the organizations of protest “lose sight of the careers of protest, the personalities of protestors and the pleasures of protest.” In this book, I have sought to understand those careers, those personalities, those pleasures, knowing that it is lived experiences and impassioned expressions that make a movement a movement and more than just a political campaign.

The process of politicization begins with individual epiphanies— “aha moments” that turn up the volume, demanding to be heard. Many originate in childhood, when life is more visceral than cerebral, and adults do not suspect that you are cognizant but you are. Like when you’re minding your own business, and suddenly you’re “the Dirty Jap” instead of “Jack Armstrong, All-American Boy” like my husband Bob Nakamura; or when you are kicked off a bus for being a Dirty Jap when you are really Filipino, like Bob Santos; or when you have to wear a pin declaring “I’m Chinese” in order to differentiate yourself from the Dirty Jap, like Paul Louie. Suffered at the moment of impact more as injuries and indignities than as epiphanies, these experiences are filed away in a Pandora’s box that you don’t even know you are carrying around.

I didn’t. It was not until 1969 that the burgeoning Asian American movement created a safe enough space that my Pandora’s box could be pried open. Instead of unleashing demons, it showed me the way home. Like so many of us, I awakened to the Asian American move- ment while I was a student. I found the first issue of Gidra—the first and longest-lasting newspaper of the Asian American movement—in April 1969, while attending California State College, Los Angeles. That summer I enrolled in an ad hoc undertaking called the Asian American Experimental College, an early effort to take the campus into the com- munity, taking Alan Nishio’s class “Social Conflict and the Process of Change.” The impact of fellow travelers was paramount.

In the fall, I moved to San Diego for graduate studies in social work. Working in the area of drug-abuse prevention, I met Victor Shibata and other members of Yellow Brotherhood, as well as Ray Tasaki, Russell Valparaiso, and others from Asian American Hardcore—two self-help groups working with endangered people. They responded to my call to come down from Los Angeles to meet with young people with whom I was working. Being near Camp Pendleton and in the grip of the anti-war effort, I met Pat Sumi, who was at that time organizing with the Movement for a Democratic Military. Meanwhile, researching the mental health effects of the World War II camps on my generation (which was born after the war) for my master’s thesis, I campaigned for the repeal of Title II of the Internal Security Act, the so-called concentration camp law that was still on the books, corresponding with Ray Okamura, one of the front-runners of the campaign.

While in Chicago attending a social work conference, I met former Weatherman Shinya Ono, who was recently released from prison, in a demonstration (in the snow) protesting the hotel in which I was staying for serving grapes during the grape boycott. I attended summer conferences of the San Francisco Center for Japanese American Studies, where I met George and Nancy Araki, Jim and Lane Hirabayashi, Phil Taijitsu Nash, Philip Gotanda, and many others.

In the summer of 1972, I was among a group of mutineers who tried to get a progressive slate elected to the national Japanese American Citizens’ League (JACL) at their conference in Washington, DC—an attempted takeover, if you will, of a ready-made national, but middle- of-the-road, Asian American organization. We failed, but not without a vociferous fight, during which nine staff members resigned en masse. That would-be coup was also where I got to know people like Ron Hirano, Jeffrey Matsui, Ron Wakabayashi, and Bob Nakamura, who I would marry six years later.

A turning point came after the conference, when together with Warren Furutani, Victor Shibata, and Alan Ohashi, I took the train up to New York City, where I met four remarkable women who I forever after affectionately called my New York onesans (“older sisters”)—Kazu Iijima (who cofounded Asian Americans for Action, the first Asian American political group on the East Coast), Yuri Kochiyama (best known for cradling Malcolm X when he died), Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga (who uncovered key archival evidence regarding the World War II injustice to Japanese Americans), and Michi Weglyn (the first Japanese American to write a major book on the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans). Not only were they all trailblazers—each became a personal mentor to me in lifelong and multiple ways.

My first visit to the Big Apple, the ever-present din and summer heat of the big city heightened the intensity and dynamism of our East Coast counterparts, making me feel like an outright country cousin as they whisked us off to meetings, meals, and more meetings. Some of us stayed on the Upper Eastside with Tak and Kazu Iijima; others stayed with Yuri and Bill Kochiyama in Harlem. I met Chris Iijima and his sister Lynne, Audee and Aichi Kochiyama, Bea Hsia, and many others. I answered the phone at the Kochiyama residence and took a message from Kathleen Cleaver. We were there when the murder  of Nguyen Thai Binh, a Vietnamese anti-war activist who would be my future daughter’s namesake, elicited one of Yuri’s stirring impromptu discourses, this one about why we all must work that much harder. In an exchange that reflected the fast-paced intensity of the times as well as regional differences in how things got done, we SoCal folks expressed our bewilderment about the mysterious subterranean subway system by asking our New York cohorts how they got to more than one meeting a night without a car. Their response was: “We were going to ask you the same thing. How do you get to more than one meeting a night without a subway?”

I was not a leader or organizer, I never got arrested. Rather, I was one of the 99 percent who were caught by what activist and anthropologist Karen Brodkin called a “contagious energy” that drew people to action, even if they had never been active before. It was a sense, she explained, of liberation, of infinite possibility—an explosive energy.


Theory in the Flesh

The importance of lived experience as the bedrock of theory has been established in particular by Third World feminists. Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa proposed a “theory in the flesh” in which “the physical realities of our lives … all fuse to create a politic born out of necessity.”  Barbara Christian claimed that people of color theorize in narrative forms, “in the stories we create … because dynamic rather than fixed ideas seem more to our liking.”

In the words of Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire, “It is only when the oppressed find the oppressor out and become involved in the organized struggle for their liberation that they begin to believe in themselves.” To help me understand the genesis of the Asian American movement, I called upon activists who were among the first to find the oppressor out and transform themselves and others from Orientals into Asian Americans. I attempted to access a broad range of perspectives and experiences encompassing the major ethnicities of Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino (regrettably omitting less populous Asian ethnic groups of the era) from a cohort as various as possible in terms of age, gender, class, demography, and sexual orientation, within the constraints of time and resources—around 120 people over approximately eight years. Some of these first responders were movers and shakers; others were grunts—the proletariat of the movement. All were makers of history as Marx indicated, or, as anthropologist Barbara Meyerhoff termed, “authors of ourselves.” Architects and construction workers of Asian America, they are the standard-bearers of Paulo Freire’s declaration: “The oppressed must be their own example in the struggle for their redemption.”


A Message from Favianna Rodriguez

"Art is always a reflection, a testament and a record of our human condition." Donate Now!