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AfroAsian Encounters

AfroAsian Encounters
Culture, History, Politics

edited by

Heike Raphael-Hernandez and Shannon Steen

with Foreword by Vijay Prashad and

Afterword by Gary Okihiro

New York University Press
new york and lond on
new york universit y press
New York and London

© 2006 by New York University

All rights reserved

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

AfroAsian encounters : culture, history, politics / edited by Heike Raphael-
Hernandez and Shannon Steen ; with a foreword by Vijay Prashad and an
afterword by Gary Okihiro.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN-13: 978-0-8147-7580-6 (cloth : alk. paper)
ISBN-10: 0-8147-7580-2 (cloth : alk. paper)
ISBN-13: 978-0-8147-7581-3 (pbk. : alk. paper)
ISBN-10: 0-8147-7581-0 (pbk. : alk. paper)
1. African Americans—Relations with Asian Americans. 2. African Ameri-
cans—Intellectual life. 3. Asian Americans—Intellectual life. 4. Blacks—
America—Intellectual life. 5. Asians—America—Intellectual life. 6.
Ethnicity—America. 7. United States—Race relations. 8. America—Race
relations. 9. United States—Intellectual life. 10. America—Intellectual life.
I. Raphael-Hernandez, Heike. II. Steen, Shannon. III. Title: Afro Asian
E185.615.A5935 2006
305.895'073—dc22 2006016122

New York University Press books are printed on acid-free paper,

and their binding materials are chosen for strength and durability.

Manufactured in the United States of America

c 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
p 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Acknowledgments ix
Foreword: “Bandung Is Done”—Passages in
AfroAsian Epistemology xi
Vijay Prashad

Introduction: AfroAsian Encounters—Culture,

History, Politics 1
Heike Raphael-Hernandez and Shannon Steen

pa rt i Positioning AfroAsian Racial Identities

1 “A Race So Different from Our Own”: Segregation,

Exclusion, and the Myth of Mobility 17
Sanda Mayzaw Lwin

2 Crossings in Prose: Jade Snow Wong and the

Demand for a New Kind of Expert 34
Cynthia Tolentino

3 Complicating Racial Binaries: Asian Canadians and

African Canadians as Visible Minorities 50
Eleanor Ty

4 One People, One Nation? Creolization and Its

Tensions in Trinidadian and Guyanese Fiction 68
Lourdes López Ropero

5 Black-and-Tan Fantasies: Interracial Contact between

Blacks and South Asians in Film 86
Samir Dayal

vi Contents

pa rt i i Confronting the Color Hierarchy

6 “It Takes Some Time to Learn the Right Words”:

The Vietnam War in African American Novels 103
Heike Raphael-Hernandez

7 Chutney, Métissage, and Other Mixed Metaphors:

Reading Indo Caribbean Art in Afro Caribbean
Contexts 124
Gita Rajan

8 These Are the Breaks: Hip-Hop and AfroAsian

Cultural (Dis)Connections 146
Oliver Wang

pa rt i i i Performing AfroAsian Identities

9 Racing American Modernity: Black Atlantic

Negotiations of Asia and the “Swing” Mikados 167
Shannon Steen

10 Black Bodies/Yellow Masks: The Orientalist Aesthetic in

Hip-Hop and Black Visual Culture 188
Deborah Elizabeth Whaley

11 The Rush Hour of Black/Asian Coalitions?

Jackie Chan and Blackface Minstrelsy 204
Mita Banerjee

12 Performing Postmodernist Passing: Nikki S. Lee,

Tuff, and Ghost Dog in Yellowface/Blackface 223
Cathy Covell Waegner

pa rt iv Celebrating Unity

13 Persisting Solidarities: Tracing the AfroAsian Thread in

U.S. Literature and Culture 245
Bill V. Mullen
Contents vii

14 Internationalism and Justice: Paul Robeson, Asia, and

Asian Americans 260
Greg Robinson

15 “Jazz That Eats Rice”: Toshiko Akiyoshi’s Roots Music 277

David W. Stowe

16 Kickin’ the White Man’s Ass: Black Power, Aesthetics,

and the Asian Martial Arts 295
Fred Ho

Afterword: Toward a Black Pacific 313

Gary Y. Okihiro

About the Contributors 331

Index 335

As is always the case, this volume owes a large debt to a wide range of
people who showed their genuine interest in the fundamental ideas of
AfroAsian Encounters and participated with challenging discussions at
many different sites and occasions. The inspiration for the project came,
for Shannon, from a seminar with Harry Elam, without whom her area of
research would never have materialized. Paul Spickard provided the initial
impetus for our first panel at CAAR (Colloquium for African American
Research) at Winchester, England, in the spring of 2003. We are grateful
for the feedback from that audience, as well as that from subsequent au-
diences at the American Studies Association meeting at Atlanta and the
MESEA (Society for Multi-Ethnic Studies: Europe and the Americas) con-
ference at Thessaloniki, Greece, both in 2004. The enthusiasm we encoun-
tered in those venues, as well as that at the Afro-Asian Century Conference
at Boston University in 2004, convinced us of the need for this anthology.
We have also been the beneficiaries of a series of wonderful editors
who saw us through the publishing process. Early in the process, we were
supported by Karen Wolny, Graham Hodges, and Deborah Gershenowitz,
who gave us the kind of enthusiastic response we needed to get the proj-
ect off the ground. Emily Park at New York University Press was a terrific
champion of the volume and did an amazing amount of work for us, al-
most invisibly. Denise Sokolowski, the head librarian at the University of
Maryland University College in Europe, provided invaluable aid in track-
ing down elusive materials and citations for us. Deborah Paredez gave us
crucial feedback on an early draft of the introduction, for which we are
grateful. Yet, we owe our largest debt to our contributors, without whose
energy, commitment, and excellent work this volume would not exist.
And, like all writers, we are indebted to those closest to us, who have
seen us through the day-to-day neuroses of writing and who have fur-
nished much-needed release from them. We owe to Don, Markus, Jakob,
and Jonathan Hernandez and Arun Patel for their patience, love, warmth,
humor, and companionship. Our deepest thanks and love to them.


Bandung Is Done
Passages in AfroAsian Epistemology

Vijay Prashad

One evening in early 1955, the African American writer Richard Wright
picked up his evening newspaper. He casually glanced over the items
but was stopped by one notice. In far off Indonesia, representatives from
twenty-nine newly liberated countries in Africa and Asia planned to
gather for a conference. Wright rushed to tell his wife, the Communist
Ellen Poplar, that he wished to attend the conference and write about it.
When Poplar read the article, she exclaimed, “Why, that’s the human race,”
for, indeed, not only did the twenty-nine nations include a vast amount of
humanity but also its agenda (disarmament and cooperation) articulated
the hopes of the majority. Wright agreed. He wanted to write about it be-
cause he knew that writers from the advanced industrial states frequently
displaced the actual voices of liberation from the new nations. The jour-
nalists spoke of the new nations, often even against them, but they did not
give them room to speak themselves. Wright wanted to remedy that: “I
know that people are tired of hearing of these hot, muddy faraway places
filled with people yelling for freedom. But this is the human race speak-
ing.” The book that Wright produced from his trip, The Color Curtain, in-
augurates our tradition of AfroAsian studies.1
Richard Wright was no stranger to the dynamic that would unfold at
Bandung. He understood the desire of a people for freedom from his own
life and experiences, and he already had contacts with the leaders from the
darker nations who would meet at Bandung. Indeed, Wright’s political life
after he removed himself from the United States in July 1947 intersected
frequently with the dynamic of Bandung. In Paris, Wright met the ma-
jor figures of negritude, Aimé Césaire and Leopold Senghor, and the two
main political figures of Pan-Africanism, George Padmore and Kwame

xii v i j a y p r a s h a d

Nkrumah. When it had become clear that Nkrumah’s political movement

would wrest power in Ghana (the Gold Coast), Wright traveled to western
Africa, and in the year before Bandung he published his reflections on the
possibilities of postcolonialism, tempered by the lure of suppressed tra-
ditions (Black Power: A Record of Reactions in a Land of Pathos). Wright’s
own biography intersects partly with that of the Bandung dynamic that
developed in the byways of the struggle against colonialism.
At the League against Imperialism meeting in Brussels in 1928, leaders
from three continents (Africa, Asia, and South America) had already dis-
cussed their discrete ailments and had crafted common dreams. They
had heard of each other’s struggles and had found that they had come to
similar strategic and ideological conclusions. When independence finally
dawned in the 1940s and 1950s, the leaders of the various national libera-
tion movements took comfort in the successes of each other. At Ban-
dung, these leaders met and forged an agenda for the international arena
in opposition to the “freedom” of advanced capitalism (the First World)
and to the “leadership” of the Soviet Union (the Second World). As the
Third World, these regimes sought to produce international cooperation
for the widest possible development over narrow economic profit and
for peace over nuclear confrontation. This energy appealed to Richard
As the host of the Bandung Conference, Indonesia’s President Achmet
Sukarno welcomed the delegates and reminded them of the basis for Afro-
Asian unity: “We are of many different nations, we are of many different
social backgrounds and cultural patterns. Our ways of life are different.
Our national characters, or colors or motifs—call it what you will—are
different. Our racial stock is different, and even the color of our skin is dif-
ferent.” All this is true, but “what does that matter?” What united Africa
and Asia, Sukarno noted, was “a common detestation of colonialism in
whatever form it appears . . . a common detestation of racialism . . . a com-
mon determination to preserve and stabilize peace in the world.”3
Richard Wright sat in the hall, mesmerized by the proceedings. As he
listened to Sukarno, he later wrote, “I began to sense a deep and organic
relation here in Bandung between race and religion, two of the most power-
ful and irrational forces in human nature. Sukarno was not evoking these
twin demons; he was not trying to create them; he was trying to organize
them. . . . The reality of race and religion was there, swollen, sensitive, tur-
bulent.”4 Social traditions and identities had to be worn through, dealt
with, reorganized. They could not be ignored or discarded. For Sukarno,
Foreword xiii

and Wright, the foundation of AfroAsian solidarity could not be in these

skins, for they had to be the carapace to be outgrown.
The displacement from the Bandung political quake flooded over into
political movements within the advanced industrial states, as well as across
the formerly colonized world. Examples within the United States of this
are abundant: there is the fierce attempt to forge commonality among the
Black Panthers, the Red Guard, and the Young Lords, and there is the ex-
ample of the Third World Women’s Alliance (TWWA). These movements
identified themselves as the “Third World” in political solidarity with that
dynamic of national liberation, whether it emerged from the Bandung
currents or the courage of the barefoot Vietnamese and Guinean-Bissau
liberation warriors.5 Yuri Kochiyama, the radical activist, offers the history
of AfroAsian connection on this very platform, to learn each other’s com-
bined histories to break down “barriers, obstacles and phobias.”6 Bandung
provided a major inspiration as well as an epistemological framework for
those early scholars and activists who worked both to forge connections
across lines of artificial, but historical, race and to study the history of
these interactions. In chapbooks and in political journals, in solidarity
marches and in the margins of books, these interactions became impor-
tant for their union in a planetary anticolonialist struggle.7
Fifty years have passed since Bandung, and much has changed since
then.8 Freedom’s future lay within the project of the national liberation
state. With the cannibalization of the state under dictates from the Inter-
national Monetary Fund (IMF), the national liberation agenda has been
largely compromised. Most of the formerly colonized and subjugated na-
tions produced minimally processed raw materials for the world market,
and because of the unfair term of trade that would prevail as a result of
this historical disadvantage, these countries would always be indebted to
their former colonial and now current imperial overlords. To break out of
this vise, the new nations needed capital. With few resources, these coun-
tries first had to borrow and then went into debt. Into the breech came the
IMF, with an agenda not simply to create fiscal stability but to overturn
the national liberation and Third World agenda of state construction and
to subjugate the darker nations to capitalist globalization. A major conse-
quence of the disembowelment of the state was that “nationalism” itself
became transformed. The secular anticolonial Bandung era nationalism
fell before the rise of a cruel cultural nationalism that drew on forms of
social solidarity provided by either religion, reconstructed racism, or un-
diluted class power.
xiv v i j a y p r a s h a d

AfroAsian solidarity emerged in that Bandung epoch as a political plat-

form both against the cruelty of the past and against colonialism “in its
modern dress.”9 The foundation for that solidarity is now largely eroded,
with Africa and Asia interested in each other’s resources and capital, where
the bold pronouncements for a radical reconfiguration of the interna-
tional political economy has vanished. In this atmosphere, the excavations
of AfroAsian solidarity might be nostalgic, anachronistic, or even aes-
thetic. My initial impulse a decade ago to write about these interactions
drew largely from nostalgia for a type of political platform that had been
available in an earlier time. I recognize that it was a platform flawed in
many ways, as national liberation itself is suffused with all manner of lim-
itations, but it is certainly true that motion existed then where history
does not seem to move now. In the epoch of structural adjustment, where
struggle against it in the advanced industrial states is episodic, the consid-
eration of AfroAsian interaction might lean toward a nostalgic pessimism.
But nostalgia is a far better entry point into the world of AfroAsian traf-
fic than the process of commodification. From the late 1990s onward, Hol-
lywood has provided a series of products that marry an African American
with an Asian artist—whether Rush Hour with Chris Tucker and Jackie
Chan or Martial Law with Arsenio Hall and Sammo Hung. This sort of
interaction is premised almost entirely on the colorblind capitalists’ desire
to make the most of two ethnic niche markets. When Truth Hurts and
Missie Elliot draw songs and rhythms from Bollywood, their producers do
not necessarily want to make the most of two markets as much as they fol-
low the hip-hop ethos to mine cultural worlds for the phat beat. These links
are made opportunistically or aesthetically, but not politically.
Scholarship on AfroAsian worlds emerged in the late 1970s after the
era of Bandung had ended. It did not take place in departments of area
studies—those that had been set up in the first five decades of the twen-
tieth century to study “areas” of the world such as Africa, East Asia, Near
East, South Asia, and Latin America. The epistemology of these area
studies had its roots in the U.S. strategy during the Cold War to study
these regions of the world for their potential for modernization and for
alliances against the spread of communism.10 Bewildered by the loss of
their raison d’être at the end of the Cold War, area studies practitioners
hunkered down to do the same sorts of things as they always did: textual
work of the ancient world and international relations of the new. The
field continued to operate with a modernization theory narrative, even as
the political economy of the theory had somewhat disappeared. One
Foreword xv

