The Creators of Award-Winning Asian-American History Text on the Challenges of Recording and Reporting the Histories of Underrepresented Americans
By Monique Avakian and Carter Smith
Editor’s Note: For APA History Month, AAV invited the editor and writer of The Atlas of Asian-American History (Facts-on-File 2002), Carter Smith andMonique Avakian, to reflect on the specific decisions and challenges they faced in preparing the expansive, award-winning reference text. We wanted to hear their insights on how little-known histories are brought to light, and how they determined where to begin, what topics to cover, from what angles, and what audiences they had in mind. The highly successful title has earned two prestigious industry awards — The Carter G. Woodson Honor Book, National Council/Social Studies, 2003 and Library Journal‘s Best Reference Source List/Print, 2002 — and is carried by many universities, libraries and other institutions nationwide.
Carter Smith, Editor
As an editor and sometime author of history books, I am, like many in the publishing world, more focused on the next project than those that I’ve done in the past. So when Mr. Ikeda asked author Monique Avakian and I to discuss The Atlas of Asian-American History, I welcomed the chance to reflect on the process and nature of publishing histories.
The Atlas of Asian-American History was part of a three-book multicultural history series including similar atlases on African-American and Hispanic-American histories, which were also produced by my company, Media Projects, Inc. at around the same time. Media Projects, founded in 1970, has specialized in recent years in a variety of American history topics, ranging from titles on the presidents, military history, women’s history, the social history of the 20th century, as well as multicultural histories.
Having tread the same historical ground so often, part of my challenge as an editor is to serve the needs of the intended audience, whether it be middle-school or elementary age, high school, or adult. In addition, I’m also working to meet the needs of each publisher client by helping to produce a book that fills a hole in their publishing list or otherwise meets a perceived demand in the marketplace. Happily, there is a far greater marketplace demand today for social history, multicultural history, and women’s history then there was 30 or 35 years ago when I studied the core of what was then U.S. History — the important white men that served as our presidents, fought our wars, and explored our continent.
Yes, there was some token recognition of minorities, but back then, that rarely meant digging much deeper than Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, or Dr. King. As for other ethnicities, we recognized the proud, defeated heritage of the American Indian, though Indians seems forever sepia-toned remnants of the 19th century Wild West, not a living, vibrant people. Outside of Cesar Chavez, who usually garnered a few textbook sentences under a heading like “Other Ethnic Heroes,” Latino history was largely centered on colonial Spain, and Mexico — countries we defeated in fulfilling our Manifest Destiny. And Asian-American history? Nary a Transcontinental Railroad worker ever made it into the textbooks I was reading.
So yes, the publishing industry has come a long way, baby. Thanks to scholars like Ronald Takaki, Roger Daniels, Bill Hosokawa, Brian Niiya and so many more, the true depth of the Asian-American experience in U.S. history has come alive. Happily then, by 2000 or 2001, when we set out to produce The Atlas of Asian-American History, we were following trails already blazed.
A Historian’s Dilemma
Still, in trying to structure a 200-odd page illustrated, narrative, historical atlas of Asian Americans, we were faced with the same dilemmas that authors and editors of histories are always faced with – what to include and what to leave out. To start, we had to define who exactly we were referring to when using the term Asian American. This proved far more difficult than it had been when we outline our African-American atlas, and also more difficult than when we did the Hispanic American atlas (though even the use of the term “Hispanic American” was cause for considerable debate.) Certainly, there are divisions in the African-American and Latino communities, but generally speaking, at least most black Americans and Hispanic Americans share common cultural roots. But the enormous cultural and historical differences between all Americans of Asian heritage presented us with a unique problem. How could we possibly give a cohesive history of Asian-American history in all its fullness—a history at least as old, after all, as Washington’s teeth? (And even that’s assuming we begin in 1763, when a group of Filipinos jumped ship from a Spanish galleon in New Orleans and settled in the bayou.)
Well, we couldn’t tell the whole story. Instead, out of necessity, we narrowed focus. Because Asian-American history is not one history but the overlapping histories of diverse groups of people, we decided to focus on the immigration story. While people from every nation on earth have migrated to the United States over time, the vast majority of Asian Americans have come from relatively few nations. For that reason, we focused on Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, Filipino, and Southeast Asian immigration.
We also decided not to include Pacific Islanders, despite their frequent though demographically-challenged placement along side Asians (see for example Asian Pacific American Heritage Month). While the book includes a brief review of precolonial Hawaiian history, that discussion was included to give context to the larger discussion of Hawaii’s transformation into a plantation economy operated by white Americans and worked by Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Korean, and other Asian laborers.
