Monday, February 28, 2011

It still matters if you're black (or white)

Despite what Michael Jackson may have sung about once-upon-a-time, I believe it DOES matter if you're black or white.

Meaning, it matters, still, whether you identify as African American or as Caucasian. Meaning, it matters if you benefit from white privilege. Meaning it matters how others perceive you, especially depending on where you are, regionally and contextually (ie: are you in the U.S. South or the West Coast? In a cosmopolitan city or a rural township? Are you in a classroom where you are the only one, and is this a course on 20th Century American writers or African American poets?)

I guess I've been thinking about this question a lot, lately, because of a novel I'm teaching in one of my classes and because I've recently read two articles, one in The New York Times that discusses racial passing, tracing how three families changed their racial identification from black to white over a few generations through a combination of inter-racial marriage and consolidating wealth and status. And the other is in the Chronicle of Higher Education with the provocative title, "Does African American Literature Exist?" Both essays, in their own way, talk about the disappearance of African Americans from the public landscape and discourse-- or at least in the latter, that what we think of as African American literature during the Jim Crow era no longer matters since Jim Crow no longer exists in its legalized, institutionalized form (so sayeth the author, not me).

It's tempting to downplay the legacy of race. To talk about race and racism is wearying. It's like beating an old drum that many people have tuned out.

By now we should imagine that a month dedicated to black history, African American heritage, and reminding us of the contributions of black Americans to U.S. life and society would not be necessary in the sense that we have moved beyond a stage of needing to highlight the contributions of African Americans because they should be woven within the larger history of the United States.

Yet it's not. Moreover, I believe that we're still a pretty racially segregated culture. Perhaps I feel this more because I live in the U.S. South. But I must say that I was impressed with the honesty with which my students came to a writing assignment recently. I asked them to describe the racial climate at Southern University. This was in preparation for talking about the novel Caucasia by Danzy Senna (a wonderful coming-of-age novel and a trenchant novel to talk about issues of race and especially mixed-race identity). My students were pretty honest in their assessment of race relations, meaning that while they noted the diversity here at Southern U, particularly as compared with some of the more homogenous town that they have grown up in, they noted two things. First, that compared to other locations, Southern U is probably not all that diverse. And second, that despite this diversity, people still hang out within self-segregated friendship groups by race--something my students readily admitted that they participated in (albeit it sheepishly). In fact, only one of my students disclosed that s/he had a close friend who was of a different racial background to him/herself (this in-class writing assignment was anonymous, so I don't have a sense of who this was, at least by gender--since there are only 3 self-identified Asian American students and 3 self-identified African American students, it's a good guess that this student was white, and also because s/he identified as such).

Nearly all the students lamented the fact that they only had friends of the same race, but none of them really knew what to do about this fact--and a few mentioned that they noticed other races (Asian Americans in the business school, African Americans in the dining hall, Latino students in the dorms) congregating together as well.

Interestingly enough, no one brought up where the mixed-race person fit in--the person who is both black and white. Or black and Asian. I suppose we are still working on hypodescent rules, where the assumption is that you identify with the group you look like the most or that is the furthest away from whiteness.

I was glad that my students felt so free to be honest in their writing about the state of race relations at Southern U. Of course they were also quick to say that they did not notice any racial animosity--that there did not seem to be racial hostility between or among groups, as there may have been once-upon-a-time. But I did wonder about the lack of social mixing, racially speaking. I also wondered if this was a difference in location--because I had grown up, in my high school environment, having close friends who were black and white and Chicano--and when I mean close friends I mean the kind of friends that you have sleepovers with or that you go to prom with or hang out with at parties on the weekend. Not just friends you see in the classroom or chat with because your lockers are next to one another.

A friend recently told me that many white students will say that they have an African American friend but most African American college students don't claim to have any white friends (or friends of any other racial group). The disparity, a researcher noted, was that the white college students were counting, as friends, black students who sat next to them in the classroom or who lived in the dorm--people they chatted with and were friendly with. But the African American students counted as friendly only people they had significant ties to--whom they socialized with outside of a classroom or dorm environment.