fragment of area studies adopted the idea of transnationalism, or dias-

pora, to try to locate itself in the new “globalized” framework, although
it did not attempt to articulate its work with that of the Bandung
dynamic. Rather, it attempted to be the mirror of corporate globalization
and to offer marginal liberal criticisms of the post–Cold War interna-
tional political economy.
Interest in AfroAsian traffic within the United States did not develop in
these area studies programs during the heyday of Bandung. To be fair, the
only English-language nonofficial collection of speeches from the Ban-
dung Conference did come from the precincts of an area studies pro-
gram; it was edited by the Indonesia specialist George McTuran Kahin, the
associate director of the Southeast Asia program at Cornell University.
Nevertheless, little had been written about the fallout from this confer-
ence, and few of the studies that came from the pen of area studies re-
searchers followed the implications of the Bandung dynamic. Area studies
in the United States ignored what could have been a fertile area of investi-
gation—the cultural and political intersections across the artificial geopo-
litical and academic areas that had come to divide the world.
Instead, the study of AfroAsia within the United States emerged in
ethnic studies programs, either in African American (Black) studies or in
Asian American studies. From the late 1960s to the mid-1990s, however,
the output in ethnic studies was motivated by an epistemology that suf-
fered from similar “area” problems as area studies. To understand why and
how AfroAsian matters entered ethnic studies, it behooves us to trace the
contours of this field of study. Forged in the late 1960s with a social justice
ethos, ethnic studies had become victim to its own epistemology. Early
texts in Black studies and Asian American studies had worked on the ter-
rain of inclusion: the scholarship sought to include the contributions of
the excluded peoples into the narrative of the nation, and it sought to win
its adherents inclusion into the institutions of the state and society as
equal participants. Tremendous feats of scholarship produced high-quality
work that unearthed buried stories. Pioneers created festivals, museums,
textbooks, and other special artifacts to highlight this work, to knock hard
on the doors of the academy and of society to let in the complex stories
that had been written out of it.
The work bore fruit, but not without student revolts across the country
to demand ethnic studies. From the 1968 Third World strike at San Fran-
cisco State University to the 1996 hunger strike for ethnic studies at Co-
lumbia University, students went at administrations to demand that the
xvi v i j a y p r a s h a d

curriculum open itself up to worlds and epistemologies outside the stud-

ies authorized by white supremacy. Some student organizations recog-
nized the enormous stakes of what they demanded. At San Francisco State,
for instance, the Black Students’ Union proposed that the Black studies
department be autonomous from the structure of the rest of the depart-
ments because, otherwise, it would be prone to incorporation. Their pro-
posal wanted to give the Black studies faculty power over themselves, both
in the hiring of faculty and in their firing. They “knew that black studies
could not be complacent,” wrote Robert Allen in his Black Awakening in
Capitalist America, “that it must be consciously disruptive, always seeking
to expose and cut away those aspects of American society that oppress
black people; that it could not be modeled after other departments and
accept the constraints imposed on them, because one function of these
departments is to socialize students into a racist and oppressive society.”11
The students wanted a department, and they wanted it on revolutionary
terms. They wanted to create a department based on a culture of solidar-
ity, in a way similar to what had been envisioned by proponents of wom-
en’s studies, who argued that “changes in the content of the curriculum . . .
be correlated with changes in the form of instruction,” and indeed of the
Power naturally denied these terms. Instead of this autonomous anti-
subordination, power adopted a milquetoast version, which we now know
as bureaucratic multiculturalism. The university authorities reinterpreted
antiracism as the promotion of diversity and shook out any epoch-chang-
ing elements as it institutionalized difference. It threw money at students
of color to finance our canalized organizations and our various cultural
festivals. The content of these festivals would often be highly bourgeois
and generally patriarchal and heterosexist. Radical traditions within the
world of color would be cast out in favor of traditional social forms that
appealed to authority and order. The curriculum began to adopt a pleas-
ant attitude toward the discrete cultural histories of different parts of the
world—but, like the older area studies, the new ethnic studies had to op-
erate with the assumption that “European” or “White” culture and history
had a separate dynamic than that of the rest of the world. Africa could be
taught in schools only if one did not get too obsessive about its contribu-
tions to the world, about European colonialism, and about corporate im-
perialism. Multiculturalism embraced bourgeois cultural diversity as long
as white supremacy and corporate power could be set aside and generally
left out of any discussion. Colleges would learn to be tolerant of differ-
Foreword xvii

ences, while social movements would have to forgo any demand for sub-
stantial change in the system. Bureaucratic multiculturalism, in the main,
operated entirely within the institutional culture of hierarchy.
Since the university is a crucial institution for the creation and repro-
duction of culture, and given the role of bureaucratic multiculturalism,
students of color on campus increasingly began to experience the dis-
course of diversity in upward mobility terms. In 1969, Robert Allen pro-
phetically warned in terms that might be archaic but with a vision that is
meaningful in our context: “The black student is crucial to corporate
America’s neocolonial plans. It is the educated and trained blacks who are
slated to become the new managers of the ghetto, the administrators of
the black colony.”13 What Allen wrote then is banal now, for in its 2001
deposition on behalf of affirmative action, a group of Fortune 500 compa-
nies made just this point. For them, “today’s global marketplace and the
increasing diversity in the American population demand the cross-cul-
tural experience and understanding gained from such an education.”14
Why must businesses hire a section of managers of color?

[As the population becomes diverse,] the individuals who run and staff the
[Fortune 500] businesses must be able to understand, learn from, collabo-
rate with, and design products and services for clientele and associates from
diverse racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds. American multinational
businesses . . . are especially attuned to this concern because they serve not
only the increasingly diverse population of the United States, but racially
and ethnically diverse populations around the world.15

The desire for the student of color to become the comprador figure for
global capital is now established.
On college campuses, indeed, this has immense implications for ethnic
studies. The culture of upwardly mobile racialism runs counter to the val-
ues of ethnic studies, and yet the epistemology of pluralism in the latter
tends to facilitate the former. Our classes fill up with brave students who
read longingly about the origins of the social movements of identity,
but whose own social location makes those struggles romantically distant.
The students carry an enormous load when they walk into ethnic studies
classes: they are burdened by vast amounts of debt, by the indignity of
everyday prejudice, and by the expectations from a family that is so happy
to see them in college (often as the first generation in college). These pres-
sures drive our students to turn to subjects with a higher rate of return
xviii v i j a y p r a s h a d

than antisubordination theory. Often these students are double majors,

hard at work in both engineering and ethnic studies. These pressures are
complex, and while they move our students toward the logic of inclusion
into the system, this dynamic is not always pleasantly accepted. The multi-
cultural academy in our neoliberal world has let down this generation
of young students, whose own instincts are not being enabled by these
What has happened on the college campus is venally replicated at the
highest political levels. During the Clinton administration, people of color
entered high government offices and the national story learned to incor-
porate the efforts of our ancestors. But the inclusion had come at a signif-
icant price: while a few individuals entered high office, the structures of
white supremacy largely remained. The systematic racism against people
of color was not altered by the inclusion of a small elect class of color, or
by the inclusion of migrants who came with state-produced skills from
elsewhere. Indeed, it can be argued that George W. Bush recruited a num-
ber of people of color into his cabinet not simply for their skills (for they
are skillful people), nor to attract their ethnic constituency, but to ensure
that wavering white voters not see him and his circle as the epitome of
white supremacy. Outright racism is now illegitimate, so the window dress-
ing allows the racist agenda of Bush to be cloaked for the white suburban
voter. This limited inclusion presented all that the system could provide
without major social transformation, and the minimal is all that occurred.
The doctrine of pluralist inclusion ran its course by the early 1990s: to
document suffering and striving did not necessarily touch on the funda-
mental elements of subordination, as the symbolic gains of some could
be used by power to dissuade any movement demands on the system. It is
in this context of the incorporation of multiculturalism that scholars in
ethnic studies turned to the interaction between subordinated groups (al-
though this work had been done before in small circles, and without much
fanfare). An early approach, by Asian American literary critic Yen Le Espir-
itu, investigated the phenomenon of “pan-ethnicity,” which developed the
idea of “racial formations” proposed by sociologists Howard Winant and
Michael Omi. These epistemological frameworks proposed that scholars
look at “racial” categories as political projects that emerge due to a host of
reasons and that are mobilized for a variety of purposes. “Asian American”
and “Latino” are very good examples because here we have terms that have
little historical resonance and yet take on a life of their own. “Panethnic
groups,” Espiritu notes, “are products of political and social processes,
Foreword xix

rather than cultural bonds.”16 The Vietnamese and Burmese might not
share much in terms of cultural heritage and practice, but in the United
States, Vietnamese Americans and Burmese Americans have a conceptual
unity (as having ancestors from “Asia”) and an organizational unity (in
Asian American groups) that produce them as Asian American. This epis-
temological move on the part of ethnic studies scholars allowed the idea of
“culture” to be seen as political, something refused by mainline multicul-
turalism. For Espiritu, the concept of pan-ethnicity allows Asian Ameri-
cans to “contest systems of racism, and inequality in American society . . .
in contrast to ethnic particularism or assimilation.”17 The problem and
possibility of internal heterogeneity provides the pan-ethnic concept with
a combustible charge—no one can rest easy within a category that is al-
ways already “un-natural.” That instability does not allow the category to
become reduced to “culture.”
To insist that identity categories are political and not natural-cultural
opens many possibilities, but this is not a sufficient exit from the traps set
by the ideology of bureaucratic multiculturalism. Self-consciously con-
structed communities could also operate for inclusion and upward mobil-
ity at the cost of others. The most painful example of this is in how Asian
Americans frequently mobilize the discourse of the “model minority” to
our benefit. In the 1960s, as the U.S. government welcomed highly skilled
Asian immigrants into the country (and kept out Asians with fewer tech-
nical skills), the media, egged on by elected officials, compared the experi-
ences of Asians to African Americans. The specific context for this com-
parison was the provision of social welfare schemes for the newly enfran-
chised populations of color, who had only now been allowed entry into
the five-decade-long social wage schemes. Since the Civil Rights Act had
made it impossible to block people of color, notably African Americans,
from access to the aspects of the welfare state, the media and the politi-
cians began to denigrate them for their use of these services. Asians did
not use them, so why should African Americans? The Asian American, like
the Jewish American ten years before, had become the “model minority”
for those who would deign to access their rights. That Asians had bene-
fited because of state selection (and not natural selection) did not interfere
with this racist narrative. To champion Asian America without a well-
developed understanding of this scenario would result in a collapse of
one’s multicultural pride in anti-Black racism. This is why one has to tread
carefully in the discourse of bureaucratic multiculturalism. Is it capable of
being cognizant of such slippages?
xx v i j a y p r a s h a d

The interrogation of the relations between African Americans and

Asian Americans, both seen as political-cultural identities, occurred after
two major conflagrations inflamed their communities: the so-called
Black-Korean riots of 1991 and 1992 in Crown Heights and Los Angeles. In
the aftermath of these very complex phenomena, scholars mined the his-
tories of both Blacks and Koreans (as well as Asian Americans in general)
to un-derstand their roots and to see if such confrontations were to be
expected. At the same time, spectacularly in 1992 at Lowell High School in
San Francisco and in the 1990s fiasco over college admission, debates over
entry into school set African American students against Asian American
students. This debate over affirmative action on campus provoked discus-
sions in already beleaguered ethnic studies programs: the upwardly mobile
ambitions of certain minority groups began to impinge on the values of
solidarity that had created ethnic studies. Because AfroAsian traffic came
to be interrogated in this vise, it had to disavow the bureaucratic multicul-
turalism upon which it grew, and it argued feverishly against pluralist in-
Scholars who began to research AfroAsian interaction, and this volume
holds a very broad representative sample of their work, demanded that
ethnic studies shift its epistemological horizon from pluralist inclusion
within a culture of hierarchy to solidarity based on scrupulous attention
to the interests of different pan-ethnic formations in the rat race of bu-
reaucratic multiculturalism. Scholars built an archive of interactions at the
same time they had to read against the grain of pluralist historical narra-
tives. The work is necessary, and it is on the verge of providing a different
epistemological framework than that of pluralist inclusion. What we have
before us is a framework in the making, an archive almost ready to be the-
Toward the end of his book on Bandung, Richard Wright considered
the task ahead for the leadership of the new nations. They had taken
power of two-thirds of the world, but Wright worried that “they did not
know what to do with it.”18 Such a harsh and overgeneralized verdict came
without an engagement with the manifold challenges posed by the social
orders where the new nations emerged, and without a sense of the many
projects already under way to reorder the former colonial societies. Yet,
Wright is correct in one respect, which is that the Bandung meeting sim-
ply inaugurated a dynamic of international cooperation against the on-
slaught of neocolonialism, and in this respect, at Bandung, the powers did
Foreword xxi

not have a carefully honed platform (that would come by the 1961 Bel-
grade meeting, where they formed the Non-Aligned Movement).
Wright’s question was appropriate for the advanced industrial states,
however, which, he recognized, had little idea how to deal with the asser-
tion of the darker nations. The European and the U.S. media fulminated
against Bandung, and Wright saw that Bandung posed a problem for the
region of the world that bore him and now bears with him. The choice for
the advanced industrial states is clear: “Either he [“the average white West-
erner”] accepts [the freedom of the darker nations] or he will have to seek
for ways and means of resubjugating these newly freed hundreds of mil-
lions of brown and yellow and black people.” If the former, real freedom, is
accepted, then the advanced industrial states will also have to accept “a
much lower standard of living.”19 There is no other way, for Wright does
not go into the latter, the resubjugation.
We live in the resubjugated world, where it is “culture” that does much
of the ideological work to justify inequality. Africa is poor because it has
something to do with the pathologies of African tradition. Asia is unequal
because population growth is a drag on the otherwise genius of Asian sci-
entific development. These are the kinds of cultural arguments that post-
colonial theory works against, just as AfroAsian work tries hard to culti-
vate the epistemological and historical archive of solidarity. The memory
of the interactions, now being erased by neoliberal culturalism, has to be
unearthed. This will allow us to better analyze the way in which ethnicities
are mobilized by power to rub against each other. The only interest served
by this conflict is the culture of hierarchy, for the masses of people suffer
from these ahistorical generalities. Our task is to reframe conflict into sol-
idarity, to show how conflict is ever present and yet ephemeral if its roots
are better understood.

