Teaching Innovations

Teaching American History through a Different Mirror

Ronald Takaki, October 1994

Editor's Note: This month's Teaching Innovations column addresses an issue currently receiving wide attention: Who should be included in the history we teach and how should they be included? Ronald Takaki of the University of California at Berkeley, whose recent book, A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America, has received wide attention, addresses the opportunities and difficulties these questions pose for history teachers. George M. Fredrickson of Stanford University and Robert K. Fullinwider of the University of Maryland respond directly to Dr. Takaki's assessment. In the Viewpoints column, Earl Lewis of the University of Michigan addresses many of the same concerns.

How can we teach history so that it includes all of the peoples who have lived and worked in this place called the United States of America? This is the question teachers find themselves being asked again and again. Other questions abound: Wouldn't the inclusion of racial and ethnic groups mean the reduction of traditional history? Doesn't multiculturalism constitute "political correctness"—the rigid and doctrinaire teaching about the heroes and glorious achievements of peoples of color? Does our recent emphasis on diversity stir divisiveness and balkanize us as Americans?

Clearly, teaching history the old-fashioned way has not worked. More than ever before, as we approach the twenty-first century, there is a growing realization among educators that our traditional history has tended to define America too narrowly. For example, in his prize-winning study The Uprooted (Grosset & Dunlap, 1951), Harvard historian Oscar Handlin presented—to use the book's subtitle—"the Epic Story of the Great Migrations that Made the American People." But Handlin's "epic story" excluded the "uprooted" from Africa, Asia, and Latin America—the other "Great Migrations" that also helped to make "the American People." Similarly, in The Age of Jackson (Little, Brown, 1945), Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., overlooked blacks and Indians. There is not even a mention of two marker events—the Nat Turner insurrection and Indian removal, which Andrew Jackson himself would no doubt have been surprised to find omitted from a history of his era. To leave out whole groups of people is to present an incomplete and therefore distorted portrayal of the past.

Still, while Handlin and Schlesinger had written scholarship that reflected a dominant political orthodoxy, a pervasive but mistaken view of "American" as white or European in ancestry, they offered us a refreshing revisionism, paving the way for the study of common people rather than princes and presidents. They inspired the next generation of historians to examine groups such as the artisan laborers of Philadelphia and the Irish immigrants of Boston. "Once I thought to write a history of the immigrants in America," Handlin confided in his introduction to The Uprooted, "then I discovered that the immigrants were American history." This door, once opened, led to even greater inclusiveness as many of us began to recognize that ethnic history is American history.

But if we agree that a multicultural, more inclusive, history is a more accurate one, how do we do it? And can we do it without jettisoning traditional history, pushing "political correctness," and threatening our unity as Americans?

While addressing such questions, some history teachers have at times lacked clear focus. We have confused the study of America's ethnic groups with foreign area studies. When asked whether our colleges have courses in Asian American studies, we have sometimes answered, Yes, we teach courses on Japan. Similarly, a high school course seeking to include Asian Americans assigned Pearl Buck's The Good Earth. Elementary school teachers have often taught ethnic diversity through the foods and holidays of foreign countries. The cultural diversity requirement at a major university included courses in African studies, but not African American studies. Of course, we need to study the cultures of the world, but this should not be confused with, or be allowed to substitute for, an understanding of multicultural American society.

Even when we as history teachers do get it right in terms of focus, some of us sometimes also unknowingly contribute to the continued marginalization of minorities. This problem is especially evident in some efforts to explode racial stereotypes. For example, some of us have fallen victim to the Orientalist trope. In challenging the negative images of Asians, we center our analysis on Western culture's portrayals of the "Oriental Other." That is, we explain that the very term "Oriental" was an invention of nineteenth-century British colonialism: the "Orient" was east of London, referring to places to be conquered and lands inhabited by inferior peoples. We also debunk Hollywood depictions of Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan as simplistic and racist, but we do not offer counterpointing and realistic portraits of Asian Americans as complex human beings. In our very critique, we reinforce stereotypes by failing to penetrate beyond the notions of the exotic and by leaving Asians still faceless and voiceless. Thus, "Orientals" remain "Orientalized."