Once we’d limited whose stories we were including, we then decided on how we would tell them. After a background chapter giving a brief overview of each nation of origin, we followed the chronology of immigration, starting with the Chinese experience in California prior to the Exclusion Act, and through the arrival of — and ensuing restrictions on the immigration of — each immigrant group that followed, through the 1920s when the portals to America slammed shut to most Asian immigrants until 1965.
The middle section of the book, which charts the first half of the 20th century from the perspective of citizenship, and the nature of the minority’s struggle for identity amidst the dominant white culture. From the Alien Land Acts in California to “Go for Broke!” Fighting 442nd Regimental Combat team and the internment and concentration camps of World War II, and the nature of being an American. If a person is born and raised in the United States, is that person not as much an American as any other—regardless of racial identity or nation of ancestry? If one’s parents were born in Japan instead of Britain, France, or Germany, should one be forbidden from owning property in one’s adopted home?
Much of Asian-American history in the 20th century dealt directly with questions such as these. World events (such as World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the cold war, and even economic recessions) have shaped the way in which U.S. society has viewed Japanese Americans, Chinese Americans, Korean Americans, Vietnamese Americans, and all other Asian Americans, whether U.S. or foreign born.
The last section focuses on the struggle for justice and rights highlighting, among other topics the Yellow Power Movement of the 70s and the Redress Movement of the ‘80s, while also exploring post-Hart Cellar Act and post-Vietnam changes in immigration, as well as anti-immigrant hate crimes. The book concludes by examining major cultural figures and late 1990s demographics.
Threads of a Larger Tapestry
Did we, in the end, achieve what we intended. Yes, I think so, and the book has, as Monique mentioned, been lauded with several awards. At the same time, I couldn’t help but struggle with my feeling that really Asian-American history can’t be separated from American history. One can’t understand what Chinese laborers were doing in Louisiana after the Civil War if you don’t also understand what was happening to newly-freed African Americans during Reconstruction. It is no accident that this first wave of Asian immigration coincided with the end of the U.S. slavery system, and soon thereafter, with the birth and growth of the American labor movement. Active recruitment of each successive new group of laborers from Asia was a direct result of racially based animosity toward prior groups. For example, after the United States formally annexed the Hawaiian Islands in the 1890s, Korean and Filipino laborers were brought to the islands specifically to break up the growing organizational power of Japanese laborers that had preceded them.
Yes, it is a sign of progress that a market exists for this book and that it continues to sell. I think we did a very thorough job for a 200-page book on such a diverse group of people. But I also can’t help but feel that Asian-American history belongs not just in books meant to fill the multicultural shelf in the school or public library, but ALL American history books.
Recently, I couldn’t help notice that President Bush gave a speech at Jamestown, Virginia commemorating the Jamestown Settlement as the place “where it all began.” If he’d read his history, he’d know that if “it” meant European settlement in America, he’d have gone to St. Augustine, Florida, a far older European settlement. There, however, is the crux of the problem: Because the English would become the dominant power in North America, the English “first” is the one than most Americans count, and it is the cultural traditions inherited from England that our diverse peoples are supposed to melt into when simmering in the melting pot.
Then again, even as our political culture directs us to assimilate, our consumer culture insists on the opposite, dividing is into niche target markets. Like all minority populations, Asian Americans continue to confront the burden of constant stereotyping, as the diverse communities that make up Asian America are still viewed by some as a monolithic group. When the media discuss achievements of some Asian Americans and then declare all Asians part of a “model minority,” the individual identities of all Americans of Asian descent is called into question, and the very real problems of those individuals who may not fit the simplistic profile go unaddressed.
When we produced the Atlas of Asian-American History, it was our hope the atlas format would help give concrete life to the story of how geographic as well as cultural and political borders have been crossed over the century and a half of Asian-American history. Likewise, we hoped readers would come away with an understanding of the consequences of those crossings, and the barriers that remain in the in the road toward full equality for all. After all, the story of that struggle for that equality is not an Asian-American story, it’s a story we all share, regardless of origin.
Other Readings of Interest
Monique Avakian is a high-energy, nature-based teacher, award-winning writer, poet and musician. Also specialist in writing, creativity, and literacy education and enrichment programs for youth and adults, she runs a tutoring and consulting business in Westchester County, NY. Carter Smith is president of Media Projects, Inc., a book producer and packager business established in 1969 that develops and repurposes nonfiction content for both adult audiences and young people in both print and electronic formats.