January 15, 2009
Written by C.N.
Like millions of Americans, I am anxiously awaiting noon on Tuesday, January 20. This is the hour when Barack Obama is scheduled to take the oath of office and officially become the next President of the United States.
I’ve written before on the sociological and personal significance of this momentous event and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. But in the meantime, my Vietnamese American colleague Andrew Lam of New America Media has written a very eloquent post about what Barack Obama’s inauguration means to him.
Andrew begins his piece by recounting the plot of Daniel Defoe’s The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe and how Crusoe “saves” an indigenous man, names him “Friday,” and basically teaches him the ways of acting “civilized” according to White, European standards. Andrew then relates the story to his own experiences:
[W]hen he was christened, when he called Crusoe “master,” Friday essentially lost his autonomy and his past. When he was taught a new language, Friday lost his bearings and the articulation and the enchantment of his old tongue. . . .
For a while, as a Vietnamese refugee to America, I grieved. Then I resigned myself to the idea that I was fated to live at the empire’s outer edge, living in a world in which Friday’s children were destined to play subservient roles and sidekicks. I knew this because I saw it on TV nightly.
Friday became Tonto, Mammy, Pocahontas, Kato, and (play it again) Sam. I saw too, the complexity of my own Vietnamese past ignored or, worse yet, simplified and reduced to faceless figures in black pajamas and conical hats, to serve as props or to be gunned down by American GIs, the wielders of history. . . .
Five hundred years after European conquest began, the glory of Crusoe continues to play out. “The Swiss Robinson Family,” and “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” and dozens more movies were direct spin offs but its mythos provides the backbone for tv shows like Star Trek, where the captain is white and his crew are ethnic and aliens, and contemporary films like Men in Black, Jerry McGuire, Pulp Fiction, and Lethal Weapon, just to name very few. In them the ethnic sidekicks help make the main character who he is, reinforcing his centrality. . . .
Who knows then when the story began to shift? . . . It may very well have begun with Frederick Douglass. . . . [H]e learned the alphabet from his master’s wife. He stole books. He learned how to read and write. He taught others. He became an abolitionist, editor, a suffragist, author, and the first African American nominated vice president in 1872 on the Equal Rights Party ticket with Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for President of the United States. . . .
For this is the way the new power lies: Those who once dwelled at the margins of the Commonwealth have appropriated the language of their colonial masters and used it with great degree of articulation as they inch toward the center, crossing all kinds of demarcations, dispelling the old myth. If Crusoe contends that he still is the lead actor, Friday is far from being content to playing subservient and sidekick any longer. . . .
[O]n that fateful Tuesday in November 4, 2008, Friday spoke up loud and clear and eloquently, and declared himself an equal, and the whole world danced. He tells us to dare to dream big, even this once considered impossible dream: Son of Africa becomes the new patriarch of America.
I think Andrew captures the sentiments of many of us very accurately.
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Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "Counting Down to the End of Colonialism" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/headlines/2009/01/counting-down-to-the-end-of-colonialism/> ().
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