Thanks to Heike Raphael-Hernandez for her invitation to participate in this fabu-
lous project, and to her and Shannon Steen for very valuable comments on earlier
drafts. I attempted some of these ideas at a roundtable on “Arab/South Asian
Americans: Identity and Politics after 9/11” at the Association of Asian American
Studies meeting in April 2005. Thanks to Moustafa Bayoumi, Ibrahim Aoude,
Sunaina Maira, among others, for a spirited discussion. This short intervention is
made possible by Robert Allen’s visionary work.
xxii v i j a y p r a s h a d

1. Richard Wright, The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference

(Cleveland and New York: World Publishing, 1956), 14–15.
2. I should point out that while solidarity between Asian and African countries
marked the early years of Bandung, by the late 1950s, Latin American and Carib-
bean countries joined in with fervor, led by Cuba, Jamaica, Argentina, and Ven-
ezuela. In 1966, Havana hosted the Tricontinental Conference.
3. George M. Kahin, ed., The Asian-African Conference: Bandung, Indonesia,
April 1955 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1956), 43.
4. Wright, Color Curtain, 140.
5. Elisabeth B. Armstrong, The Retreat from Organization: U.S. Feminism Re-
conceptualized (Albany: SUNY Press, 2002), 104, and Elisabeth Armstrong and Vi-
jay Prashad, “Solidarity: War Rites and Women’s Rights,” New Centennial Review
5.1 (2005): 213–253.
6. Diane C. Fujino, Heartbeat of Struggle: The Revolutionary Life of Yuri Ko-
chiyama (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), 301.
7. This political and epistemological work has been assembled in such places
as Robin D. G. Kelley’s and Betsy Esch’s “Black Like Mao: Red China and Black
Revolution,” Souls 1.4 (Fall 1999): 6–41, in Fred Ho’s edited book Legacy to Libera-
tion: Politics and Culture of Revolutionary Asian Pacific America (San Francisco: AK
Press, 2000), and in Vijay Prashad, Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian
Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001), notably
in the final chapter.
8. For a fuller sense of Bandung and the changes, see Vijay Prashad, Darker
Nations: The Rise and Fall of the Third World (New York: New Press, 2006).
9. As Sukarno put it; see Kahin, Asian-African Conference, 44.
10. For a very useful overview, see Bruce Cumings, “Boundary Displacement:
Area Studies and International Studies during and after the Cold War,” in Univer-
sities and Empire: Money and Politics in the Social Sciences during the Cold War, ed.
Christopher Simpson (New York: New Press, 1998). I have assembled a short his-
tory of South Asian studies in Vijay Prashad, “Draft History of ‘South Asia’ in U.S.
Education,” Subcontinental 2.3 (Fall 2004): n.p.
11. Robert L. Allen, Black Awakening in Capitalist America: An Analytic History
(New York: Anchor Books, 1970), 261–262.
12. Margaret Ferguson, “Teaching and/as Reproduction,” Yale Journal of Criti-
cism 1.2 (1988): 219, as quoted in Ellen Rooney, “Discipline and Vanish: Feminism,
the Resistance to Theory, and the Politics of Cultural Studies,” differences 2.3
(1990): 25.
13. Allen, Black Awakening, 262.
14. Amicus Curiae Brief by Fortune 500 Firms, May 31, 2001, in Barbara Grut-
ter v. Lee Bollinger, et al., No. 01-1447, United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth
Circuit, 4, June 2003, available at
gru_amicus/32_internatl.pdf (retrieved 10 March 2005).
Foreword xxiii

15. Ibid., 10.

16. Yen Le Espiritu, Asian American Panethnicity: Bridging Institutions and
Identities (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992), 13; on Latinos, see Felix
Padilla, Latino Ethnic Consciousness: The Case of Mexican American and Puerto
Ricans in Chicago (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1985).
17. Espiritu, Asian American Panethnicity, 175.
18. Wright, Color Curtain, 207.
19. Ibid., 203–204.
Part I

Positioning AfroAsian Racial Identities

Chapter 1

“A Race So Different from Our Own”

Segregation, Exclusion, and the Myth of Mobility

Sanda Mayzaw Lwin

A black man is a person who must ride Jim Crow in

—W. E. B. Du Bois, Dusk of Dawn

No China Men, no railroad.

—Maxine Hong Kingston, China Men

From the late nineteenth century through the mid–twentieth century, two
regimes of racialized segregation existed simultaneously on the terrain of
U.S. law and culture: Jim Crow and Chinese exclusion. The former tradi-
tionally has been perceived as about the “problem” of race relations, while
the latter has been perceived as about the “problem” of immigration. This
essay examines the invocation of a “Chinese race” in discussions of black-
white segregation. In the pages that follow, I focus on two narratives of
Jim Crow segregation—the 1896 Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson
and Charles Chesnutt’s 1901 novel, The Marrow of Tradition, and question
why in each of these texts a figure of a “Chinaman” appears during the
height of the era of Chinese exclusion.1 I argue that the materialization of
this phantasmatic figure of the “Chinaman” serves as a convenient reposi-
tory for fin de siècle anxieties over national identity and, moreover, as a
rhetorical foil to make coherent particular narratives of American citizen-
ship. Although both the legal and the literary narratives raise the issue of
an Asian presence in the American black-white racial landscape, these
texts are rarely read in a context of comparative race relations.2 I suggest
that the Plessy case and The Marrow of Tradition call for a crucial reassess-

18 s a n d a m a y z a w l w i n

ment of the dialectics of visibility and invisibility that manage black and
Asian bodies in U.S. law and culture.

I. Plessy v. Ferguson

Plessy v. Ferguson is a landmark case that is central to understanding the

“problem of the color-line” that Du Bois so presciently predicted would be
the problem of the twentieth century.3 Notwithstanding the de jure over-
turning of segregation laws in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), Plessy
represents a moment of racial crisis that continues to influence American
legal discourse to the present day. As legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw has
succinctly noted, “Plessy lives.”4
On June 7, 1892, Homer Plessy purchased a first-class train ticket in
New Orleans, Louisiana. Plessy was “a citizen of the United States and a
resident of the state of Louisiana, of mixed descent, in the proportion of
seven-eighths Caucasian and one-eighths African blood.”5 The one-drop
rule,6 what Mark Twain once called “the fiction of law and custom,”7
legally classified Plessy as “black.” However, according to contemporary
accounts, “the mixture of the colored blood was not discernible in him.”8
After he occupied a vacant seat in a coach designated to accommodate
“passengers of the white race,” Plessy was ordered by the conductor to
move to the coach assigned “for persons not of the white race.”9 Because
he refused to comply with this injunction, Plessy was removed from the
train, taken to jail, and indicted for sitting in the whites-only car. The
Louisiana state supreme court held that Plessy had “criminally violated”
state segregation laws, which required “railway companies carrying pas-
sengers in their coaches . . . to provide equal but separate, accommodations
for the white and colored races [and to impose] fines or imprisonment
upon passengers insisting on going into a coach or compartment other
than the one set aside for the race to which he or she belongs.”10
Homer Plessy’s attorneys appealed this decision all the way to the U.S.
Supreme Court, arguing that segregation denied him equal citizenship
rights and due process of law. Moreover, they claimed that segregation
laws injured their client’s reputation, arguing that “the reputation of be-
longing to the dominant race, in this instance, the white race, is prop-
erty.”11 Plessy’s attorneys defined whiteness as a social privilege, a reputa-
tion rather than a biological essence. They argued that Plessy was entitled
“A Race So Different from Our Own” 19

to the social benefits of the status of whiteness through the percentile

breakdown of his blood—he was, after all, seven-eighths Caucasian—and
through his light appearance: his colored blood was “not discernible.”
While Plessy’s attorneys aimed to expose the contradictions of racial cate-
gorization through the claim of whiteness as property, the Court offered
a circular counterargument. Only those who “lawfully” qualified for the
category of whiteness were eligible to claim a right to the benefits of its
reputation—as well as to claim damages against any injury to its reputa-
tion. Despite Plessy’s outward appearance, Louisiana law deemed that the
seemingly negligible fraction of “colored” blood disqualified him from
legal recognition as “white.” As such, according to the Supreme Court,
Plessy could not seek damages for “property” that was never his to begin
with. In 1896, the Supreme Court ruled against Plessy by holding seven to
one that the “equal but separate” doctrine was indeed constitutional.
The Supreme Court’s decision and the lone dissent against segregation
by Justice John Marshall Harlan are important cultural texts in late-twen-
tieth-century American studies. Recent critical writings about late-nine-
teenth- and early-twentieth-century American literature often invoke the
Plessy case, particularly in conjunction with the work of such authors as
W. E. B. Du Bois, Mark Twain, and Charles Chesnutt.12 The case is also a
fundamental part of American legal education. Plessy is almost always ex-
cerpted in constitutional law textbooks, which as T. Alexander Aleinikoff
has noted are “as close as we have to a canon.”13
In his solitary and passionate dissent that lambasted the majority opin-
ion, Justice John Marshall Harlan famously argued against segregation,
claiming: “In the view of the Constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in
this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no
caste here. Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor toler-
ates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal
before the law.”14
A central—and peculiar—portion of his argument, however, is rarely
excerpted. A few lines after his powerful plea for constitutional color blind-
ness, in the full text of his dissent (which law students are rarely asked to
read in its entirety), Harlan invokes a third racial category, one that repre-
sents neither black nor white. He observes that there exists a third group
whose radical alterity prohibited its members not only from becoming
U.S. citizens but moreover from entering the very borders of the nation.
“There is a race so different from our own,” he declared, “that we do not
20 s a n d a m a y z a w l w i n

permit those persons belonging to it to become citizens of the United

States. Persons belonging to it are, with few exceptions, absolutely ex-
cluded from our country. I allude to the Chinese race.”15
Harlan’s peculiar allusion to a third racial group, one “so different”
from “black” and “white,” was of course also an allusion to the series of
race-based immigration acts collectively known as the Chinese exclusion
laws (1882–1943).16 The first of the Chinese Exclusion Acts was passed by
Congress in 1882 and held the dubious honor of being the very first race-
based immigration act in the United States. The act prohibited Chinese
laborers from entering the United States and explicitly denied naturalized
citizenship to those Chinese who were already residing there. Renewed
consecutively until the repeal acts of the mid–twentieth century, the Chi-
nese Exclusion Acts epitomized the politics of mobility which Chinese la-
borers were forced to negotiate at the turn of the century.17
Harlan invokes the figure of the Chinese in his dissent to provide bodily
proof that the Louisiana statute is unjust to “citizens of the black race.”
Rather than seizing this opening to dislodge the black/white binary, he
attempts to resolve the problem of the color line by redrawing it as one
between citizens and noncitizens of the United States. He continues:

But by the statute in question, a Chinaman can ride in the same passenger
coach with white citizens of the United States, while citizens of the black
race in Louisiana, many of whom, perhaps, risked their lives for the preser-
vation of the Union, who are entitled, by law to participate in the political
control of the State and nation, who are not excluded by law or by reason of
their race, from public stations of any kind, and who have all the legal rights
that belong to white citizens, are yet declared to be criminals, liable to im-
prisonment if they ride in a public coach occupied by citizens of the white

Harlan attempts to expose the hypocrisy of a legal system that granted cit-
izenship rights to African Americans through the Civil War Amendments,
allowed them by law, to share in the political control of the nation as citi-
zens, yet criminalized them, also by law, for sharing the same space on a
railway car as white citizens. He reminds his colleagues on the bench that
many Africans Americans “risked their lives for the preservation of the
Union,” suggesting that military service—particularly putting one’s body
on the line for the nation—may have helped African Americans earn the
“A Race So Different from Our Own” 21

right to legally participate in the U.S. political and legal calculus. He con-
figures both citizenship and membership in the American nation as a
right one can earn by proving loyalty to the nation-state. In this way, Har-
lan suggests that national belonging is organized around a meritocracy
that grants citizenship to men who have proved themselves worthy.19
Lisa Lowe, writing in the context of the Vietnam war, has argued that
“the American soldier, who has in every way submitted to the nation, is
the quintessential citizen and therefore the ideal representative of the na-
tion, yet the American of Asian descent remains the symbolic ‘alien,’ the
metonym for Asia who by definition cannot be imagined as sharing in
America.”20 We might read Harlan’s dissent as one early illustration of this
problematic.21 Harlan draws on the notion of the American soldier as the
quintessential citizen, yet the image of the African American soldier fight-
ing for the nation is chronologically disjunctive—“citizens of the black
race” who fought in the Civil War did so before they were legally citizens.
He counters this discrepancy with the image of the Chinese “coolie” who
has no legal claim to the nation, a “race so different” he is forbidden from
entering the country. That Harlan imagines the “Chinaman” as present
within the borders of the nation further underscores its representation as
an alien who is trespassing.
The imagined body of the “Chinaman” troubles the order of the color
line in a different way from Homer Plessy (who was intentionally chosen
to test the separate car laws on the railways because he was “light enough”
to pass). Rather than confounding the rigid categories of the “two races”
that make up the color line, the figure of the “Chinaman” disrupts the no-
tion that there are only two races by occupying simultaneously a position
of nonblack and nonwhite. Moreover, the figure of the Chinaman occu-
pies the space of a noncitizen, perhaps even an illegal alien.22
How is it, Harlan seems to ask, that a “Chinaman,” a foreigner who is
“absolutely excluded from our country” can cross the color line without
legal penalty, but a U.S. citizen such as Homer Plessy cannot? Not only
does he fall back on the category of “race,” but this allusion to the figure of
“the Chinaman,” as well as to the Chinese Exclusion Acts, unveils a mo-
ment where certain dilemmas and discourses about race and racial catego-
rization enter the arena of the national. Harlan makes the Chinaman
visible in his text—creating a fictitious Chinaman in effect—by invoking
the very laws that render Chinese American bodies invisible within the
borders of the United States.
22 s a n d a m a y z a w l w i n

