Publication Date

January 1, 1995

I read with interest the exchange between Ronald Takaki, George Fredrickson, and Robert Fullinwider in the October issue of Perspectives. For people concerned with making the teaching of American history more inclusive, each used extremely exclusionary language. I counted well over a dozen references to “we” or “us” or “our” in Ronald Takaki’s essay and noted that both George Fredrickson and Robert Fullinwider accept Takaki’s implicit assumption that the only consumers of American history will be present-day residents of the United States.

The teaching of American history, Takaki believes, should foster "a more inclusive view of who we are as Americans" and should enable "different groups" within "this place called the United States of America" to "learn about one another" so that "we can get along." Fredrickson argues that by studying American history "our students" will be able to answer questions about "their ethnic identities" and thus help these students with a perspective on how "our past" manages "to combine cultural diversity with a consensus on underlying national traditional values." With any luck, "our students" will be able to become "aware that their ancestors suffered from injustices-or perpetrated them."

What disturbs me about these statements is their implicit, and I believe simplistic, assumptions about who practices American history and who "consumes" such history. The idea-espoused by both Takaki and Fredrickson—that American history is for Americans disturbs me for two reasons. First, and least important, such notions render irrelevant and perhaps redundant the efforts of both myself and my students to do research in, to teach, or to learn about American history. As a New Zealander with no ancestors who were American and with quite possibly no descendants who will live in the United States and who teaches American history to non-Americans, there is no place for me within Professor Takaki's bold, multicultural, inclusive history. To understand how impossible it is for me, and every other historian of America who is not a citizen of or a resident in the United States, to teach as Ronald Takaki proposes, imagine me standing before a class of New Zealand students in my first class on American history and stating that the aims of this course are "to explore our ethnic diversity, our common past," how our commitment to diversity and commitment to a common American ideology "unites us as Americans," and how the stories I will tell of multicultural America will "promote greater understanding" and enable us as Americans "to get along." My students and I are interested in American history for other reasons and those reasons, I would argue, will not be satisfied by a conception of American history that sees the practice of American history as primarily important for building the civic consciousness of Americans about their country. In this respect, Takaki's "new" history is not much broader than the traditional teaching of American history for nation building purposes, which Takaki criticizes as being too narrow.

The second, and much more important, reason why I find these formulations of multicultural American history disturbing is that such a history makes both "America" and "Americans" unproblematic concepts when, in fact, neither is easily defined. Crevecoeur's famous question of the late 18th century—"Who, then, is this new man, the American?"—was both selective and exclusionary when it was made (an American was a native-born white male). Takaki's question for today—"What does it mean to be an American?"—is, despite Takaki's desire for a more inclusive history of America and Americans, equally selective and exclusionary. Americans are the residents of the contemporary United States and their ancestors (or at least those ancestors who lived in America) and America is the present-day United States. But as we all know, once we start to think about it, not all the people who have lived in the geographical area that is now the United States were "American" in the sense of being part of a polity that was recognizably American. Were native Hawaiians living in Hawaii before 1800 in any sense "Americans," or does their history belong to that of Polynesia and the Pacific? What do we term residents of 18th-century Louisiana or 16th-century New Mexico? Should the history of these American peoples be part of a history of the United States or part of the history of other nation-states such as France, Spain, and Mexico?

Just as important, how do we treat the history of those peoples who were once part of a polity that became the United States but which is not now part of the United States? Such a question comes naturally to colonialists, especially to people like myself who are interested in that part of British America that lay in the Caribbean. The American Revolution precipitated an artificial separation between Britain's mainland and island possessions, but before the Revolution mainland and island colonies were intimately and intricately tied. Places like Barbados are seldom included in general histories of America, but in the 17th century Barbados was at least as important to American development as such heavily studied areas as Virginia and Massachusetts. I note that Professor Takaki devotes a whole chapter of his excellent book A Different Mirror to early Virginia and gives much attention to early New England. He mentions 17th·century Barados—the colony in which Englishmen first devised a labor system based on African chattel slavery—only in passing and not as a colony worth including within American history but merely as a model that white Virginians (proper Americans) used in their own efforts to transform their labor system from one based on white indentured labor to one based on African chattel slavery. Whether Barbados and other West Indian islands should be included within general surveys of American history is debatable, but I would argue that without including Barbados we cannot understand such important topics as how slavery was introduced into America and why South Carolina—a not unimportant part of the United States in the history of 19th-century America—developed as it did. But its inclusion (and the question of how we conceptualize pre-Columbian history in the Americas or whether we consider “American” the history of Hawaii before 1800 and so on) does need to be debated.

What bothers me about the type of history advocated by proponents of multicultural history is that the question of what is America and who are Americans is simply considered a given. It is not just Professor Takaki who, to my mind, gives insufficient attention to this important problem. Readers of the William and Mary Quarterly, an audience less likely than most to automatically equate America with the nation-state of the United States, were regaled recently by an essay by James Hijiya. The essay chided us for ignoring the history of those parts of present-day United States that were not part of British America, but the article omitted to discuss parts of British America that most colonial historians consider part of early America but that did not become part of the United States-Quebec, Barbados, and Jamaica, for example. Hijiya concludes with a hope that historians of early America can begin to tell “the story of the whole country.” He, like Ronald Takaki and George Fredrickson, bemoans the fact that “Standard American History is essentially the history of the nation-state” but cannot see that multicultural history as presently written is just as in thrall to the iron grip of the nation-state on the American historical imagination as “Standard American History.” How, if American history is about “the story of the whole country,” does Christopher Columbus, a man who never set foot on the shores of North America, fit into a multicultural history of the United States? How can historians of America interested in “our” past and” our” ancestors continue to cite, as a perusal of textbooks on my bookshelf suggests is now almost obligatory, the experiences of Olaudah Equiano as a guide to the African experience in the United States? Takaki himself gives more space to Equiano than to any other early American except Thomas Jefferson in A Different Mirror, suggesting that Africans coming to early Virginia probably experienced the Middle Passage much as did Equiano, who provides a rare chronicle of that experience. Undoubtedly, Takaki is correct But Equiano is hardly an American by Takaki’s definition of American. He was shipped to Barbados, spent seven years at sea, lived in Montserrat, the Bahamas, the Mosquito Shore, and Britain (where he died), and seems to have spent very little of his remarkable life on the North American continent. As an African who lived principally in the Caribbean and Britain, and who had no descendants who were residents of the Urtited States, Equiano is a marginal participant at best in a multicultural history of the United States.

I do not wish to be thought entirely unsympathetic to the development of multicultural history by practitioners of American history. Including within American history peoples previously excluded from ''your'' nation's history is clearly desirable both from the perspective of scholarship and nation building. Professor Takaki's recent history of multicultural America is a signal advance on other general syntheses of American history. I agree wholeheartedly with Professor Takaki that "America does not belong to one race or one group of people." I would suggest, however, that his next comment—“neither does our country's history"—needs to be much more carefully thought out.

University of Canterbury
Christchurch, New Zealand

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