This focus on stereotypes can also be found in studies of groups such as African Americans in George Frederickson's The Black Image in the White Mind (Harper & Row, 1972) and Native Americans in Robert F. Berkhofer, Jr.'s, The White Man's Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present (Vintage, 1979). Similarly, my book Iron Cages: Race and Culture in Nineteenth-Century America (Knopf, 1979) also reflects this one-sidedness: it analyzes white attitudes toward African Americans, Native Americans, Mexicans, and Chinese. In our examination of the nature of white racism, we have, in effect reproduced the very monocultural perspective we have been aiming to challenge.

One way to avoid this trap is for history teachers to focus on the members of the excluded groups as first persons, as men and women with minds, wills, and voices. In the telling of their stories, these individuals provide alternative perspectives to the past and help to re-vision history. "It is very natural that the history written by the victim," said a Mexican who lived in California in 1874, "does not altogether chime with the story of the victor." America's manifest destiny and the war against Mexico, for example, looked very different from the other side of the border in the Southwest. Similarly, the story of westward expansion, for the Indians, was the history of how the West was lost.

Stories from multicultural America can also promote greater understanding. "I hope this survey do a lot of good for Chinese people," an immigrant told a researcher. "Make American people realize that Chinese people are humans. I think very few American people really know anything about Chinese."

By sharing the stories of America's different groups, history teachers can help students comprehend the variety as well as the complexity of people's feelings and thoughts. They also introduce firsthand knowledge. After she escaped from slavery, Harriet Jacobs wrote, "[My purpose] is not to tell you what I have heard but what I have seen—and what I have suffered." Her autobiography, republished recently as Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (Oxford, 1990), is part of a growing collection of voices available in new anthologies such as Marilyn Davis's Mexican Voices/American Dreams: An Oral History of Mexican Immigration to the United States (Henry Holt, 1990), Peter Nabokov's Native American Testimony: A Chronicle of Indian-White Relations from Prophecy to the Present, 1492–1992 (Viking Penguin, 1992), John Tateishi's And Justice for All: An Oral History of the Japanese American Detention Camps (Random House, 1984), and Wesley Brown and Amy Ling's Visions of America: Personal Narratives from the Promised Land (Persea, 1993). The "varied carols" of Americans, to use Walt Whitman's poetic description of our stories, invite all of us to become listeners.

The stories also take us beyond what critics of multiculturalism such as Schlesinger castigate as "victim studies." When people give their own accounts, they reveal themselves as actors in history, making decisions and taking actions in order to transform the circumstances surrounding their lives. They share their fierce visions of the new land. Spreading from shtetl to shtetl across Russia, a song pointed the way for Jewish immigrants:

As the Russians, mercilessly
Took revenge on us.
There is a land, America,
Where everyone lives free.

Coming from a different shore, a Japanese immigrant wrote:

Day of spacious dreams!
I sailed for America,
Overblown with hope.

But do the stories of our many groups represent disparate narratives? One pursuit of our multicultural past has been to study the history of a specific group, focusing on its separate memory. Such a particularistic perspective is reflected in studies such as my Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans (Little, Brown, 1989); Susan A. Glenn's Daughters of the Shtetl: Life and Labor in the Immigrant Generation (Cornell, 1980); Mario Garcia's Desert Immigrants: The Mexicans of El Paso (Yale, 1981); Lawrence Levine's Black Culture and Black Consciousness (Oxford, 1977); Paula Gunn Allen's The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions (Beacon, 1986); Clara E. Rodriguez's Puerto Ricans: Born in the U.S.A. (Westview, 1991); and Kirby Miller's Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America (Oxford, 1985). This approach is also found in courses that focus narrowly on individual groups such as African Americans or Asian Americans. One problem of such teaching is a tendency to fragmentize the study of society and thus deny opportunities for different groups to learn about one another. Seeking to avoid this pitfall, we sometimes turn to the "add-on" approach. This soft option allows us to maintain the traditional focus of a course while adding a week on African Americans and another on Hispanics. Meanwhile, however, intergroup relationships remain invisible, and the big picture is missing.

