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The Academic Side of Asian American History

The following is a reprint of an article (edited for length) entitled "Asian American History's Overdue Emergence" by Roger Daniels (see credit below). Although it is intended for an academic audience, it nicely details the development of Asian American history as an academic discipline. It also stresses a point that is becoming increasingly important in the study of race and ethnicity these days. That is, while it's important to understand what has been done to Asian Americans throughout U.S. history, let's also focus on and recognize what Asian American have done and are doing to help influence and shape the institutions of this country.

A Journey of a Thousand Pages . . .

Although Asian Americans have played a significant role in American life for more than a century, serious academic interest in their history is a relatively recent phenomenon. The evolution of Asian American history has been not unlike the patterns in subdisciplines such as African American and women's history, but it has been slower -- at least in part because so few Asian Americans participated in the discipline until well after World War II. Today, the situation has changed, and it is continuing to change.

The recent historiography has been created by a generation or so of young historians, themselves largely Asian Americans. The field has also been enriched by a number of Asian-born scholars, whose college education was in Asia and who bring to the field a fluency in an Asian language or languages rare in American-born scholars, whatever their ethnicity. Along with cross-fertilization from other disciplines and, of course, a greatly changed climate of public opinion, these trends have significantly altered the writing of Asian American history.

Columbia protecting Chinese man from mob © Harper's Weekly, 1918/Corbis

To understand the new, it is necessary to know how the field developed. The history of Asian Americans may be divided into four parts: (1) a period of scorn, lasting into the 1920s; (2) a period of largely benign neglect, lasting into the 1950s; and two subsequent and overlapping phases, both of which are still present (although many mainstream textbooks still neglect Asian American history). One of those directions is an increasing, but one-sided, awareness of Asian Americans that pays them attention but still stresses what was done to them rather than what they did. The other, of slightly more recent vintage, does not ignore discrimination but focuses more on Asian Americans themselves and less on their oppressors.

Hubert Howe Bancroft, the first important English-language historian of California, is an ideal example of the era of scorn. Writing in the seventh volume of his massive history of California, he insisted that the Chinese were "alien in every sense." He spoke of the "color of their skins, the repulsiveness of their features, their undersize of figure, their incomprehensible language, strange customs and heathen religion." Before becoming president, Woodrow Wilson wrote in his popular, five-volume A History of the American People (1902) that "Caucasian laborers could not compete with the Chinese ... who, with their yellow skin and debasing habits of life, seemed to them hardly fellow men at all, but evil spirits rather."

As late as 1964, a new Harvard Ph.D., Gunther Barth, wrote that 19th-century Chinese immigrants were not immigrants at all, but "sojourners" who intended to return to their homeland and were, thus, the authors of their own misfortune. It was a classic case of blaming the victim. By that time, other scholars were taking notice of the nasty and brutal treatment meted out to immigrants from Asia, but most concentrated on the flaws in American democracy, focusing on the excluders rather than the excluded. That tradition, which may have begun with Mary Roberts Coolidge's Chinese Immigration (1909), included Elmer Sandemeyer's The Anti-Chinese Movement in California (1939) and later works by myself, Stuart Creighton Miller, and Alexander Saxton, to name a few.

Before the fairly recent past, there were few specialists in Asian American topics in the professoriate. The first major work of history by a native-born Asian American was the sociologist Rose Hum Lee's The Chinese in the United States of America (1960). In 1967, Betty Lee Sung, who would not earn her doctorate in sociology for another 16 years, published Mountain of Gold: The Story of the Chinese in America, which gave, for the first time, an accurate picture of the breadth of the Chinese American experience.

Blooming Like a Lotus

Meanwhile, to satisfy student demands that began in the late 1960s, most West Coast universities, along with a few other colleges here and there, established Asian American academic programs, most frequently in the form of multidisciplinary study centers with subdepartmental status. The existence of classes created a need for textbooks. Amerasia Journal was founded in 1971 by students at Yale but soon moved to the University of California at Los Angeles, where it became part of the Asian American Studies Center. By 1980, a learned society, the Association for Asian American Studies, was sponsoring annual conferences.