II. The Railroad and the Promise of Mobility

It is ironic that Harlan’s invocation of the Chinaman—his fictional narra-

tive of a Chinese man boarding a “whites only” car—occurs during the
period of Chinese exclusion as well as in the imagined space of the rail-
road. Chinese laborers were crucial to the completion of the transconti-
nental railroad and comprised over 90 percent of the railroad’s ten thou-
sand workers. While Harlan’s dissent justifies the right of African Ameri-
can citizens to claim an America they earned through service to the nation
in the Civil War, it is striking that he does not argue against the “equal
but separate” doctrine by opposing white supremacy.23 Instead, he chooses
to pit the experiences of one racialized minority against another. How
might the comparison of the African American citizen to the phantas-
matic and foreign Chinaman at once signal and suppress the history of
Chinese workers who served the western expansion of the nation through
the construction of the transcontinental railroad?
Literary critic Sau-ling Wong has noted that “Chinese American artists
. . . have to deal with the peculiar irony of the railroad as an emblem of
their past.”24 Simultaneously emblematic of the national myth of bound-
less mobility, and of national progress and modernity, the railroad also
serves as a reminder of Asian American exclusions from access to that mo-
bility. Indeed, while images of movement, adventure, discovery, and travel
have long been integral to American national narratives, the trope of the
railroad—as a signifier of both mobility and racialized exclusions—have
been central in both African American and Asian American writings. For
example, the railroad figures in the writings of Charles Chesnutt, Frank
Chin, Frederick Douglass, Sui Sin Far, Langston Hughes, Harriet Jacobs,
James Weldon Johnson, Maxine Hong Kingston, Booker T. Washington,
and Shawn Wong, to name a select few. Embedded in the trope of the
railroad are the histories of the flight from slavery, Jim Crow segregation,
and Chinese immigrant labor in the United States. I would suggest that
the railroad motif presents an important site through which to track the
incorporation of African Americans and Asian Americans into American
In Plessy v. Ferguson, the railroad is the literal setting for Homer Plessy’s
contestation of Jim Crow laws, as well as the imagined setting for Justice
Harlan’s fictive Chinaman who ostensibly rides in the “whites only” car.
And as we will see in Charles Chesnutt’s 1901 novel, The Marrow of Tradi-
“A Race So Different from Our Own” 23

tion, the railroad functions at the outset of the novel as the backdrop for a
similar encounter with the regime of racialized segregation.
Both the Plessy case and The Marrow of Tradition expose not only injus-
tices of racial segregation but also the hierarchical structure of American
citizenship. The Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy significantly influ-
enced Charles Chesnutt’s novels and nonfiction writings. A lawyer and a
novelist by profession, Chesnutt often drew on his legal training in his
writing. He was in close contact with Albion Tourgée, Plessy’s lawyer, who
was also a popular novelist of the late nineteenth century. In a speech
written sometime between 1908 and 1911, Chesnutt declared that “the
opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson [sic] is to my mind, as epoch-making as the
Dred Scott decision.”25
The Marrow of Tradition offers a vivid rendering of the interplay be-
tween racial exclusion, spatial segregation, and American citizenship.26
The novel is a fictional account of the 1898 race riot in Wilmington, North
Carolina, and was considered by some of its contemporary critics as po-
lemical or political in its portrayal of the issues of racial tension and of
white supremacy. The fifth chapter of the novel, “A Journey Southward,”
opens on a train headed south from Philadelphia to North Carolina.
Two acquaintances, “men of culture . . . accustomed to the society of
cultivated people” and “well-dressed,” encounter each other by chance on
the train.27 The elder man, Dr. Alvin Burns, is the professor of the younger
man, Dr. William Miller, at a prestigious medical college in Philadelphia.
At first glance, their conversation, manner of speech, and manner of dress
suggest that the two passengers have similar professional and class back-
grounds. Chesnutt invites the reader to take a closer look at these two

Looking at these two men with the American eye, the difference would per-
haps be more striking, or at least the more immediately apparent, for the
first was white and the second black, or more correctly speaking, brown; it
was even a light brown, but both his swarthy complexion and his curly hair
revealed what has been described in the laws of some of our states as a “vis-
ible admixture” of African blood.28

According to this passage, racial recognition occurs in the field of vision.

Chesnutt presents the visual markers that signify or confer racial identity
on an individual as legally constituted—the second man is recognized as
24 s a n d a m a y z a w l w i n

“black” because he embodies certain physical traits that reflect what the
law calls a “visible admixture” of African blood. He gestures to the insta-
bility of “blackness” when he explains that Miller is “more correctly speak-
ing brown; it was even a light brown.” The differences between these two
men are made apparent through the process of “looking at” them and to
the “American eye,” these differences seem to far outweigh the similarities.
Eva Saks identifies one of the “chief tensions of American miscegenation
law” as “the power of legal language to construct, criminalize, and appro-
priate the human body itself.”29 Legal language, as the passage from Ches-
nutt’s novel reveals, merges here with national metaphor in constructing
the human body. According to Chesnutt, it is the “American eye” that can
recognize that a racial difference exists between these two men as black
and white. The rules of racial recognition thus become a national project
in which a trained American eye would know how to read these two bod-
ies—how to decode the one man’s “light brown” skin color, “swarthy com-
plexion,” and “curly hair” as representative of what is legally considered
“black.” In other words, the American eye sees by the rules of racial recog-
Chesnutt describes the concept of racial categorization in the United
States at the turn of the century as a sort of American idiom. It is through
the American eye that one can read the second man as black and the first
man as white. It is through the American eye that one knows how to look.
Internalizing the language of (American) racial recognition means learn-
ing how to read or decode bodies, how to translate a certain shade of skin,
shape of lip or eye or nose into a legally cognizable entity. It means know-
ing how to decipher what sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant
have called the “system of racial meaning.”30 It means knowing how to
“race” a person: how to erase “person” and see only “race.”
The eye is an instrument of witnessing. It sees evidence. One might
presuppose that the eye itself is impartial or that it sees innocently. But the
field of vision through which the eye is constituted is racially saturated.
Furthermore, the system of racial meaning is plagued with the contra-
dictions of the visible. Bodily markers are unreliable. The exterior is not
always a guarantee of the interior; what we see may not always be what
we get.
The body of Miller is read as “black” through the recognition of “evi-
dence” in the form of racial cues or markers. What racial cues are neces-
sary for the reading of the other man as “white?” He is described as a “gen-
tleman” and a “fine type of Anglo-Saxon, as the term is used in speaking of
“A Race So Different from Our Own” 25

our composite white population.”31 That the words “white” and “Anglo-
Saxon” can describe him seems merely enough to signify his whiteness.
Whiteness is made visible through an absence of a “swarthy complexion”
or “curly hair.” Dr. Burns’s seemingly unmarked body allows for its read-
ing as white.
“The Journey Southward” narrates the legal implications of racialized
difference under Jim Crow. The men appear to the reader as social equals
until the train crosses the North-South border. When the train moves into
Virginia, the two men move out of the sleeping car into a day car gov-
erned by the laws of Jim Crow. Upon entering the day car, the train con-
ductor “glances interrogatively at Miller” yet does not immediately evict
him from what has become a “whites only” car. After a while, he asks Dr.
Burns, “This man is with you?,” to which Burns replies, “Certainly. . . .
Don’t you see that he is?”32 This exchange represents a willful misunder-
standing—the train conductor, seeing the two men in intimate conversa-
tion and acting familiarly with each other seems reluctant to evict Miller
because he is with Burns. He asks an ambiguous question which later, only
after another white passenger complains about Miller’s presence, he re-
phrases as “did I understand you to say that this man was your servant?”
[emphasis added].33 Burns’s indignant response to the second question—
”No, indeed! This gentleman is not my servant, nor anybody’s servant but
is my friend”—disrupts the fragile ruse the conductor has offered the pair.
When Burns claims friendship as the basis of their relationship, he disrupts
the racialized social hierarchy of the postbellum South. Two professional
“equals” must be separated.
The encounter on the railroad in The Marrow of Tradition dramatizes
the irony of a system that claims to be “equal but separate” and demon-
strates the rhetorical machinations of the law. In an attempt to bypass the
blatant discrimination targeted at his friend, Dr. Burns offers to accom-
pany Dr. Miller into the “colored” car. However, through the “thin disguise
of ‘equal’ accommodations,”34 the law claims strict impartiality. As the
conductor sternly tells Burns, “ I warn you, sir . . . that the law will be en-
forced. The beauty of the system lies in its strict impartiality—it applies to
both races alike.”35 The train conductor reasons that the law cannot be
considered discriminatory to either race because it applies to both races
alike. Not only does the equation “equal but separate” rely on the coupling
of dissonant terms—the beauty of the system insists on the presence of
two races to work. Further on in this essay, we will see what happens to
“the beauty of the system” when a third race enters the scene.
26 s a n d a m a y z a w l w i n

III. “A Chinaman of the Ordinary Laundry Type”

Literature shows us law’s unarticulated possibilities, the moments at which

the law might bend. What the legal case does not reveal is the flexibility of
the law. Once Miller has been excluded from the “white car” and exiled to
(or, included in) the “colored car,” he moves from the position of sub-
jected subject to the position of full observer in a subjected car. “Properly”
contained within the space of the colored car, he asserts his own authority
as a spectator. As he looks out the window of the colored car, he sees two
other nonwhites boarding the whites only car: “At the next station a Chi-
naman, of the ordinary laundry type, boarded the train and took his seat
in the white car without objection. At another point a colored nurse found
a place with her mistress.”36 Through Miller’s eyes, Chesnutt reveals two
exceptions to the law of Virginia—the law is surprisingly lenient when a
black female servant accompanied by her employer and when a Chinese
laborer enter the white car, thus crossing the color line. Observing that the
organization of the color line is founded on a notion of racial hierarchy
(white supremacy) rather than mere racial difference, Miller comments,
“White people . . . do not object to the negro as servant—he is welcomed;
as an equal, he is repudiated.”
It is noteworthy that Chesnutt does not comment any further about the
appearance of the Chinese man. Despite the acute awareness of class issues
throughout the novel, he makes no comment on the inclusion of what
appears to be a Chinese laborer—to be specific, a “Chinaman, of the laun-
dry type”—in the whites only car. The Chinaman boards the train and
sits in the white car without objection. Aside from this acknowledgment,
neither Miller nor Chesnutt offers any further response. The Chinaman
passes onto the white car—and onto the page of the text without further
comment. However, he clearly cannot pass as white within the context
of American racial categorization. I would suggest that this fleeting ap-
pearance of the Chinaman marks a moment of nonrecognition of an
Asian presence on the black-white racial landscape. Nonrecognition, as
described by legal theorist Neil Gotanda, is a two-part process: the “recog-
nition of racial affiliation followed by the deliberate suppression of racial
consideration.”37 Nonrecognition is the decision to adopt color blindness
as a legal strategy—or, as Gotanda puts it, it is a “technique”—one that
assumes the pose of neutrality and objectivity in legal decision-making
without any consideration of the material realities of racial subordination.
Why, in these two literary and legal narratives of segregation, does the
“A Race So Different from Our Own” 27

figure of a Chinaman appear in passing in The Marrow of Tradition and as

an allusion in Plessy v. Ferguson? Harlan’s invocation of the specter of the
Chinaman establishes the “Chinese race” as radically other. Chesnutt also
creates an imaginary Chinaman, whom he describes as of the “ordinary
laundry type.” That he expects his readers in 1901 to understand this refer-
ence, to be able to imagine or visualize this image, suggests that the “Chi-
naman, of the ordinary laundry type” is already part of the contemporary
American racial lexicon. Indeed, the Chinaman was an inextricable part of
discourses on race and labor at the turn of the century.
The Chinaman’s brief appearance in this literary narrative represents
what James Moy has called a “marginal sight.” Moy argues that “the notion
of Chineseness under the sign of the exotic became familiar to the Ameri-
can spectator long before the sightings of the actual Chinese.”38 Yet, “ordi-
nary” is exactly not “exotic”—nor radically different. The repetition of the
Chinese as “laundryman” transformed an “exotic” representation into an
“ordinary” sight. Through such repetitions, Chinese racial representation
had been institutionalized in American culture by the late nineteenth cen-
tury. The figure of the Chinaman—usually a white actor in yellow face—
appeared in dramas, comedies, and opera as exotic spectacles or comic re-
lief. The Chinese were presented as marvels to gawk at in P. T. Barnum’s
freak shows. The title role of Bret Harte and Mark Twain’s 1877 play Ah Sin
featured a white actor playing “as good and as natural and consistent a
Chinaman as he could see in San Francisco.”39 According to Ronald Ta-
kaki, after Bret Harte’s poem, “The Heathen Chinee,” which was widely
published in 1870, “the phrase ‘heathen Chinee’ became a household word
in white America.”40 In fact, Harte’s poem was cited numerous times dur-
ing the congressional debates over the Chinese question.41
The recognizable image of the “ordinary laundry type” of Chinaman
was made visible by what Frantz Fanon has called “a historico-racial sche-
ma.”42 Fanon explains that “below this corporeal schema I had sketched a
historico-racial schema . . . woven . . . out of a thousand details, anecdotes,
stories.” Below the Chinaman’s imagined corporeal space, written on the
body, lay the multitudes of details, anecdotes, and stories made legible by
various representations (visual, literary, and legal) of the Chinese in Amer-
ica. Thus this fictive image becomes the repository for a range of cultural
representations that have solidified into the stereotype of the Chinaman.
The specter of the Chinaman “of the ordinary laundry type” in Ches-
nutt’s text represents an everyday figure, something common, nothing
special. And yet, in The Marrow of Tradition, he can board the white car
28 s a n d a m a y z a w l w i n

while the character of the gifted black doctor cannot. Harlan’s invocation
of “a race so different from our own” places the Chinaman as altogether
different, uncommon, highly unusual. And yet, in Justice Harlan’s fictive
account, his Chinaman also can board the white car while an ordinary
American citizen such as Homer Plessy cannot. These two fictive render-
ings pose a paradox: How can the Chinaman be both “ordinary” (not ex-
otic) and “so different” (radically other)? This chiasmus—the “ordinary
different”—may reveal where the “Chinese” resides and where the “Black”
is displaced.
Both Harlan and Chesnutt suggest that the Chinaman enjoys an excep-
tional sort of mobility within the American racial landscape. One might
wonder, however, whether the Chinaman actually was able to enter desig-
nated “white” spaces as freely as Harlan and Chesnutt have imagined in
their narratives. I would suggest that this imagined narrative of the China-
man’s freedom of mobility effectively obscures the juridical management
of physical and geographic mobility placed on Chinese laborers by the
Chinese Exclusion Acts and other acts of anti-Asian legislation. The Chi-
naman serves as a rhetorical foil, a necessary agent to make coherent a
particular narrative of American citizenship.
If we consider the peculiar location of the figure of the “Chinaman” in
the text of Harlan’s dissent and in Chesnutt’s novel, we might consider
how these two narratives raise important concerns about who is allowed
access to national identity and who is allowed access to national space and
time. To put it another way, who is allowed to participate in the formation
of family and heirs, to property, and to establishing a generational pres-
ence on U.S. soil? Both Jim Crow segregation and Chinese exclusion con-
doned methods of racial subordination that controlled the geographical
mobility of nonwhite subjects. These textual moments in the Plessy case
and The Marrow of Tradition, which contain references—however oblique
—to Chinese exclusion, mark an important contradiction on the site of
American law.