And perhaps the last thing I'll end with in closing out this post is whether or not it matters. If, as my students said, there is no racial animosity between groups that they can discern, does it matter that students are self-segregating along racial lines? My gut says that it does--but at the same time I am also well aware of the power of having safe spaces and friends that you have absolute comfort with--and in an environment where you are a minority, being able to be with people who understand your experiences is psychically important.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Honoring the Legacy of Malcolm X

64 years ago yesterday on February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated. Many people know of Malcolm X after reading about his life's story in The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Others have perhaps seen the Spike Lee Bio-pic, Malcolm X. And for a few others, they may have actually had the honor of hearing Malcolm X speak--or perhaps they even knew Malcolm X.

Although Malcolm X is often figured as a radical, particularly in opposition to the way we have sainted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the truth is, Malcolm X's message of black pride and black strength and black nationalism does not seem out of the ordinary at all--certainly not radical. The idea that an oppressed and disenfranchised minority would finally grow weary of mistreatment by larger institutional forces and would want to fight for basic rights and to assert their essential humanity. This is not a radical idea.

[Aside: One need only look to the recent uprisings in the Middle East to see that people the world over will always try to fight against tyranny when they have been pushed to a breaking point]

Yesterday on The Story with Dick Gordon (and NPR staple in my area) his special guest was Malcolm Shabazz, Malcolm X's grandson. I was, unfortunately, unable to hear the entire interview, but thankfully the entire show is available online (click here) and the part I did catch was apropos, for me, because Malcolm Shabazz recounted how, during his time in prison, friends of his grandfather reached out to him, reminding him of his grandfather's legacy and putting him in touch with other political prisoners--people fighting for justice. The first of his grandfather's friends to send him a letter was Yuri Kochiyama, a close friend of his grandparents and the first person besides Betty Shabazz to rush to Malcolm X's side after he was gunned down. In fact, she started CPR in an effort to keep him alive (this was recounted on The Story).

I had just been talking to my Asian American literature class that the field of Asian American literature and Asian American Studies owe a huge debt to African Americans, particularly those who took part in the Civil Rights movement. Asian Americans and African Americans have a history of shared struggle, which often gets ignored in more sensational and violent conflicts like the Red Apple Boycott or Latasha Harlins.

The legacy of Malcolm X--what his work and words meant--is larger than just his influence on African Americans. His words were for all of us--especially for any group of people who had been oppressed by a majority government and culture. And while it is fitting that I'm writing this post in his honor during African American Heritage and History month, we should be remembering and honoring Malcolm X's legacy every month of the year.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

R.I.P. Hisaye Yamamoto

69 years ago today, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which nullified the constitutional rights of every resident (alien and citizen alike) living on the West Coast of the United States. The military, under FDR's direction, interpreted the order such that only Japanese and Japanese American communities were evacuated, en masse, forced to relocate to concentration camps (the term used by FDR's administration) for the duration of WWII.

[Aside: It is true that Italian and German nationals, along with Japanese nationals, were arrested and forced to stay in special detention centers on the suspicion that these men (and almost all of the detained were men) were a threat to national security. However, the only community targeted through their racialized difference were Japanese Americans--no other ethnic community were targeted through exclusion in the way that the Japanese American community was during WWII.]

69 years ago, a young Nisei, Hisaye Yamamoto, and her family, prepared for their internment, eventually being forced into Poston internment camp. Ms. Yamamoto had her first short story published at the age of 14 and continued to write for the camp newspaper while interned at Poston. And upon her release from camp, she wrote for an African American L.A. area newspaper and also published her short fiction in such venues as The Partisan Review.

But it is the publication in 1988 of fifteen of her short stories, collected in Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories, that brought her to the attention of generations of college students who encountered Ms. Yamamoto's writing in their Asian American studies classes. The stories in this collection centered on the Japanese American community, before, during, and after the war, especially noting the racist tensions they faced in their post-war lives.

I was one of a lucky few who had the privilege of hearing Ms. Yamamoto read from her short story collection while I was an undergraduate at UCSB. She was down-to-earth and direct--and I was awed by the fact that a living writer was in our classroom talking about her work with us. I still have my autographed copy of Seventeen Syllables and still remember the good humor and patience with which Ms. Yamamoto handled our questions.

On January 30, 2011 Hisaye Yamamoto passed away in her sleep. She was 89 years old (click here for her LA Times obituary). She was a pioneer in Asian American literature. She was a woman who understood the necessity of being an ally in the Civil Rights movement. She was a witness to history, using her considerable literary talents to tell the stories of the Japanese American community. She will be missed.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Parody as a form of Flattery (or maybe just historical remembrance)

This is compliments of my friend Crystal (who teaches African American & ethnic American lit), who posted this in honor of black history month on her Facebook page. Without further ado:

The Real Housewives of Civil Rights

[I'll be posting more about African American history/heritage month--so stay tuned!]