Do our various stories, when studied together, connect the diverse memories and communities to a larger national narrative? In exploring this question, some historians have chosen a pluralistic rather than a particularistic perspective. This comparative approach can be found in works like my A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America (Little, Brown, 1993); Gary Nash's Red, White, and Black: The Peoples of Early America (Prentice-Hall, 1974); Ivan Light's Ethnic Enterprise in America: Business and Welfare among Chinese, Japanese, and Blacks (University of California, 1972); Reginald Horsman's Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism (Harvard, 1981); Jack D. Forbes's Africans and Native Americans: The Language of Race and the Evolution of Red-Black Peoples (University of Illinois, 1993); Werner Sollors's Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture (Oxford, 1986); Roger Daniels's Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life (HarperCollins, 1990); Paul R. Spickard's Mixed Blood: Intermarriage and Ethnic Identity in Twentieth-Century America (University of Wisconsin, 1989); and Benjamin Ringer's `We the People' and Others: Duality and America's Treatment of Its Racial Minorities (Tavistock, 1983).

A multicultural mirror of our past can enable us as history teachers to help students study differences among groups: African Americans were enslaved, Indian tribes like the Cherokees and Choctaws were forced by the federal government to migrate west of the Mississippi River, and Mexicans were incorporated by war. Though they were targets of nativist prejudices, Irish and Jewish immigrants were at least allowed to become citizens. But Asian immigrants were excluded from citizenship: the Naturalization Law of 1790 reserved citizenship to "white" persons. This act remained in effect until 1952.

A broad comparative approach can also enable students to connect our diversity to the major developments and events in American history such as westward expansion, the industrial revolution, urbanization, immigration, the American Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II. From this vantage point, students can see how the experiences of our many ethnic communities occurred within shared contexts.

During the nineteenth century, for example, Irish immigrants worked in New England factories manufacturing textiles from cotton cultivated by enslaved blacks on lands taken from Indians and Mexicans. In northern cities, blacks and Irish competed for jobs as dockworkers and domestic servants. Like blacks, the Irish were stereotyped as "savages," ruled by passions rather than the "civilized" virtues of self-control and hard work.

The workplace was frequently the site where different ethnic groups were pitted against one another. In 1870, Mississippi planters recruited Chinese immigrants to discipline newly freed blacks. During that same year, Chinese immigrant laborers were transported from California to Massachusetts to break an Irish immigrant strike. The Irish responded initially by trying to organize a Chinese lodge of their labor union called the Knights of St. Crispins in order to promote intergroup class solidarity.

There were other instances of interethnic labor solidarity and sympathy. In 1903, Mexican and Japanese farm laborers went on strike together in California: their union officers had names like Lizarras and Yamaguchi, and their strike meetings were conducted in Spanish and Japanese. Speaking in impassioned Yiddish during the 1909 garment workers' strike in New York, Clara Lemlich compared the abuse of Jewish laborers to the experience of blacks: "[The bosses] yell at the girls and 'call them down' even worse than I imagine the Negro slaves were in the South."

But is there something deeper, more profound, that unites us as Americans? Here we can help students understand that our diverse groups have been appropriating America's principle that "all men are created equal," endowed with "unalienable rights" of life and liberty. They have helped to transform these great ideas into a more inclusive vision. Frederick Douglass pointed out that the Constitution stated, "We the People," not "we the white people."

In their struggles for equality, Douglass and members of other excluded groups have been redefining what it means to be an American. Japanese immigrant Takao Ozawa insisted on his entitlement to become a citizen even though he was not white. After living and working for twenty years in his adopted country, he applied for citizenship, only to be denied by the Supreme Court in a landmark 1922 decision. Mexican immigrant Ernesto Galarza remembered singing as a child in a California school, "My country tiz-a-thee." Galarza later received a Ph.D. from Columbia University and became a prolific historian of Chicano labor.