I return in conclusion to the locution “a race so different from our own”

that Justice Harlan invokes in his lone dissent against segregation. Harlan
creates a phantasmatic image of a “Chinaman” to embody this radical dif-
ference between it and “our own” race(s). He appears to extend the con-
cept of “our own” races to include African Americans as members of the
nation—as members of a constitutive “we”—in his call for color blind-
ness. Yet in doing so, he invokes a separate racial category that creates
“A Race So Different from Our Own” 29

another binarism, that of citizen and foreigner. He simultaneously uses

the language of inclusion and exclusion—our race(s) are different from
the Chinese race. Harlan sets up the logic of “outsiders within” in his state-
ment, a logic that continues to organize U.S. politics about Asian Ameri-
can subjects through the twenty-first century.
The phrase “our own” is used to signify both whites and blacks—the
only two “American” races that qualified for U.S. citizenship at the turn of
the twentieth century. However, Harlan (who we may recall was a former
slave owner) also may be accounting for African American propinquity
through a not-so-oblique citation of slavery—a time in the recent past in
American history when the race that was “our own” could be understood
not in terms of inclusion but, rather, in terms of ownership, a time when
one drop of “African” blood signified a body’s “enslaveability,” when to
belong to this race meant that one’s body could be property. This point
is made through the body of the Chinese laborer, a body who is triply
marked—racially, nationally, and legally—as radically other. “A race so dif-
ferent from our own” unveils the mutual imbrications of segregation and
exclusion and ultimately exposes the embedded narratives of Asian Amer-
ican and African American racial formation that exist alongside each other.

I am grateful to David Eng, Farhad Karim, Susette Min, Mae Ngai, Teemu Rus-
kola, and Leti Volpp for their generative comments on earlier versions of this
work; to Diana Paulin for valuable reading recommendations; and to Heike Raph-
ael-Hernandez and Shannon Steen for helpful editorial suggestions and great
1. I maintain use of the term “Chinaman” in this essay as it appears in the
Plessy case and in Charles Chesnutt’s literary fiction. In doing so, I seek to flag the
currency of the term as a figure and as a popular stereotype in American culture.
2. I focus on the case of the Chinese at this historical juncture to call attention
to one important moment of Asian American racial formation alongside an
important moment of African American racial formation. The Chinese Exclusion
Acts were the first race-based immigration acts and the first of many exclusions to
come against immigrants from “Asia.” However, I do not mean to suggest that
Chinese Americans and Asian Americans are fungible. Rather, I seek to raise the
following questions: What was the organizational logic behind the decision to
deny immigration to groups from countries of origin within the region under-
stood as “Asia”? How might we consider the series of Asian exclusion orders as a
technique of organizing Asian American racial formation?
30 s a n d a m a y z a w l w i n

3. W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), in W. E. B. Du Bois, Writings

(New York: Library of America, 1986), 372.
4. Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Color Blindness, History, and the Law,” in The House
That Race Built, ed. Wahneema Lubiano (New York: Pantheon, 1996), 282.
5. Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. at 537 (1896).
6. As Neil Gotanda explains: “American racial classification follows two formal
rules: 1) Rule of Recognition: Any person whose Black-African ancestry is visible is
Black. 2) Rule of Descent: (a) Any person with a known trace of African ancestry
is Black, notwithstanding that person’s visual appearance; or, stated differently, (b)
the offspring of a Black and a white is Black.” Neil Gotanda, “A Critique of ‘Our
Constitution Is Color-Blind,’” Stanford Literature Review 44 (1991): 24. For a book-
length study of the one drop of blood rule, see F. James Davis, Who Is Black? One
Nation’s Definition (University Park: Penn State University Press, 1991).
7. Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894) (New York: Penguin Books, 1986),
8. Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. at 537.
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid. at 538.
11. Albion Tourgée, one of Plessy’s attorneys, argued in his brief, “Probably
most white persons if given a choice, would prefer death to life in the United
States as colored persons. Under these conditions, is it possible to conclude that
the reputation of being white is not property? Indeed, is it not the most valuable
sort of property, being the master key that unlocks the golden door of opportu-
nity?” Brief for Homer Plessy in Error at 9, as quoted in Cheryl Harris, “Whiteness
as Property,” Harvard Law Review 106 (1993): 1748. Harris’s article traces the ori-
gins of the notion of whiteness as property in American law.
12. See Susan Gillman and Forrest G. Robinson, eds., Mark Twain’s Puddn’head
Wilson (Durham: Duke University Press, 1990); Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjec-
tion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); Samira Kawash, Dislocating the
Color Line: Identity, Hybridity, and Singularity in African-American Literature (Palo
Alto: Stanford University Press, 1997); Eric Sundquist, To Wake the Nations: Race
in the Making of American Literature (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1993); Priscilla
Wald, Constituting Americans: Cultural Anxiety and Narrative Form (Durham:
Duke University Press, 1995). It is worth noting that the Plessy case has become a
part of the educational state apparatus—not just in legal curriculum but also, as
these works of literary criticism make visible, in the university humanities cur-
13. T. Alexander Aleinikoff, “Re-reading Justice Harlan’s Dissent in Plessy v.
Ferguson: Freedom, Antiracism, and Citizenship,” University of Illinois Law Review
4 (1992): 961–977. For examples of constitutional law textbooks, see Jerome Bar-
ron et al., Constitutional Law: Principles and Policy, Cases and Materials (Dayton,
OH: Lexis Law, 1987), 521; Paul Brest and Sanford Levinson, Processes of Constitu-
“A Race So Different from Our Own” 31

tional Decisionmaking: Cases and Materials (Boston: Little, Brown, 1983), 272–273;
Gerald Gunther, Cases and Materials on Constitutional Law (New York: Founda-
tion Press, 1991), 647; William Lockhart et al., Constitutional Law: Cases Com-
ments-Questions (Washington, D.C.: West Group, 1991), 941; Geoffrey Stone et al.,
Constitutional Law (Boston: Little, Brown, 1991), 489–490.
14. Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. at 539.
15. Ibid. at 561. Anthologized accounts of the case tend to excise Harlan’s com-
ments on the “the Chinese race.” Legal scholar Gabriel J. Chin has argued that the
“great dissenter” was in fact a “faithful opponent of the constitutional rights of
Chinese for much of his career on the Court” (168). Indeed, Harlan’s allusion to
the Chinese in his dissent may not be aberrant but rather emblematic of the Jus-
tice’s anti-Chinese sentiments. Chin concludes that, ultimately, “Harlan’s good
result in Plessy was backed by bad reasoning, bad policy, and bad principles. After
a hundred years, Harlan’s Plessy dissent should be overruled.” Gabriel J. Chin,
“The Plessy Myth: Justice Harlan and the Chinese Cases,” Iowa Law Review 82
(1996): 182.
16. The first Chinese Exclusion Act stated that “whereas, in the opinion of the
Government of the United States, the coming of Chinese laborers to this country
endangers the good order of certain localities . . . : Therefore . . . it shall not be law-
ful for any Chinese laborer to come, or having come . . . to remain within the
United States.” Chinese Exclusion Act, ch. 126, 22 Stat. 58, Sec. 1 (1882). Chinese
who were not laborers including merchants, students, diplomats, and travelers
were allowed to enter and stay. Although individuals of Chinese descent could not
naturalize as U.S. citizens, a federal court in California recognized the U.S. citizen-
ship of Chinese born in the United States. See In re Look Tin Sing, 21 F. 354 (C.C.D.
Cal. 1884). Subsequent legislation was enacted to exclude all Chinese from the
United States. Act of July 9, 1884, ch. 220, 23 Stat. 115; Act of May 5, 1892, ch. 60, 27
Stat. 25; Act of April 29, 1902, ch. 641, 32 Stat. 176; Act of April 27, 1904, ch. 1630, 33
Stat. 428. See Sucheng Chang, ed., Entry Denied: Exclusion and the Chinese Com-
munity in America, 1882–1943 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991); Lucy
Salyer, Laws Harsh as Tigers: Chinese Immigrants and the Shaping of Modern Immi-
gration Law (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995); Shirley Hune,
“Politics of Chinese Exclusion: Legislative-Executive Conflict 1876–1882,” Amerasia
9:1 (1982): 5–27.
17. The passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act has usually signaled the
beginning of the “official” era of Chinese exclusion. However, legal scholar Leti
Volpp has suggested that we consider the 1875 Page Act law, which explicitly barred
the entry of Chinese women who were allegedly being imported as prostitutes, as
the initiation of the regime of racialized and gendered exclusion. Through this
allegation of prostitution, immigration authorities effectively disallowed the entry
of nearly all Chinese women into the United States. After the 1882 Exclusion Act,
this prohibition on women was nearly absolute, the wives of merchants being the
32 s a n d a m a y z a w l w i n

one notable exception. Act of Feb. 18, 1875, ch. 80, 18 Stat. 318. See Leti Volpp,
“Engendering Culture,” paper presented at the annual conference of the Asian
American Studies Association, Los Angeles, California, 23 April 2005.
18. Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. at 561.
19. We see here how the politics of citizenship are both racialized and gen-
dered. Military service was only an option for men—white or nonwhite.
20. Lisa Lowe, Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics (Durham:
Duke University Press, 1996), 6.
21. This problem becomes more pronounced during World War II, when the
contradictions between du jure citizenship and de facto membership for Asian
American subjects are embodied by the nisei Japanese American soldier. When the
Asian American soldier puts his body on the line in defense of the nation, he must
literally embody the impossible locale between “quintessential U.S. citizen” and
“symbolic alien.”
22. Mae Ngai has persuasively argued that the Chinese exclusion laws gener-
ated the nation’s first illegal aliens, a phenomenon known as “paper sons.” Ngai
notes that many Chinese laborers “gained entry by posing as persons who were
legally admissible, often with fraudulent certificates identifying them as merchants
or by claiming to be American citizens by birth or as the China-born sons of
U.S. citizens, known formally as derivative citizens.” Mae Ngai, Impossible Subjects:
Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 2004), 204.
23. Just before the famous call for color-blind constitutionalism in his dissent,
Harlan comments, “The white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this
country. And so it is, in prestige, in achievements, in education, in wealth and in
power. So, I doubt not, it will continue to be for all time, if it remains true to its
great heritage and holds fast to the principles of constitutional liberty.” Plessy v.
Ferguson, 163 U.S. at 559.
24. Sau-ling Cynthia Wong, Reading Asian American Literature: From Necessity
to Extravagance (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 151. More recently,
David Eng in his Racial Castration: Managing Masculinity in Asian America (Dur-
ham: Duke University Press, 2001) discusses how Chinese American writers such
as Maxine Hong Kingston and Frank Chin have reimagined the “official” photo-
graphic records of the completion of the transcontinental railroad to make visible
the images of Chinese American laborers that do not appear in dominant national
25. Charles W. Chesnutt, “The Courts and The Negro,” in Plessy v. Ferguson: A
Brief History with Documents, ed. Brook Thomas (Boston: Bedford Books, 1997),
26. Charles Chesnutt, The Marrow of Tradition (1901) (New York: Penguin
Books, 1993).
27. Ibid., 49.
“A Race So Different from Our Own” 33

28. Ibid.; emphases added.

29. Eva Saks, “Representing Miscegenation Law,” Raritan 8:2 (1988): 39.
30. Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States
(New York: Routledge, 1986), 63.
31. Chesnutt, Marrow of Tradition, 49.
32. Ibid., 52.
33. Ibid., 53.
34. Harlan argues in his dissent, “The thin disguise of ‘equal’ accommodations
for passengers in railroad coaches will not mislead anyone, nor atone for the
wrong this day has done.” Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. at 562.
35. Chesnutt’s formulation echoes Anatole France’s well-known observation
on “the majestic equality of the French law, which forbids both rich and poor alike
from sleeping under the bridges of the Seine.” Isaac Balbus has remarked on
France’s aphorism: “If the law is indifferent to the distinction between rich and
poor, it follows that the law will necessarily tend to support and maintain this dis-
tinction.” Isaac D. Balbus, The Dialectics of Legal Repression: Black Rebels before the
American Criminal Courts (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1973), 5.
36. Chesnutt, Marrow of Tradition, 59.
37. According to Gotanda, nonrecognition is composed of three elements:
“First, there must be something which is cognizable as a racial characteristic or
classification. Second, the characteristic must be recognized. Third, the character-
istic must not be considered in a decision. For non-recognition to make sense, it
must be possible to recognize something while not including it in making a deci-
sion.” Gotanda, “Critique of ‘Our Constitution Is Color-Blind,’ ” 17.
38. James Moy, Marginal Sights: Staging the Chinese in America (Iowa City:
Iowa University Press, 1993), 10.
39. For a historical account of stage representations of the Chinese, see Moy,
Marginal Sights, in particular chapters 1–3.
40. Ronald Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Ameri-
cans (Boston: Little, Brown, 1989), 104.
41. See Elaine H. Kim, Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writ-
ings and Their Social Context (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982), 14.
42. Frantz Fanon, Black Skins, White Masks (New York: Grove Weidenfeld,
1967), 111.
Chapter 2

Crossings in Prose
Jade Snow Wong and the Demand for a
New Kind of Expert

Cynthia Tolentino

The “racial uniform,” Robert E. Park’s 1914 metaphor for the status of the
“Oriental,” is a strange but somehow familiar image. Used in his theory of
racial assimilation, this understudied image is most obviously meant to
refer to a biological racial discourse that produces a sense of otherness and
limits the life chances of racialized groups.1 Both African Americans and
Asian Americans wear the “racial uniform,” he explains, suggesting that
it comprises the primary obstacle to an assimilation process modeled on
white ethnic groups. At the same time, however, Park argues that only
Asian Americans, if given the opportunity by white Americans, possess
a cultural capacity to assimilate. Perhaps the familiarity of Park’s figure,
then, stems from the parallel that it draws between Asian Americans and
contemporary conceptions of a model minority.
Yet the “racial uniform” specifically refers to a process by which socio-
logical theories of race assign an exemplary status to Asian Americans that
is underwritten by denigrating pathologies of African American culture
and conceptions of Asian Americans as foreign outsiders.2 Though it is
possible to treat Park’s account of the racial uniform as an early example
of figurations of Asian Americans as a “model minority” or an illustration
of how notions of “otherness” shape sociological theories of race, such
readings do not enable us to ask questions about the particular implica-
tions of this figure for Asian American and African American racial for-
If Park saw assimilation into the United States mainstream as an in-
evitable and natural process for European immigrant groups, he clearly
identified “Negroes” and “Orientals” as exceptions to this pattern. Both

