Publication Date

April 3, 2024

Perspectives Section

From the President


Asian American and Pacific Islander, Labor

I had a feeling that I belonged
I had a feeling I could be someone.
—Tracy Chapman, “Fast Car”

The space allotted to the presidents in Perspectives is a precious thing. We can write about whatever is on our minds, limited only by a word count of 1,400 or so. Past presidents have written compellingly about the myriad and difficult challenges the discipline faces, the richness of the intellectual world we inhabit, and the joys and difficulties of research and writing. My columns touch on these matters too, but I focus mainly on the thing that keeps me attached to the work even as we collectively mourn the loss of life and horrible conditions of life that people across the globe suffer. They are the intellectual puzzles I have written about in previous columns that force reckonings with how history is made and how historians tell the story of history’s making.

In her first Perspectives on History column in 2015, “A Quest for Balance,” AHA president Vicki L. Ruiz wrote about the importance of listening to stories and how this practice can make us better scholars. Her “public talks on Mexican American teenagers during the 1920s and 1930s,” she told us, “always generated lively audience responses from individuals eager to share family stories.” This was the case, for example, at a talk at the Riverside Historical Museum, where a woman recalled the story of her parents’ elopement and how “in order to do so they had locked her grandmother in the outhouse.” For Ruiz, that conversation led to a greater realization of “the depth of generational tensions over the surveillance of young women’s bodies and behavior.” This way of thinking about and even reconsidering the process by which we engage the past and write history, and about how process can become the ground for analyzing and theorizing about the past and analyzing our findings, is, I think, the thing that continues to excite us as historians and provides pathways for making our discoveries more memorable, relevant, and accessible.

I am particularly attracted to Ruiz’s use of the word “informed” in discussing the intervention of the woman in the audience. She “informed me,” Ruiz writes. In this way, it seems to me, Ruiz witnessed and documented an important transfer of knowledge and way of knowing. The woman in the audience became an informant and intervened to add a bit of history and historical context, reminding Ruiz of how important the skill of listening is to the work we do—no matter the final form the work takes: a monograph, peer-reviewed journal article or essay, film, podcast, newspaper article, letter to the editor, blog, or any of a number of other public-facing venues. Getting to the finished product requires that we rest easy with the process of allowing ourselves to be “informed” by many voices telling stories.

Ruiz witnessed and documented an important transfer of knowledge and way of knowing.

A story I heard—listened to—recently reminded me of Ruiz’s column. It is a story I believe will help make me a better scholar. It was an instance of being “informed” and experiencing a transfer of knowledge of a kind I am more accustomed to receiving from documents written hundreds of years ago, unlike oral historians. Yet in both cases—whether to the voice that comes through in a soldier’s letter to a family member or from an interviewee recounting a story about the civil rights movement or concentration camps during World War II—listening is paramount.

I was in a rideshare car on the way to meet a colleague for dinner and realized that we were headed to the wrong address. The driver would have been perfectly within her rights to tell me she could not divert her car to the correct address and potentially lose money in the process by not being as readily available for another ride. She could have dropped me off where the algorithm indicated she should. Instead, she made a slight detour and took me to the appointed restaurant, for which I was grateful.

Over the course of that relatively short ride, the driver told me a story about herself; her father, whose family had migrated from Tennessee to Pasadena, California, many decades ago; and her Asian American mother. She said she did not know much about either parent, especially her mother; she knows neither her mother’s specific Asian nationality or ethnic identity nor when she arrived in Pasadena. She remembered hearing that her mother and her mother’s sister were “given” to a woman for whom they were to work. She did not know the details of the arrangement, how much her mother and aunt were paid (if anything), or how long the arrangement lasted. She wished she knew more and seemed as eager to share her story as I was to listen. It struck me that perhaps her mother and aunt had entered a form of bound labor, but I did not venture this notion to her or that I was a historian. She had probably told the story many times and I have heard similar stories before, but it was with Ruiz’s admonition in mind that I listened differently.

I was reminded once again of why I became a historian and why for many of us the will to do this work persists despite the vagaries and contradictions of the discipline, and, for far too many, often-deplorable working conditions: We do it to tell the driver’s story, not as an isolated anecdote but part of a large tapestry constructed of the small stories of other people who migrate in the hope of finding a better life and place of refuge, like the ancient Veneti about whom AHA past president Edward Muir has written about here and elsewhere.

Any of these stories could easily have not been listened to. The work of historians across disparate but inevitably connected fields of study and that of scholars in other disciplines caution against not listening and drawing easy conclusions about anecdotes. Listening, we recognize the rideshare driver’s story as a centuries-old story of migrations, of families seeking refuge and families sundered, not unlike in many respects the women and children in the era of the Civil War that I study. Her story is also part of the history of what we have come to call the gig economy and its connections to the history of empire, colonization, bound and waged labor, citizenship, war, and political economy.

Anecdotes are tricky things. They can just as easily obfuscate as illuminate.

Anecdotes are tricky things. They can just as easily obfuscate as illuminate. At their best, they speak to the interconnectedness of lives lived across time and across borders, borders imagined, constructed, and defined by human hands, and by nature—rivers and oceans, mountains and lowlands, islands and continents, swamps, deserts, and forests, themselves constantly changing and, in turn, being shaped by human habitation and interference.

Following Ruiz, I was led by the rideshare driver’s story to think about things such as political economy differently. On one level, the anecdotal story the driver shared is a story about migration and refuge. On another, it is about the “gig economy” and “making do.” And it is a story of the movement and separation of families across generations—sometimes forcibly and sometimes by decisions of the migrants themselves (though voluntary may not be the best way to describe such decisions), by forces moving across time and space, and of families reconstituted on new ground. There are her father’s people who migrated from the rural South and her mother’s family from Asia. The father’s ancestors would have seen California as a place of refuge from the extreme anti-Black racism, poverty, and violence that characterized much of the South and of hope for a future in which they could freely pursue opportunity and not have to live day to day worried about transgressing the limits imposed by white supremacy. For the mother’s people, California may have represented refuge from poverty differently constructed and the opportunity to build stable and prosperous families. In a sense, the driver’s ancestors on both sides of the family experienced a variant of the “gig economy.”

The term gig economy is used today to describe the rise in freelancing work, especially that available through companies like Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, and Instacart. According to a CNN report, these companies’ internal data shows a growing number of gig economy participants. It notes, for example, that in February 2023, “Uber reported that its ‘earners,’ as it calls its drivers and food delivery workers, reached a record high of 5.4 million in the fourth quarter of 2022,” and Doordash had more than two million monthly “active Dashers.” To call these “earners” “freelancers,” however, seems somewhat akin to calling the driver’s mother, bound out as a child, a freelancer. Like her ancestors, the rideshare driver is free to pursue this kind of work. And as it was for them, she does not freely choose.

Thavolia Glymph is president of the AHA.

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