Those developments were accompanied by a growing preponderance of Asian Americans among the leading authorities in the still relatively new field. The prominence and authority of scholars like Sucheng Chan, Harry H.L. Kitano, Gary Okihiro, and Ronald Takaki, all of them trained in traditional disciplines, provided role models for younger academics, in terms of both publishing important scholarship and showing that Asian Americans could do so. By the 1980s, some mainstream departments of major West Coast universities were hiring Asian American specialists, and by century's end, Eastern and Midwestern universities were also beginning to advertise for specialists in the field.

The burgeoning of Asian American scholarship led to, and was facilitated by, the establishment of three series at university presses: Temple's, Illinois's, and Stanford's. Three other university presses -- at Washington, California, and Cornell -- publish books on Asian American topics with notable frequency. Two other recent developments are worth noting. The first is the creative interest in Asian American studies among scholars trained at European institutions, an aspect of what David Thelen, former editor of The Journal of American History, calls the "internationalization of American history."

"Young Historians Are Reshaping
Asian American Studies"

recent significant works, identified by Prof. Daniels

The second development is the work of a number of legal historians who have described the Chinese encounter with the American legal system. Although these studies are not properly Asian American history, they do illuminate it. The two most important books are Charles J. McClain's In Search of Equality: The Chinese Struggle Against Discrimination in Nineteenth-Century America (1994) and Lucy E. Salyer's Laws Harsh as Tigers: Chinese Immigrants and the Shaping of Modern Immigration Law (1995).

Each shows that, rather than being helpless victims, 19th-century Chinese immigrants actively struggled against what they considered unjust laws, demonstrating an ability to acculturate to American legal norms quite unlike anything they would have experienced in China. While they lost most of the major Constitutional issues, they were able to negate or modify many of the most discriminatory state and municipal restrictions, largely through suits and petitions in federal courts.

The other aspect of Asian American history most widely treated by scholars has been the wartime incarceration of the West Coast Japanese Americans between 1942 and 1946. As early as 1945, scholarship condemned the government's action -- a notable exception being a 1998 volume, All the Laws But One: Civil Liberties in Wartime, by William Rehnquist, the present Chief Justice of the United States. But only recently have the incarcerated been portrayed as actors in what is still largely a cautionary tale about governmental misdeeds. The latest work to explore a more human element is the discussion of wartime draft resistance by incarcerated Japanese Americans in Eric L. Muller's Free to Die for Their Country (2001).

In general, as has been true in the writing of immigrant and ethnic American history from the beginning, regardless of the group or groups involved, the best work in Asian American history has been of an increasing order of sophistication and complexity. As one would expect, most of it has been about the two groups with the longest history in the United States: Chinese and Japanese Americans of various generations. However, that state of affairs will not long continue. There are already occasional outstanding monographs on groups that arrived later. Most are written by persons who are not members of those groups, as was true of the earliest scholarship about the charter groups of Asian immigrants to the United States.

In many ways, the historiography of Asian America resembles that of many other topics that were ignored in the days when the political history of great white men dominated the profession. If some jaundiced eyes see what has happened as a case of minority history "taking over" the academy, however, they would do well to realize: Asian Americans, among others, are still underrepresented in historical offerings, in both the classroom and the library.

Author Citation

Reprinted with permission of Roger Daniels. © 2001 by Roger Daniels. Originally published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Dec. 7, 2001.

Suggested reference: Daniels, Roger. 2001. "The Academic Side of Asian American History" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <> ().

Roger Daniels is an Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Cincinnati. His most recent publications on Asian American topics are "Asian Americans: Rights Denied and Attained," p. 19-32 in M. Berg & M.H. Geyer, eds. Two Cultures of Rights: The Quest for Inclusion and Participation in Modern America and Germany (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), and "Korematsu v. United States Revisited: 1944 and 1983," p. 139-159 in Annette G. Reed, ed. Race on Trial: Law and Justice in American History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

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