Crossings in Prose 35

Negroes and Orientals, according to Park, are subject to racial prejudice

and are therefore unable to complete the final stage of a race relations
cycle that would eventually result in their assimilation into an American
mainstream.3 But even as he assigned Negroes and Orientals a common
status as aberrations to an American social body, Park implied that only
Orientals had cultural advantages that enabled them to advance. Follow-
ing his comparative and hierarchical logic, Orientals, even as they were
perceived to be non-American and the wrong color, could still draw on an
exotic culture as an alternative source of self-definition. Park’s “racial uni-
form” thus evokes notions of progress that chart different destinies for
Asian Americans and African Americans.
But how were people identified as Orientals interpellated by this rela-
tionship of difference and its implications for Asian Americans and Af-
rican Americans? More than thirty years later, Asian American writers
would revise Park’s narrative in their literary works, taking up sociological
theories of race that refer to cross-racial comparisons between Asian
Americans and African Americans in their self-representations. One of my
central concerns in this essay is how Asian American writers, including
Jade Snow Wong, encountered sociological theories that compared Ne-
groes and Orientals as a sanctioned discourse that they could draw on to
negotiate racialized and gendered notions of agency and expertise. Wong
did not take up isolated points of racial comparison as much as she specif-
ically engaged the relationship between Negroes and Orientals that Park
and other sociologists used to conceptualize racial categories.
The “uniform” aspect of Park’s racial uniform brings to mind the way
in which this figure is shaped by class dynamics and notions of progress.
Conventionally defined as an article of clothing that classifies an individ-
ual as part of a distinct profession or class, a uniform implies that mem-
bership and official status can be determined through a system of visible,
physical markers. How, I ask, did Asian American writers adapt Park’s
concept to develop ideologies of professionalism and define them as es-
sentially “Asian American”?
My focus here is Jade Snow Wong’s autobiography Fifth Chinese Daugh-
ter (1945), a work deeply concerned with the influence of sociological
studies of Negroes and Orientals on Asian American strategies of self-def-
inition and ideologies of professionalism. As I show, writers such as Wong
did not interpret the comparisons that sociologists were making between
Negroes and Orientals, in solely ideological terms, but offered detailed
accounts of the processes by which Asian Americans develop alternative
36 c y n t h i a t o l e n t i n o

ideas of agency, expertise, and progress. By considering the significance

that Asian American and African American writers have historically at-
tributed to sociology in their works, I suggest how such moments offer
vital insight into the interracial and cross-disciplinary theories that inform
their attempts to negotiate the ways in which they were valued as Orien-
tals in comparison with Negroes.
Let me begin my discussion of Fifth Chinese Daughter with a brief plot
summary. Set in San Francisco and taking place during the Depression
and World War II, the autobiographical novel centers on Jade Snow’s edu-
cation from the ages of five to twenty-four. What unfolds during the
course of the book is a narrative in which Jade Snow seems to find her
place in relation to her parents, Chinatown business people, and white
American elites. Critical to the narrative of Jade Snow’s formation, I argue,
is her encounter with the discipline of sociology.
In a story that bears a striking resemblance to Richard Wright’s descrip-
tion of his encounter with sociological representations of African Ameri-
can life, Wong relates her intellectual awakening in a way that brings soci-
ology’s powerful effect into sharp relief. Reflecting on her college courses,
she observes: “But if Latin was the easiest course and chemistry the most
difficult, sociology was the most stimulating. Jade Snow had chosen it
without thought, simply to meet a requirement; but that casual decision
completely revolutionized her thinking, shattering her Wong-constructed
conception of the order of things.”4 As this passage suggests, studying soci-
ology enables Jade Snow to develop a new perspective and sense of au-
thority that can compete with those that she associates with her family.
Wong reinforces this notion by calling attention to sociology’s instrumen-
tal role in evacuating Jade Snow of her “strangely vague feelings” and
instilling a sense of detachment that allows her to break old patterns and
challenge her parents in a manner that she favorably compares to “her
sociology instructor addressing his freshman class.”5 Wong suggests that
what Jade Snow has undergone is not a bland, humanist epiphany but the
result of a particular, privileged kind of knowledge production.
Wright’s account seems instructive here, for it elucidates a link between
sociology and literature that Wong’s autobiography pursues, while also
showing how sociology might be seen as an entry point to larger questions
about racialized agency. The difference is that Wright seems to stake out
an explicitly competitive relationship with sociological studies of African
American life, claiming that fiction is more adept at exploring the nuances
that sociology is not concerned with or does not value. In his famous essay
Crossings in Prose 37

“How Bigger Was Born,” Wright figured the novel as an alternative site, or
“laboratory,” for exploring the “Negro problem” as the failed assimilation
of African Americans into an American mainstream. “Why should I not,”
he asks, “like a scientist in a laboratory, use my imagination and invent
test-tube situations . . . and following the guidance of my own hopes and
fears, work out in fictional form an emotional statement and resolution of
this problem.”6 Envisioning sociology as both precursor and muse, he
seeks to define fiction writing as the ideal mode for questioning science’s
unique capacity for studying African American communities. Even as he
calls attention to sociology’s powerful effect, his distant and seemingly
objective description of sociology as the “work of men who were studying
Negro life” widens the gap between their findings and his own (superior)
knowledge production.7
Both Wong and Wright suggest that their encounters with sociology are
catalysts for new perspectives and self-expression. Yet Wong seems more
concerned with elaborating on sociology’s analytical methods in order to
bring Asian Americans into view. In contrast to Wright, who frames his
encounter with sociology as part of his northward migration to Chicago,
Wong is introduced to sociology as an academic subject that enables her
to consider and write about Chinese Americans as an important part of
her college curriculum. Indeed, the novel’s interest in exploring the uni-
versity as a site of Asian American subject formation is made clear by Jade
Snow’s description of how her “Chinatown stories” offer her validation as
a Chinese American woman. Although her parents disparage her research
interests as filial disrespect, she finds in her literature course at Mills Col-
lege that “her grades were consistently higher when she wrote about Chi-
natown and the people she had known all her life.”8 Tempting as it may be
to read the pleasure that Wong finds in writing as a generic discovery of
creativity, it is important to note that it refers specifically to writing about
her Chinese American family and community. Wong later recounts how
fiction writing enables her to improve on sociology’s emphasis on objec-
tive, “factual reporting” but underscores how it allows her to define “Chi-
nese American” in ways that are different from Park’s conception of “Ori-
entals” and also to depict Chinatown as a dynamic space rather than its
stereotypical representation as a closed, ethnic enclave. By taking on soci-
ology’s representational modes and fascination with Orientals as objects
of scientific study, Wong gains access to a scientifically sanctioned lan-
guage that enables her to showcase her own knowledge production and
assume dual roles as researcher and native-informant.
38 c y n t h i a t o l e n t i n o

Questions of Agency

Writing provides both Wright and Wong with alternatives to the sociolog-
ical narratives that assign limited forms of subjectivity for African Ameri-
cans and Asian Americans. For Wright, comparing fiction writing to sci-
entific study enables him to parallel an African American writer and soci-
ologists studying the “Negro problem,” as well as to envision an adversarial
relationship between them. To contend with the hypervisibility of Afri-
can Americans as objects of scientific study, he directs his energies toward
finding ways of unsettling sociology’s explanatory authority over African
American communities. Wong also seems skeptical of sociology’s author-
ity, expressing frustration with “some of the so-called scientific reasoning
expounded in the sociology class, where heredity and environment were
assigned all the responsibility for personal success and failure.”9 To define
Asian Americans as knowledge producers rather than passive Oriental
objects, Wong points to the ways in which sociology opens up possibili-
ties for documenting Asian American self-activity in ways that also lead to
public recognition.
Fifth Chinese Daughter repeatedly draws attention to the knowledge
that Jade Snow gleans from sociology, as well as to particular aspects of
sociology’s allure for Asian Americans. Each chapter develops part of a
series of transformations that lead to Jade Snow fully assuming the subjec-
tivity destined for her—filial daughter, convert to sociology, researcher,
Chinese American artist-entrepreneur. Indeed, the novel’s interest in situ-
ating sociology as a solution to Jade Snow’s feelings of dissatisfaction and
estrangement seems to answer directly to Henry Yu’s observation that Af-
rican American intellectuals—including prominent sociologists Charles S.
Johnson, E. Franklin Frazier, St. Claire Drake, and Horace Cayton—had
already found that sociology equipped them with an authoritative lan-
guage for narrating their self-identities and articulating the problems of
racial discrimination and marginalization within the United States.10
According to Yu, sociological research on the Oriental Problem helped
to define Orientals as important objects of study at the same time that it
brought about a process by which Orientals could become knowledge pro-
ducers. As he explains, sociologists such as Robert Park became interested
in studying Orientals in their projects on race relations, which brought
about the incorporation of Chinese and Japanese Americans as researchers
and a body of scholarship on the Oriental Problem that was produced by
whites and Asian Americans. If prevailing views pegged Asians as perma-
Crossings in Prose 39

nent foreigners, he argues, then sociology provided them with a “power-

ful way of naming their own place in American society.”11 Fifth Chinese
Daughter highlights the instrumental role of academic sociology in defin-
ing a process by which Asian Americans could become knowledge pro-
ducers of exotic information. As forcefully as Wong’s autobiography might
seem to argue for a model minority, I believe that it more clearly suggests
how the production of Asian American racial identity has to negotiate the
history of Negroes and Orientals as intertwined objects of study in acade-
mic sociology.
To understand this connection between Asian American racial identity
and sociological studies of the Negro and Oriental problems, let me turn
to Wong’s repetition of the classic scene of a parent telling her child about
the “birds and the bees.” In her version, Wong suggests that negotiating
racial categories in relation to a black/white binary is a rite of passage for
Asian Americans. In response to Jade Snow’s query about “where babies
come from,” Mama delivers a narrative of racial evolution: “There are
three kinds of babies. When they are nearly done, they are white foreign
babies. When they bake a little longer, they become golden Chinese babies.
Sometimes they are left in too long, and they become black babies!”12
Presented in the context of a private, family encounter, Mama’s “facts of
life” tale revises Park’s sociological theory of assimilation, which presents
European Americans as the paradigmatic group. In her evolutionary nar-
rative, Chinese represent the ideal and whites appear as not quite com-
plete, whereas African Americans are depicted as being irreparably dam-
aged and off the path of progress that this narrative implies. Wong recov-
ers Park’s conception of African Americans as extreme aberrations, but
she revises the relationship between Asians and whites in order to figure
Chinese as more developed, or “evolved,” than whites.
This scene also revises conventional ideas about producers of racial
knowledge and the contexts in which such knowledge is generated. This
scene between Mama and Jade Snow casts a Chinese immigrant as an in-
terpreter of racial categories and depicts a different role for second-gener-
ation Asian Americans such as Jade Snow, who “turned over this informa-
tion in her mind, and concluded that it was quite reasonable.”13 Not only
does this scene suggest how Asian American strategies at self-definition
both engage and extend racist sociological theories of black, white, and
Asian difference, but it also calls attention to the ways in which producing,
evaluating, and disseminating knowledge are themselves racialized prac-
tices. By calling attention to the pleasure that Jade Snow finds in work that
40 c y n t h i a t o l e n t i n o

involves research and evaluation, Wong implies that the rise of Asian
Americans like herself is made possible by situating Asians as “brokers” of
racial difference: active negotiators rather than static models for other
racialized groups.

The Rise of Sociology

To explore the possibilities that the field of sociology opened to Asian

American writers for negotiating a U.S. society that was conventionally
viewed in terms of a black and white dichotomy, I briefly discuss here the
ascendance of sociology to the status of official discourse on race, which
brought about a cultural concept of race that writers such as Wong could
engage in their works. At a time in which urban sociologists were increas-
ingly regarded as the nation’s authorities on race, Wong models her pro-
tagonist on an urban expert whose authority stems from her first-hand
account of traditional practices, community structure, and commerce in
San Francisco’s Chinatown during the Depression and World War II. Her
vision in the novel resembles—and perhaps rivals—that of an urban soci-
ologist, the national expert on race. As Carlo Rotella observes, the new
social landscape of the postindustrial metropolis required new forms of
intellectual labor to represent the metropolis and its “inner city.”14 Noting
the proximity in which fiction writers, scientists, and journalists worked
during the 1940s, he points out that this interdisciplinary atmosphere
led James Farrell, Richard Wright, and Nelson Algren to join the Chicago
novel to disciplines that included sociology.
By the mid-1940s, the field of sociology was the dominant producer of
knowledge on race and racism and had assumed an increasingly impor-
tant role in imagining the trajectory of the nation’s future. As numerous
critics have observed, one of the markers of sociology’s ascendance to the
status of official discourse on race was Gunnar Myrdal’s influential study
An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944).
Sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation, Myrdal’s study employed many
of Park’s former students and elaborated his interracial paradigms. Per-
haps a corollary to Park’s figure of the racial uniform is Myrdal’s argument
that African Americans were—in comparison with Chinese and Japanese
—“more helplessly imprisoned as a subordinate caste in America, a caste
of people deemed to be lacking a cultural past and assumed to be inca-
pable of a cultural future.”15 Figuring Asian Americans as “cultured Orien-
Crossings in Prose 41

tals,” Myrdal defined African Americans as exceptionally pathological and

as objects of social reform carried out by white Americans. Although An
American Dilemma is largely perceived as a black/white study, taking into
account the relationship that Myrdal draws between Negroes and Orien-
tals allows us to see how it shapes his overarching theory of racialized
agency and progress in the United States. This racist ideology connects
Wong to Park and Myrdal but also illustrates how engaging their ideas
about “cultured Orientals” (and the implications that this notion carries
for white Americans and Negroes) enables her to flesh out a new form of

Scientific Domesticity

As Judy Yung notes, the few Chinese American college graduates with pro-
fessional degrees found themselves, like black American professionals,
confined to menial labor and service-industry jobs in Chinatown and un-
deremployed in general because of racism in the larger labor market.16
Fifth Chinese Daughter comments explicitly on the limited employment
possibilities for college-educated Asian Americans, while also indicating
that Jade Snow has no problem finding employment as domestic help
in white American households. To question the racialization and sexual
stereotyping of Asian American women as “permanent foreigners” and
“ideal wives,” Wong sought to redefine the forms of domestic authority
available to Chinese American women.
Domesticity becomes a key factor in Wong’s attempts to negotiate a
form of agency that engages but is also different from the forms of “cul-
tural agency” that the Chicago School sociologists ascribe to Orientals in
their attempts to distinguish them from Negroes. In a scene that registers
how domesticity shapes the racialization of Asian American women, Jade
Snow describes how her white employers treat her as an inanimate object.
In response, she adapts sociological methods to create a vantage point
from which she is able to view them as if she were not in a subordinate
position. Identifying her employers by “type rather than name,” Jade Snow
proceeds to describe them as “the horsy family,” “the apartment-house
family,” “the political couple,” and “the bridge playing group” and to com-
pare them negatively to the Wong family’s “high standards,” “Confucian
decorum,” and “Christian ideals.”17 Composed into a view, sociology helps
to make the space of a white American home available for Jade Snow to
42 c y n t h i a t o l e n t i n o

observe, classify, and define her employers as objects of study. This scene
does not suggest that Jade Snow has transcended a racist labor market but
that sociology opens up a means of documenting her exclusion and re-
figuring it as her expert study of the daily rituals and customs of white,
middle-class Americans. For Wong, sociology is not so much an academic
discipline as an entry point to a privileged discourse that provides her
with a new form of agency, enabling her to understand and interpret
where she had previously only been the object.

