“History is not the past. It is the stories we tell about the past. How we tell these stories — triumphantly or self-critically, metaphysically or dialectally — has a lot to do with whether we cut short or advance our evolution as human beings.”
- Grace Lee Boggs
I vividly remember visiting Washington DC during sweltering summers as a young boy, and always looking forward to consuming all that the Smithsonian museums on the National Mall had to offer. It was like being a kid in a knowledge candy shop. As an adult, I appreciated these museums even more. I visited the National Museum of the American Indian and learned so much about indigenous Americans and their culture. I tried desperately but couldn’t get into the National Museum of African American History and Culture, because I had heard so many amazing things about it. I couldn’t help but wonder when there would be a Smithsonian Museum for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
I believe that education about history and culture is critical to combating ignorance and hate. I am fortunate to have taken the first ever Asian American Studies class with Joseph S. Sun at the University of Pennsylvania. There is so much about Asian American history that was nowhere to be found in my high school textbooks beyond a paragraph or two about Japanese internment and the Chinese Exclusion Act. I never realized that people of Asian descent were the only race to ever have been interned or banned in this country. I am in my mid-40s, and here are some things that I only learned in the past year:
- The first Asians in America were Filipino sailors known as the “Manilamen” who jumped ship from Spanish galleons and settled in Louisiana in 1765.
- Wong Kim Ark was born in San Francisco but traveled to China to see his family. Upon attempting to return to the United States, Ark was denied entry by immigration on the basis of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. He challenged the government the Supreme Court ruled in his favor in 1898 under the landmark ruling about birthright citizenship protected by the Fourteenth Amendment that could not be limited by an act of Congress.
- In 1871, one of the largest mass lynchings in American history occurred in Los Angeles as 19 Chinese immigrants were killed and 15 later hanged by a mob of 500 white and Hispanic Americans who attacked, harassed, robbed, and murdered Chinese residents of Chinatown. Ten men of the mob were prosecuted and eight were convicted of manslaughter in these deaths. The convictions were overturned on appeal due to technicalities. White residents burned down Chinatowns to the ground all over California in cities like Antioch (1876), San Jose (1887) and Santa Ana (1906). Chinese were actually banned from walking the streets of Antioch after sunset and had to build tunnels to get from home to work.
- 1944–1946 The 442nd Infantry Regiment was an infantry regiment of the United States Army. The regiment is best known as the most decorated in U.S. military history and as a fighting unit composed almost entirely of second-generation American soldiers of Japanese ancestry who fought in World War II.
- The Immigration Act of 1965 finally allowed immigrants from Asia to enter the country again, including Chinese who were banned since 1882. It allowed relatives and children of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents, professionals and other individuals with specialized skills. This meant that only the most educated and wealthy from Asia could immigrate, leading to the fabricated perception that Asians were the “model minority” which was used as a wedge against other races in America.
- Yuri Kochiyama was an American civil rights activist. Influenced by her Japanese-American family’s experience in an American internment camp. She joined Malcolm X and the Organization of Afro-American Unity and was by his side when he was assassinated in 1965.
- Contrary to popular belief, Andrew Yang was not the first Asian American Presidential candidate in U.S. History. Congresswoman Patsy Takemoto Mink from Hawaii ran for President in 1972. She was the first woman of color ever elected to Congress. Mink fought fiercely for women’s equality and was responsible for Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which barred sexual discrimination in institutions receiving federal funds and opened opportunities for women in athletics.
- On June 19, 1982, Vincent Chin was beaten to death with a baseball bat by two white men in a hate crime in Detroit, Michigan at his bachelor party, nine days before his wedding. Tensions were high in Detroit as American car manufacturers were struggling with the rise of Japanese automakers and laid off autoworkers looked for a scapegoat. The ACLU and NLG would not recognize this as a civil rights case, as many felt that civil rights didn’t apply to Asian Americans. The man and his stepson who violently murdered Chin never served a day in jail and were given three years’ probation, fined $3,000, and ordered to pay $780 in court costs. The result was no different than the mass lynching in Los Angeles over 110 years prior.
It’s shocking and sad to think that as an Asian American, I had no idea about so much of the historical contributions and tribulations of our own community in this country. How can I assume that anyone else will know or acknowledge we have gone through, if I myself don’t know. That is why I am honored and humbled to share that I have joined the advisory board of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. Thank you to the Smithsonian Board of Regents for this opportunity to serve. Our mission is to bring a museum celebrating and honoring AAPI history to the National Mall in Washington, DC.
My hope is that by building this permanent fixture on the National Mall, that someday my sons and their children and future generations of all backgrounds will be able to learn all of the things I didn’t have a chance to learn and more.
To find out how you can support the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, visit: https://smithsonianapa.org/