Our very beginning as a nation was multicultural. Blacks fought alongside whites in the War for Independence. Decades later, another generation of blacks fought to preserve our union. During the Civil War, when our nation could have been splintered forever, 186,000 blacks served in the Union Army. President Abraham Lincoln expressed our national purpose. What Lincoln called "the mystic chords of memory" stretching from battlefields to patriot graves had now bonded whites and blacks in a common struggle to save the country—a nation founded and "dedicated" to the "proposition" of equality.

During World War II, American racial minorities participated in the defense of our democracy. "We are also children of the United States," Mexican Americans declared as they volunteered to serve in our armed forces. "We will defend her." Navajos left their reservations to fight against fascism. One of them wrote home from the battlefield: "I don't know anything about the white man's way. I never went outside the reservation. . . . I am proud to be in a [military] suit like this now. It is to protect my country, my people. . . ." Japanese American soldiers helped to liberate Jewish prisoners at Dachau. Many of the prisoners were confused at first, believing the soldiers were from Japan, an ally of Germany. A Japanese American soldier explained to them, "I am an American, and you are free." There, at Dachau, was one of the irony of ironies, for many Japanese American soldiers had families imprisoned in America's internment camps. Yet, they served in the American armed forces to fight racism not only abroad but also at home. Indeed, as W. E. B. Du Bois explained, World War II was a struggle for "democracy not only for white folks but for yellow, brown, and black."

One hundred years ago in Chicago, Frederick Jackson Turner also pondered the meaning of America's democracy when he proclaimed the end of the frontier in American history. For this young and bold historian, the frontier had been the line between savagery and civilization, and its westward advance signified progress and also the transformation of the European immigrant into an American.

Today, we are still asking, What does it mean to be an "American"? But our efforts to find answers lack Turner's certainty and confidence, for we now recognize the need to redefine our national identity in relationship to our multicultural reality, especially as we approach another frontier—the time when no one group will predominate numerically. Racial minorities have already become majorities in many cities across the country—a pattern that will become a reality for the total population in the twenty-first century. Miranda seems to speak specifically to us today when she exclaims in The Tempest, first performed in London four years after the founding of Jamestown: "O brave new world that has such people in it!"

But, as this multiethnicity rushes toward us, what does the future hold for our racially diverse society? "We can get along," urged Rodney King during the days of rage in Los Angeles. "We can work it out." But can we get along, can we work it out, unless we learn about one another? Do the 1992 televised images of racial conflict beamed from Los Angeles signify the disuniting of America? Whatever happens, we can be certain that much of our society's future will be influenced by which "mirror" of history we choose to see ourselves in. America does not belong to one race or one group of people; neither does our country's history.

Our society has been settled by "the people of all nations," Herman Melville observed over a century ago. "All nations may claim her for their own. You can not spill a drop of American blood, without spilling the blood of the whole world." Americans are not "a narrow tribe," he added; we are not a nation, "so much as a world." In this new society, Melville hoped, the "prejudices of national dislikes" could be "forever extinguish[ed]." Like the crew of the Pequod, working together below deck, we have originally come from many different shores, our lives and cultures swirling together in the settling and building of America from the first meeting of the Powhatans and English in Virginia to the last arrival of boat people from war-torn Vietnam. We now have the opportunity, the invitation, to bring our cultural diversity on deck, into our curriculum. Our ethnic diversity has been at the heart of the making of America. Our common past reveals the crisscrossing paths of different groups and our connectedness to a larger narrative called the United States. Such knowledge offers all of us a more accurate history, as well as a more inclusive view, of who we are as Americans.

—Ronald Takaki is professor of ethnic studies at the University of California at Berkeley; he is the author of A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America (Boston: Little, Brown, 1993). Teachers will find references to books and articles for a broad range of ethnic groups in the endnotes of his study.