Redefining Agency

Wong describes a shift in ontological status—from object to subject—that

is made possible by producing an alternative discourse of race, one that is
not limited to binary conceptions of Asian Americans as permanent for-
eigners or assimilated Asians. To understand how she opens up the prob-
lem of Asian American agency, we need to consider how she figures Chi-
nese Americans as transnational subjects. Linking Chinese Americans to
global rather than strictly national communities allows her to emphasize
their self-activity in a way that frames them as social agents rather than
passive subjects.18
Describing the wartime restrictions on the flow of Asian and European
goods to the United States, she notes the changing practices that Chinese
immigrants used to maintain commercial and personal ties to China and
how this contributes to her commercial success, for “there was better op-
portunity for an American potter to sell his wares than ever before.”19 By
drawing attention to the global and localized relations that shape Jade
Snow’s rise as an artist, she suggests how her identities as Asian American
female, artist, and entrepreneur take shape through narratives other than
assimilation into the U.S. nation.
By showcasing Jade Snow’s work as an interpreter of cultural categories,
Wong is able to suggest that she is something more than the “cultured Ori-
ental” envisioned in sociological theories. Despite the publicity and finan-
cial success that accompanies her chosen career as a potter, Wong sug-
gests that Jade Snow’s work is not completely satisfying because only white
Americans buy her “Chinese” wares. Describing her pottery as “pretty
crude stuff,” a Chinatown businessman insists, “Only peasants used that
handthrown pottery with the earthy look. . . . Oh, the foreigners here;
there are always a few who like to be different, if they can afford it.”20 Con-
Crossings in Prose 43

trasting the scornful reactions of her family and Chinatown business own-
ers to her commercial success with elite whites, this scene sets Jade Snow
apart, portraying her as an enlightened cosmopolitan artist styled as a
Chinese peasant. The attention that Wong devotes to her decision to adopt
Shanghai braids rather than the fashionable permanent wave serves to
highlight her work in negotiating concepts of ethnicity, particularly their
relation to biological or physical characteristics. Hair, as Kobena Mercer
reminds us, is a key ethnic signifier, given its adaptability and symbolism
within a raced society. More than a biological fact, the act of styling hair
becomes “the medium of significant statements about self and society and
the codes of value that bind them or don’t.”21 Wong’s braids are a physical
marker, but one that is of her own creation rather than an innate biologi-
cal trait. Her style choice reflects that she has neither rejected “American”
fashion codes nor recovered a “pure” Chinese tradition, but refers instead
to her work in revising the criteria for Chinese ethnicity and the practices
used to authenticate Chinese culture.
But even when Chinese participate in global processes, Aihwa Ong
warns, they continue to be perceived as culturally distinct. Identifying fam-
ily practices as something inherent in Chinese culture is complicit with
ignoring the effects of state discipline and a highly competitive market.22
Both defenders and critics of Wong have taken up this position, however,
framing her autobiographical novel as a struggle of Chinese values in the
face of assimilation and as evidence of Wong’s successful negotiation of a
“middle way.” Leslie Bow, for example, has argued that the novel’s figura-
tion of culture “rests not so much on cultural convergence as on a similar-
ity between economic ideologies and the tacit acknowledgement that con-
tact with Caucasians can lead to business success.”23 Because Bow assumes
that Jade Snow’s acceptance by Chinese and Americans rests on a shared
identification with capitalism, she does not take into account that her pot-
tery is not perceived as “Chinese” by her family and the Chinatown busi-
ness community. What this indicates, I argue, is Wong’s greater concern
with showcasing her work in interpreting ethnicity and cultural practices.

Experts Abroad

Wong’s fascination with the figure of a Chinese American female expert

offers a new perspective on the demand for ethnic experts during the
1950s Cold War. If there are few moments in which Fifth Chinese Daughter
44 c y n t h i a t o l e n t i n o

explicitly engages arguments about African Americans and Asian Ameri-

cans, then taking into account the book’s broader context and publication
history will help to illuminate the larger implications of sociological defin-
itions of “Orientals” and “Negroes” during the early Cold War. As the priv-
ileged discourse on race, sociological studies that focused on the Oriental
and Negro problems contributed to a dynamic in which African Ameri-
cans and Asian Americans became critical factors in U.S. government ef-
forts to depict the nation as a model democracy.
Christina Klein cogently notes that the U.S. government drew on and
encouraged certain notions of racial and ethnic identity as a means of ad-
vancing a Cold War ideology of integration. Ethnic Americans, she ex-
plains, were viewed as the ideal “protectors, representors, and explicators
of the nation precisely because they were still seen in some way as Navajo,
Sicilian, and Chinese, as well as American.”24 Klein’s account also implies
that the U.S. government was selectively interested in race and ethnicity
and recruited individuals from ethnic groups and nations that were seen
as compatible with, but not necessarily representative of, U.S. identity and
foreign policy.
African American and Chinese American intellectuals, as members of
racialized groups located outside the U.S. mainstream, found that their
personal narratives were valued as progressive stories of race relations in
the United States. By framing their professional accomplishments as typ-
ical American experiences, the U.S. government could deflect criticism
from other nations that drew attention to the persistence of racism against
African Americans and Asian Americans as a way of undermining U.S.
claims to global leadership. Significantly, the objective of the State Depart-
ment tours was not to deny that American racism existed but to sug-
gest that individuals could succeed in the United States, regardless of their
As a writer and historical figure, Wong engages and intersects this his-
tory. After obtaining the rights to translate Fifth Chinese Daughter into
numerous Asian languages, the U.S. State Department sent Wong on a
four-month lecture tour in 1953 to newly decolonized or U.S.-occupied
Asian nations such as Japan, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Burma,
India, and Pakistan. Wong was the first Chinese American sent on an offi-
cial tour overseas, though Asian American writers from nations that were
also military allies of the United States had been previously employed in
similar capacities by the U.S. government. Filipino writer Bienvenido San-
tos, for example, was asked by the U.S. Department of Education to give
Crossings in Prose 45

lectures to audiences across the continental United States on the “spirit of

Philippine resistance” under Japanese occupation during World War II.25
Wong’s official tour readily lends itself to comparisons with the State
Department tours undertaken by African American artists and intellectu-
als, including Louis Armstrong and Saunders Redding. Scholarship on the
official tours has primarily been concerned with how the tours helped to
connect racial segregation in the United States to anticolonial struggles
abroad and has tended to focus on the tours undertaken by African Amer-
icans.26 One of the contributions of this body of scholarship has been in
pointing out how the tours produced new struggles over African Ameri-
can racial identity and authenticity, particularly in relation to U.S. nation-
alism. According to Mary Dudziak, the U.S. Information Agency (USIA)
sought to engage figures that they saw as “outstanding negro intellectu-
als” to counter and, in some cases, to denounce more “controversial” visits
made by other African Americans figures such as Josephine Baker, who
criticized U.S. racist practices during her concerts overseas.27
In her autobiography, Wong describes her desire to educate Americans
about Chinese culture and support her pottery work—goals that clearly
resonate with the larger interests of the U.S. government in having assimi-
lated Asians link their professional goals with racial progress in the United
States. Although she clearly reveled in the idea that her autobiography was
perceived as a representation of U.S. racial progress, she also suggests that
the official tour provided her with new ways of documenting specific is-
sues that confront Asian Americans and producing new understandings of
ethnicity and progress that are not confined to sociological theories of
assimilation. If the U.S. State Department sought to engage Asian Ameri-
cans to bridge the gap between racism “at home” and expanding U.S.
interests in Asia during the 1940s and 1950s, then Wong takes on this task,
but also uses the context of the tour to rethink the implications of Asian
American racialization.
While Fifth Chinese Daughter brings into relief Wong’s attempts to ne-
gotiate sociological conceptions of Orientals, this focus is adapted to fit a
different historical configuration in her second book No Chinese Stranger,
published nearly thirty years later. More than an elaboration of her auto-
biography, No Chinese Stranger gives voice to the attempts of Asian Amer-
icans such as Wong to reckon with newly globalized notions of the future
and of “Asia.” Both works center on Wong’s efforts to figure herself as a
knowledge producer and cultural producer, thus suggesting the inadequacy
of viewing her as an assimilated Asian or even as a transnational figure.
46 c y n t h i a t o l e n t i n o

When an audience member asks Wong to state her preference for

China, America, writing, or pottery, her reply, “I like making pottery in
America,” draws attention to the difficulty of defining herself in non-
binary terms that center on her self-activity and refer to Asian American
racialization.28 The view that Wong offers of this act of self-definition sug-
gests that she depicts herself as a cultural producer instead of as an assim-
ilated Asian, Oriental, or “pure” artist. The emphasis that she places on the
fact that her pottery is “made in America” serves to define her as not “nat-
urally” American at the same time that it suggests that her work exempli-
fies the definition of “American.” Though it is possible to interpret the fact
that Wong does not use this moment to speak out against U.S. racism and
foreign policy as further evidence that she has internalized the ideological
goals of the State Department tours, I argue that her statement demands a
more complex reading.
If Wong used her encounter with sociology, the prevailing authority
on race, as a way to define a Chinese American female as a knowledge
producer in Fifth Chinese Daughter, then her encounters with audiences
abroad help to open up the problem of agency in similar ways. Her second
book, No Chinese Stranger (1975), centers on her efforts as an Asian Amer-
ican in Asia to develop a network that would also expand her professional
contacts as a ceramist. Drawing on notions of kinship and progress to
situate Chinese Americans at the helm of the U.S. political turn to Asia in
the 1970s, Wong depicts herself as part of a Chinese diaspora that evolved
from forced labor in South America followed by migration to Thailand
and the Philippines, and that culminates with their descendents as suc-
cessful investors in China’s Special Economic Zones.29 While Wong en-
visions a narrative of progress that resonates with the political and eco-
nomic vision in an emergent Pacific Rim discourse of the 1970s, she also
highlights the importance of Asian Americans as knowledge producers in
developing conceptions of Asia.

I have suggested that Wong critically engages the ways in which Asian
Americans and African Americans have historically been figured as episte-
mological objects in sociological narratives of assimilation that were part
of a privileged discourse on race during and after World War II. Not only
does she impress on us how sociological conceptions of “Orientals” and
“Negroes” serve as a staging ground for a new notion of agency, but also
she defines this new agency in terms of her ability to interpret situations
in which she had previously been only the object. In just this way, Wong
Crossings in Prose 47

shows how agency emerges from historical conditions rather than individ-
ual will. By bringing into focus the comparative race and cross-discipli-
nary routes of influence that bring about this form of agency, she offers a
new perspective on Asian American knowledge production as an epis-
temic and material category.

1. Robert Park writes, “The Japanese bears in his features a distinctive racial
hallmark . . . a racial uniform that classifies him.” See Robert E. Park, Race and
Culture (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1950), 208–209.
2. Scholars in Asian American studies have persuasively argued that concep-
tions of Asian Americans as a model minority can construct Asian Americans as
foreign and alien, while also concealing alliances with African Americans. See
Gary Okihiro, Margins and Mainstreams: Asians in American History and Culture
(Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994); Vijay Prashad, Everybody Was
Kung Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity (Boston:
Beacon Press, 2001), and Prashad, The Karma of Brown Folk (Minneapolis: Univer-
sity of Minnesota Press, 2000); Claire Jean Kim, “Racial Triangulation of Asian
Americans,” Politics and Society 27.1 (March 1999): 105–138.
3. For a more contextualized and detailed account of Park’s theory of assimila-
tion, see the discussion of the ethnicity-based paradigm of race in Michael Omi
and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the
1990s (New York: Routledge, 1994), 14–23.
4. Jade Snow Wong, Fifth Chinese Daughter (Seattle: University of Washington
Press, 1989), 124.
5. Ibid., 128.
6. Richard Wright, “Introduction: How Bigger Was Born,” in Wright, Native
Son (New York: Harper and Row, 1987), xxi. Originally published 1940.
7. See Wright’s foreword in St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton’s Black
Metropolis: A Story of Negro Life in a Northern City (New York: Harper and Row,
1945), xvii. I discuss Wright’s relationship with sociological narratives of race at
length in an earlier essay. See Cynthia Tolentino, “Sociology’s Fictions and Black
Subjectivity in Richard Wright’s Native Son,” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 33.3 (Sum-
mer 2000): 377–405.
8. Wong, Fifth Chinese Daughter, 132.
9. Ibid.
10. Henry Yu, Thinking Orientals: Migration, Contact, and Exoticism in Modern
America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).
11. Ibid., 114.
12. Ibid., 24.
48 c y n t h i a t o l e n t i n o