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Calling all Asian Americans in all 50 States (we're talking to YOU Wyoming!)

The Kartika Review has initiated The 500 Project--they are looking for 10 APIA (Asian Pacific Islander Americans) to write in about how they feel about APIA literature.

Specifically, here are the questions they're asking:

1. Does APIA literature matter to you?
2. Why does APIA literature matter to you?
3. Cite the last 3 works of APIA literature you read.
4. Who are your favorite APIA writers or poets and why?
5. In your own words, you are:
6. In your own words, APIA literature is:

I'm assuming that they're not going to have any problems finding folks from California, New York, Hawaii, and Washington (for example) but perhaps places that don't have as large of an APIA population (Wyoming, North Dakota, Nebraska) may need more representation, so if you are from one of these states, identify as Asian Pacific American, and like literature, then consider responding to their call.

I did! And to prove it, here are my answers:

1. Does APIA literature matter to you?

YES! Absolutely! Positively! Can I be more affirmative in the way I answer this question???!!!

2. Why does APIA literature matter to you?

Because it speaks of and to me. Because when I first encountered Woman Warrior as a freshman I felt like FINALLY someone was writing about ME and FINALLY someone was telling my story. Because regardless of whether you identify as APIA or not, the stories that the literature tells are ones that touch on the particular humanity of our community—that reminds us and others of our humanity.

3. Cite the last 3 works of APIA literature you read.

The Surrendered
– Chang-rae Lee, World and Town – Gish Jen, Bitter in the Mouth – Monique Truong

4. Who are your favorite APIA writers or poets and why?

Mitsuye Yamada (because she is a witness to history and because only the lyrical can capture certain traumas), Chang-rae Lee (because he writes of horror with a sense of beautiful urgency that forces me to act as a witness to history), Lois-Ann Yamanaka (because although I know she’s controversial in certain APIA literary circles, her prose is raw and gut wrenching and visceral—she makes you feel the pain of adolescence in a way that few writers can so vividly capture the angst of that period—she knows the loneliness of being an outsider).

5. In your own words, you are:

…large. I contain multitudes.

6. In your own words, APIA literature is:


Tuesday, February 8, 2011

I'm coming out! (well, sort've...)

I don't want to mislead too many people by the title of this post--since I think the phrase "coming out" gives the general connotation of having someone announce their sexual orientation/declaration of a queer identity.

However, if we think of the phrase "coming out" as a way to make known a hidden or private identity, then I think this is apropos. Because I was actually, once-upon-a-time, very public about my identity on this blog and very public about my affiliations/geographic location.

But after a scare I had in July 2007 when writing a post on the Duke Lacrosse case, I went into hiding (ie: made the blog private--only people with an invitation had access) and edited previous posts to rid any geographic location or surname specificity associated with myself.

[Note: The above post is probably the most widely read post I've ever written and the one that garnered the most passionate reaction--and that STILL garners excitable and hostile comments from folks in the blogosphere. In fact, I'd be curious to see if after three years, anyone finds their way to this comment thread and sends me inappropriate comments blasting me. For all you trolls out there, read the comment guidelines on the sidebar--I'm NOT going to publish your comment telling me where to stick it--as the old schoolyard rhyme goes, "I'm rubber and you're glue, whatever you say bounces off me and sticks on you!" And if anyone is curious about the clusterfuck that made me go private was all about, check out this lengthy blog post, "Academic Privilege."]

Anyway, in different ways I've been "out" to quite a few people and in different forums. And so, I thought that it was time to come out on this blog...sort of. What I mean by this is that while I'm still going to adhere to the convention of referring myself only by my first name and to refer to Southern U. and Southern Man through these euphemisms, I'm not going to police myself so stringently in terms of specific geographic references or linking to things that will clearly give my full identity.

For example, I had the distinct honor and pleasure of having an essay I wrote, "Being Held Accountable: On the Necessity of Intersectionality" published in the Journal of Women's History (Winter 2010). Tenured Radical provides a link to the journal in this post and really, I'm quite proud of the piece, especially since I get to write about a fellow blogger (and friend!) Tami or What Tami Said.

