In the 20th century, America represented a place in which people of all kinds could flourish. On the East Coast, we hear often about the migration of the English and Irish, Spanish and Italian, or Germans and Slavs. At least in this area, the history of such migrations is taught, discussed, and analyzed readily. On the other side of the country, across the Pacific, other Americans made a similar trek to that of their Atlantic counterparts.
Rooted in a rich and influential history in the Americas, Asian-Americans have left their mark through cultural, industrial, and social contributions to the nation. The Asian-American History exhibit on display in O’Neill’s first-floor lounge highlights just some of these contributions, while calling to mind the significance of celebrating the vast diversity within the Asian American community.
With images of various Asian-Americans throughout history, the exhibit calls to mind the kind of expansive and varied history found in the community. It is apparent that the experiences had by people of the past and of today are as varied and unique as the individuals the images represent. The visual representation follows an abridged timeline of Asian-American history in the United States, from migration to the modern age. The progression follows not only the trials, but also the triumphs of the community throughout history. Though the products of racial issues can be seen in many of the pieces, a sense of resilience remains just as pervasive.
One image depicts the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. The action was seen as a preventative wartime measure to ensure the safety of American. What is often forgotten in that 62 percent of those interned were American citizens. The blatant disregard and invalidation of civil liberties of these Americans can been seen in the photo as a crowd of Japanese-Americans stands behind a barbed-wire fence. This divisive and unconstitutional interment led up to the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, through which reparations were made to the interned and their heirs. Despite this, the event will forever mark a dark moment for Asian Americans, due to the loss of material goods, reputation, and in some cases, life.
On the theme of inclusion, one photo depicts Filipino-American stewards accompanying President Harry S. Truman to the Potsdam Conference in Potsdam, Germany following the defeat of the Nazis, as well as a photo of an all Japanese American battalion around the same time period. These images reflect the positions of Asian-Americans at crucial points in world history, as these people were strong, active participants in history, rather than ineffective, standing idly by.
Another image shows the masses of Chinese workers as they constructed the Transcontinental Railroad in the 19th century, experiencing different hardships of an earlier time. These new immigrant workers represented around 90 percent of the workforce as they laid down ties, ballasts, and steel. In building the network that spanned and connected the country, the low-paying, high-risk environment cost many of the workers their lives. Cutting through mountains and driving spikes proved to be arduous work that claimed the lives of many of the Chinese workers along the Central Pacific section of the railway stretching from Utah to California. They also remain active makers of history, despite the brutal, sometimes fatal costs.
During the 1992 Los Angeles riots, Korean-American establishments were the targets of looting and vandalism following the acquittal of four officers involved in the beating of Rodney King, leading many to feel abandoned and unprotected by law enforcement. Many Koreans Americans thought to leave the area as a result of such express violence toward them. An image showcased in the gallery is striking, as it depicts men armed to defend themselves in solidarity. Showing a storefront enveloped in flames acutely shows the severity and impact of the situation.
In the current age, the exhibit chooses to address the topical issue of diversity in regards to the Oscars, criticizing the 2016 host Chris Rock for his jokes utilizing Asian stereotypes. This is represented through a shot of Chris Rock cracking a joke perceived by many as racist while gesturing to several Asian boys on stage. In this way the exhibit shows how such conversations regarding inclusion and respect remain as pertinent today as they have been in the preceding decades.
The Asian-American History exhibit follows the trials and journeys of many Asian peoples in America. In many cases, the forces at work were great and seemingly unsurmountable. But as the exhibit suggests through its provocative images, people, no matter where they come from, find ways to persist, persevere, and carve their own paths in history.
Featured Image by Savanna Kiefer / Heights Editor