Karen L. Ishizuka is a third-generation American of Japanese descent whose cultural work as a film producer, curator, writer, and scholar is strongly defined by her transformative experiences through the Asian American Movement. To understand and articulate these transformations, Ishizuka interviewed over a hundred Asian American activists all over the United States, documenting a history that “has scarcely been acknowledged in the canon of U.S. history and culture.”
Ishizuka’s new book, Serve the People, Making Asian America in the Long Sixties opens with the assertion that “up until the cultural revolution of the “Long Sixties”—the elongated decade that began in the mid 1950s and lasted until the mid 1970s—there were no Asian Americans.” This compelling multi-voice story explains how Asian America came into being as both a political identity and a place to call home.
The continued marginalization of Asian Americans has its roots in the historical Black/white dichotomy that has framed most of U.S. social relations. Ishizuka astutely analyzes the neither Black nor white status of Asians, the inherent foreignness assumed about Asians and their implicit threat as an unassimilable presence that defined white Americans and the West.
Of particular relevance is Ishizuka’s analysis of the historical relationship between Asian and African Americans. W.E.B. DuBois saw Asia as a “fraternal twin to Africa’s struggle for political freedom and cultural self-preservation.” Langston Hughes’ travels in China in 1933 inspired the writing of nearly twenty poems that related his own experience with revolutionary movements in China.
In addition to noting the historic Asian-African Conference in Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955, an effort to forge a non-aligned path separate from the Superpowers (U.S. and Soviets), Ishizuka identifies two statements of solidarity with the African American liberation struggle made by Mao Zedong.
Mao’s Little Red Book would become a fundraiser and source of political study for the Black Panther Party. Ishizuka describes Crenshaw as a historical nexus for Japanese American and African American culture in the 1950s-60s. And on the east coast in Harlem, New York City, Yuri Kochiyama built a close political relationship with Malcolm X. This history defies the usual portrayal of Black-Asian tensions.
There were many fronts to the Asian American Movement: opposing the racist imperialist war in Southeast Asia, creating Asian American and Ethnic Studies, “community-nation building” in terms of social services and programs, even workers cooperatives. Ishizuka states that “making Asian America was probably when we felt most alive.” The intensity was palpable with revolution in the air. But the end of the Vietnam War “neutralized what had been a major impetus for Asian American activism.”
Ishizuka quotes Audre Lorde regarding the ways in which political in-fighting fractured the Movement. Despite the development of numerous Asian American revolutionary groups, their political differences became more defining than their common enemy of U.S. capitalism. Asian American artists, women, gays, and lesbians felt ancillary rather than central to the activism. The Movement, Asian America, became less of a home.
Ishizuka identifies many legacies of the Asian American Movement: “Its greatest impact has been the metamorphosis, both personal and political, of its innumerable participants.” The process, even more than the outcomes, forever changed the thinking and being of so many people. Perhaps this illustrates how once you follow the path of activism, you can’t go back.
Serve the People powerfully argues that recovering and remembering the Asian American Movement is not to live in the past, but rather to claim the future that the Asian American Movement envisioned. An unfinished revolution, but a revolution still worth fighting for: no justice, no peace!
An event titled, “Karen L. Ishizuka & Friends” happens Wednesday, April 20, at 7:00 p.m. at The Elliott Bay Book Company (1521 10th Ave., Seattle, WA 98122). Expected to join are some of the local activists Karen Ishizuka portrays in her book. For more information, click here.