BOOK REVIEW: Cultural politics of Asian American movements

CHAINS OF BABYLON: THE RISE OF ASIAN AMERICA

By Daryl J. Maeda  (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009, 248 pp., $20, paperback)

Daryl J. Maeda’s slim book “Chains of Babylon: The Rise of Asian America” is a compelling and quite refreshing examination of the history of Asian American movements in the Vietnam War era. To his credit, the author, a professor of ethnic studies at University of Colorado, goes beyond rediscovering and celebrating a past (and arguably ephemeral) era of radical activism, even if it clearly inspires him. Rather, his book offers a sophisticated set of case studies of developments within the Asian American Movement, and an exploration of the people involved. While he takes their ideas seriously, he is also not shy about discussing some of the contradictions they expressed.

At the center of Maeda’s work is an examination of cultural politics: how the movement’s young activists — especially Sansei such as Pat Sumi, Chris Iijima and Janice Mirikitani — expressed their political theories through theater, music, art and cultural styles. In particular, inspired by Black Power and in solidarity with Third World peoples (in the parlance of the period), they rebelled against cultural assimilation by seeking to embrace “blackness.” This meant not just engagement with actual African Americans but absorbing as their own and expressing the cultural tropes of militancy, rebellion and masculinity that the larger society imputed to blacks. For example, Maeda dissects the particular ways in which the “Yellow Power” Chinese American activist group Red Guards modeled themselves on the Black Panthers, even as the writer Frank Chin attempted to craft a specifically Asian American identity through a problematic concentration on (black) masculinity.

Meanwhile, in a powerful chapter, Maeda explores the famed 1968-69 student strikes at San Francisco State University, in which a multiracial coalition of students campaigned for the creation of the first ethnic studies program in the United States. In the process, he studies in depth the bête noire of the young radicals, S. I. Hayakawa, who was propelled by the strike into the president’s chair at the university and eventually into the U.S. Senate. Hayakawa’s ideas, Maeda notes, remained largely fixed and consistent throughout his career, even as he moved from (moderate) Left to Right. A onetime columnist for the African American newspaper Chicago Defender, he spoke favorably about Black Studies and ethnic-specific assistance for African Americans, whom he considered culturally deprived. However, Hayakawa rigidly opposed separate Asian American organizations and instead espoused liberal assimilationism and education as weapons against racism.

Maeda might have even have gone further to discuss the odd ways in which Hayakawa’s vision anticipated his own analysis. For Hayakawa also underlined in interviews the fascination of Asian American activists with blackness, but he portrayed it instead as a defining mark of their inauthenticity: for him the young radicals were privileged children of the elite who aped African American militancy and cultural styles precisely because they had no grievances of their own or links with the working class.

In sum, this fine book breaks considerable new ground, and helps recenter and deepen our understanding of how and why the social and political category of Asian Americans was born.

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