[Aside: If you want access to the above journal, you pretty much have to have access to a university library in order to download it for free--although if you want to email me through my "View Complete Profile" link, then I'll be happy to send you a pdf copy]

I was also recently contacted by Leslie Bernstein Rojas, a reporter and editor/writer of the blog MULTI-AMERICAN: Immigration and cultural fusion in the new Southern California (it's affiliated with the local NPR station 89.3 KPCC) because she wanted to confirm that I was, indeed, the author of the post "We ARE a Mixed Race America" and because she wanted to quote from this post (which you can see here).

I definitely recommend checking out Leslie's blog--and Leslie was really lovely to talk to on the phone, once I got past my surprise that she was contacting me in my campus office about this blog--but of course I always knew it was very easy to figure out who I was through the magic of Google's mighty search engine. Which is the reason I've decided to link to these pieces that clearly show who I am. While I don't want anything I write in this blog to be affiliated with the university I currently teach at (hence why I'll continue to use the moniker "Southern U" and while I don't want to "out" people near and dear to me (like my partner, Southern Man), I have decided that I should be proud to be associated with this blog and should feel free to cross-post to other links and articles that will give away my "identity" so to speak.

So the last things I'll leave you with are plugs for the blogs of two colleague-friends. The first is a friend, "Ivy Dilettante" (not zher real name) who has an eponymous blog, The Ivy Dilettante, which is a very helpful blog about applying to ivy league schools from the perspective of someone who has both attended and currently teaches at an ivy league school. Please check it out--it's well written and definitely, for any parents who aspire to have their children attend an ivy league institution, it's a MUST READ.

Speaking of parents who want to get their kids into an ivy league school--the final word, I think, in the Amy Chua runaway train wreck, is this post by Timothy Yu, "Paper Tiger Mother: On Amy Chua." This is by far and away the BEST response to Amy Chua--and he HAS read the book. Way to go Tim!

Friday, February 4, 2011

Rabbit, Rabbit! Happy New Year!!!

So yesterday marked the first day of the lunar new year, the year of the golden rabbit (as celebrated in Chinese culture) or the year of the cat (if you are Vietnamese).

Many Asian cultures celebrate the new year according to the lunar calendar, but the Chinese may be unique in having 15 days devoted to this holiday, which is a combination of Christmas, New Year's, Mother's Day, Father's Day, and the Fourth of July all wrapped up in one. Actually, that's not *quite* accurate either, but it's hard to emphasize the importance of this holiday in American terms. Suffice it to say, while I am Chinese American and grew up in California, this was still a much bigger holiday in my household than Christmas, at least in terms of its family significance.

[By the way, a great essay about the meaning of Chinese New Year and living in the Chinese diaspora was published in The Toronto Star (click here) -- thanks to my cousin "I" for the link!]

If you're wondering what the Year of the Rabbit holds for all of us, here's what we have to look forward to, courtesy of The Holiday Spot:

A placid year, very much welcomed and needed after the ferocious year of the Tiger. We should go off to some quiet spot to lick our wounds and get some rest after all the battles of the previous year.

Good taste and refinement will shine on everything and people will acknowledge that persuasion is better than force. A congenial time in which diplomacy, international relations and politics will be given a front seat again. We will act with discretion and make reasonable concessions without too much difficulty.

A time to watch out that we do not become too indulgent. The influence of the Rabbit tends to spoil those who like too much comfort and thus impair their effectiveness and sense of duty.

Law and order will be lax; rules and regulations will not be rigidly enforced. No one seems very inclined to bother with these unpleasant realities. They are busy enjoying themselves, entertaining others or simply taking it easy. The scene is quiet and calm, even deteriorating to the point of somnolence. We will all have a tendency to put off disagreeable tasks as long as possible

Money can be made without too much labor. Our life style will be languid and leisurely as we allow ourselves the luxuries we have always craved for. A temperate year with unhurried pace. For once, it may seem possible for us to be carefree and happy without too many annoyances.

So Happy New Year everyone! I, for one, certainly am glad to be done with the year of the Tiger--it WAS a fierce year for me and others--a little more placidity is something I'll treasure this year.

Also, for all you dog lovers out there, the second day of the Chinese New Year is noted for daughters to return "home" to visit their birthparents AND to celebrate dogs because today is celebrated as the birthdate of the first dog. So Happy Birthday to all dogs everywhere, especially my beloved "B"!