13. Ibid.
14. According to Carlo Rotella, the Chicago School’s “ecological model” of the
city, based on a system of natural successions and group competition, could not
account for the development of such fixtures as ethnic enclaves and ghettos in the
postindustrial city. Following his lead, this gap led to the decline of the theoretical
dominance of the Chicago School in the field of urban sociology during the 1930s
and 1940s, even though its postwar studies on topics such as the ghetto and juve-
nile delinquency continued to be important through the 1960s, when the national
spotlight turned once again to the American inner city. Carlo Rotella, October
Cities: The Redevelopment of Urban Literature (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1998), 50.
15. Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern
American Democracy (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1999), 54.
16. Judy Yung, Unbound Feet: A Social History of Chinese Women in San Fran-
cisco (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).
17. Wong, Fifth Chinese Daughter, 106.
18. As Mae Ngai observes, scholarship has tended to focus on the productive-
ness of Orientalist discourse in Western cultures and has helped to establish a
dynamic in which the “other” is constructed as an object, not a subject. The prob-
lem, she contends, is that this body of work “reproduces, albeit unwittingly, the
privileged position of the Western, liberal subject and occludes the role of non-
Western peoples as historical subjects in their own right.” Mae M. Ngai, “Transna-
tionalism and the Transformation of the ‘Other’: Response to the Presidential
Address,” American Quarterly 57.1 (2005): 60.
19. Wong, Fifth Chinese Daughter, 236.
20. Ibid., 132.
21. Kobena Mercer, Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Stud-
ies (New York: Routledge, 1994), 249.
22. Aihwa Ong, Flexible Citizenship: The Cultural Logics of Transnationality
(Durham: Duke University Press, 1999), 141.
23. Leslie Bow, “The Illusion of the Middle Way: Liberal Feminism and Bicul-
turalism in Jade Snow Wong’s Fifth Chinese Daughter,” in Bearing Dreams, Shaping
Visions: Asian Pacific American Perspectives, ed. Linda A. Revilla, Gail M. Nomura,
Shawn Wong, and Shirley Hune (Pullman: Washington State University, 1993), 167.
24. Christina Klein, Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 243.
25. Anita Mannur, “Bienvenido Santos,” in Asian American Novelists: A Bio-Bib-
liographical Critical Source Book, ed. Emmanuel S. Nelson (Westport, CT: Green-
wood Press, 2000), 317–322.
26. For a detailed account of official tours by African American intellectuals
and entertainers during the Cold War, see Mary Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 61–77. Also see Brenda Gayle Plum-
Crossings in Prose 49

mer, Rising Wind: Black Americans and U.S. Foreign Affairs, 1935–1960 (Chapel
Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), and Penny von Eschen, Race
against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937–1957 (Ithaca: Cornell
University Press, 1997).
27. Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights, 67–77.
28. Jade Snow Wong, No Chinese Stranger (New York: Harper and Row, 1975),
29. Ibid., ix.
Chapter 3

Complicating Racial Binaries

Asian Canadians and African Canadians as
Visible Minorities

Eleanor Ty

Discussions of “race” today have been strongly influenced by the concepts

developed in the United States in the last thirty years. Until recently, the
terms “race” and “racism” in America almost always conjure up issues of
inequality, differences, and discrimination among black and white people.
In their essay, “Does ‘Race’ Matter?” Robert Miles and Rodolfo D. Torres
note that “it is either largely taken for granted or explicitly argued that the
concept of racism refers to an ideology and . . . a set of practices, of which
‘black’ people are the exclusive victim: racism refers to what ‘white’ people
think about and do to ‘black’ people.”1 Inadequate as this way of thinking
is, Miles and Torres observe that this “use of ‘race’ as an analytical category
in the social sciences is a transatlantic phenomenon.”2 Other countries,
such as Great Britain, have adopted this binary way of thinking of race as a
black and white issue. Historically, however, in Britain, the term “race” was
employed in a different way. During the nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries, “it was widely believed that the population of Britain was com-
posed of a number of different ‘races,’ ” including the Irish.3 Race was also
employed in discussions about the colonies, referring to people from dif-
ferent “races,” such as Caucasians, Africans, Mongoloids, Celts, and so on.
In the United States, racial politics plays out largely in binary terms. In
the twentieth century, and up until recently in the twenty-first century,
the American media’s and culture’s tendency to refer to white and black
America left native Americans, people from the Middle East, Southeast
Asia, South Asia, and Mexico, for example, out of the generalization about
races.4 In his essay, “Is Yellow Black or White?,” Gary Okihiro notes the
“construct of American society that defines race relations as bipolar—

Complicating Racial Binaries 51

between black and white—and that locates Asians (and American Indians
and Latinos) somewhere along the divide between black and white.”5 Oki-
hiro observes:

The marginalization of Asians, in fact, within a black and white racial for-
mation, “disciplines” both Africans and Asians and constitutes the essential
site of Asian American oppression. By seeing only black and white, the pres-
ence and absence of all color, whites render Asians, American Indians, and
Latinos invisible, ignoring the gradations and complexities of the full spec-
trum between the racial poles. At the same time, Asians share with Africans
the status and repression of nonwhites—as the Other—and therein lies the
debilitating aspect of Asian-African antipathy and the liberating nature of
African-Asian unity.6

This “disciplining” has worked well, as studies outlining the similarities

between African American and Asian American histories and cultures, as
Okihiro suggests, have been slow to emerge.7 In the same way, in Canada,
the connections between African Canadian and Asian Canadian commu-
nities and movements have only just begun to develop.
“Race” in Canada is positioned somewhere in the middle between the
historical view in Britain and the contemporary view in the United States.
In Canada, discussions of “race” have been linked to issues of ethnicity
from the start. Because of a smaller, less politicized, and less visible “black”
population in Canada, the larger presence of South Asians, along with a
much more recent spate of immigrants from Eastern European countries,
“race” in Canada has not been viewed simply as a black and white binary.8
Instead, discussions of race and racism refer to discriminatory acts against
people who are from the Caribbean and Africa; against South Asians, East
Asians, Southeast Asians, and Jews, as well as native peoples; and, at the
beginning of the twentieth century, against ethnic minorities such as Ital-
ians and Portuguese. Due to the categorization of racial “others” as “visible
minorities,” and because of Canada’s Multiculturalism Act, race in Canada
is predicated not only on skin color but on a variety of factors, including
accent and linguistic competence, dress, class, and religious affiliation.
Because of Canada’s rather unique situation, it is helpful to look at the
historical and cultural factors that lead to the understanding of “race” this
way. In this essay, I present a brief overview of Canadian cultural policies
of the 1970s and 1980s, describe the immigration patterns of Blacks and
Asians, and, in particular, look at the use of the term “visible minority” as
52 e l e a n o r t y

a way of referring to people of color in Canada. I argue that these factors

have delayed the development of specifically African Canadian and Asian
Canadian collectives or movements and that they have not paved the way
for a strong political coalition between people of color in Canada. In other
words, even though the methods of classification and the historical treat-
ment of people of African and Asian descent in Canada have been similar,
a number of concurrent government policies have dissuaded cooperation
between these and other minority groups. In this essay I look at some rea-
sons that, although African and Asian peoples in Canada as visible minor-
ities have similar experiences, their encounters are still relatively rare.
Going beyond scholars who focus on this problem by concentrating on
the effect of the Multiculturalism Act in Canada, I explore the connections
between this act, the use of the term “visible minorities,” and the psy-
chosocial implications of this categorization on racial minorities. Follow-
ing Michel Foucault, my view is that systems of representation and meth-
ods of classification have implications beyond that of organizational prin-
ciples and utilitarianism. As Ann Laura Stoler notes:

Taking discursive formations seriously is a way of broaching head on the

fact that how we speak and what is unspeakable in written and oral form
shape the categories of exclusion and inclusion in which racisms are built.
Attention to discursive formations opens to an engagement with the cul-
tural and political rationalities that make certain statements renderable as
speech, with what discursive practices produce the conditions of possibility
for why statements are taken as adequate truth-claims and not others.9

Because the category “visible minorities” encompasses African Canadians,

Asian Canadians, and Caribbean Canadians, it has important ramifica-
tions for people of color. It shapes the subjectivity of both white and non-
white Canadians, and it has a role in the construction of self and other in
the national psyche and in the delimitation of citizenship and belonging.
The African diaspora in Canada is at once like and not like that of
the African diaspora in America. African Canadian poet, playwright, and
critic George Elliott Clarke writes of his own development:

By the time I published my first book of poetry, Saltwater Spirituals and

Deeper Blues, in 1983, I was assuredly “Black Nova Scotian.” However, in
those days, the adjective “black” was shorthand for “Black American.” I
knew I was Black Nova Scotian, yes, but I still considered Black America the
Complicating Racial Binaries 53

Mecca of true “blackness,” that is to say, of Motown, Malcolm X, and Martin

Luther King, Jr, of collard greens and hamhocks, of “projects” and “soul.”10

Yet, Clarke endeavors to look at African Canadian literature as a separate

entity, different from African American literature. He contends that
“African Canada is a conglomeration of many cultures, a spectrum of eth-
nicities.”11 African Canadian writers borrow from “Caribbean and Ameri-
can, but also British, French, and African source cultures to furbish their
experiences as a section of the African Diaspora.”12 The phrase “African
Canadian,” like “Asian Canadian,” has only recently been used and is still a
contested term. Other black critics, like Rinaldo Walcott, prefer to use the
term “black Canadian” rather than “African Canadian.” According to Wal-
cott, “It is useful to read black Canadian works within the context of black
diasporic discourses. Those who are descendants of Africans (New World
Blacks) dispersed by TransAtlantic slavery continue to engage in a com-
plex process of cultural exchange, invention and (re) invention, and the
result is cultural creolization.”13 For Walcott, works by Blacks in Canada
“are not merely national products, but . . . they occupy the space of the in-
between, vacillating between national borders and diasporic desires, ambi-
tions and disappointments.”14 Both Clarke, who stresses a nationalistic
sense of belonging, and Walcott, who stresses a transnational diasporic
consciousness, agree that the African diaspora in Canada has been and is
still evolving, being hybridized and shaped.
Clarke and Walcott represent different kinds of black Canadians in part
because of their point of departure. Clarke was born in Nova Scotia, while
Walcott was born in Barbados. Demographically, black Canadians born
outside of Canada, like Walcott, are becoming a larger group than those
born in Canada. According to Will Kymlicka, “The Black community in
Canada in the nineteenth century—the descendants of former slaves and
Black United Empire Loyalists—was never very large compared with the
African-American population in the United States, and it shrank dramati-
cally between 1870 and 1930 as Blacks moved back to the United States.”15
As a result, the largest group of Blacks in Canada today is made up of
recent immigrants from the Caribbean. In Montreal, 80 percent of Blacks
are from the Caribbean—primarily from Haiti, but also from various
British Caribbean islands, particularly Jamaica and Trinidad; descendants
of long-settled Blacks form only a small minority, under 20 percent. The
same general trend is found in Toronto, although there the largest group is
made up of Jamaicans rather than Haitians. The only major Canadian city
54 e l e a n o r t y

where the long-settled black population still outnumbers recent Carib-

bean immigrants is Halifax. Thus the history of slavery and segregation in
Canada, while more similar to the U.S. experience than most Canadians
realize, is not the source of contemporary race-relations problems. The
number of Blacks who experienced these conditions was relatively small,
and their descendants are now massively outnumbered by immigrants
from the Caribbean or Africa.16
There is a similar story and shift in demographics in the case of Asian
Canadians. The Asian population in Canada, like that of the black popula-
tion, was fairly small until the changes to Canadian immigration policy in
1967. Before that, the Immigration Act was based on a “nationality” prefer-
ence system that favored northern Europeans, immigrants from the
United States and Britain. Asians, in particular the Chinese, followed later
by the Japanese and Indians, had been recruited to Canada as laborers in
the second half of the nineteenth century, but they were restricted from
immigrating to Canada in the first half of the twentieth century. Peter Li
notes that Chinese immigrants were in British Columbia in 1858, nine
years before the Canadian confederation was formed.17 Similar to the sys-
tem of contract labor in the United States, the Chinese came to Canada to
work as miners in the 1860s and 1870s. Later they worked as laborers
building the western section of the Canadian Pacific Railway.18 The first
Japanese came to Canada some ten years after Confederation, but it was
not until 1885 that immigration to Canada began in earnest.19 They were
mostly transients, poor and male, who worked in the fishing, farming, and
lumbering industries in British Columbia. Like the Chinese, they provided
cheap, efficient labor. South Asian immigration to Canada began later, at
the start of the twentieth century. In Canada most South Asian immi-
grants, mainly from the Punjab, worked in the sawmill industry. By 1908
there were around five thousand South Asians.20
The influx of foreigners triggered a hostile reaction from the white
population during the last two decades of the nineteenth century and con-
tinued into the early part of the twentieth century. After the completion of
the national railway, the need for cheap labor diminished. A $50 head tax
was imposed on the Chinese in 1885, and the amount kept rising until it
was $500 by 1903. By 1923, the Chinese Immigration Act virtually halted
the entry of all Chinese to the country. For some time in the early part of
the twentieth century, the Japanese fared better than the Chinese, as the
men were allowed to bring their wives over from Japan. Single men ar-
ranged to marry based on a photograph and brought their “picture” brides
Complicating Racial Binaries 55

over to Canada.21 However, the “gentlemen’s agreement” between Canada

and Japan ensured that the number of Japanese immigrants to Canada
remained fairly small. For South Asians, the Canadian government began
in 1908 to limit immigration for people who came by continuous voyage
from their native country. Since it was not possible at that time to come
from South Asia directly to Canada, the regulation effectively stopped
South Asian immigration. In short, like black Canadians, most Asian Ca-
nadians arrived only after 1967 when a point system, based on one’s educa-
tion, training, and ability in one of the official languages, came into effect.
The historical discriminations against these groups and the relative
lateness of African and Asian immigrants to Canada account in part for
the slow development of African and Asian Canadian studies as a field,
compared with African and Asian American studies in the United States.
As Donald Goellnicht has argued, “for a racial minority literature—. . . in
this case a panethnic minority literature united under a sign of ‘race’:
Asian—to emerge with a clear identity there needs to be a strong accom-
panying and reciprocal national political-social movement focused on
identity politics of the politics of difference.”22 Goellnicht notes that be-
sides the relatively small population of Africans and Asians in Canada,
these groups did not experience the civil rights era and the Black Power
movement the same way as their counterparts in the United States, nor
was there an anti-Vietnam movement in Canada in the 1960s.23 In addi-
tion, at this time, “radicalism in Canada was centered primarily on the
push for independence for Quebec.”24 Since the late 1960s, one can observe
an increasing ethnic diversity in Canadian cities, particularly through the
influx of immigrants in the three largest cities in Canada—Toronto, Van-
couver, and Montreal.25 One finds also sizeable immigrant populations in
the medium-sized and smaller cities such as Hamilton, Edmonton, Cal-
gary, and Winnipeg.26 The kind of “political-social movement focused on
identity politics of the politics of difference”27 has become possible in the
last ten years. However, to date, literary and cultural encounters between
African and Asian diaspora groups—whether it be characters of African
origins appearing in Asian Canadian texts or films, or characters of Asian
origins in works by black Canadians, or black and Asian Canadian—col-
laborative efforts at organizing events, conferences, or any other cultural
or political activity are still relatively infrequent.
Unlike the identificatory practices of the United States where African
Americans and Asian Americans embrace their designated racial grouping
because of a history of resistance, solidarity, and self-empowerment from
56 e l e a n o r t y

the 1960s, the cultural, political, and historical conditions in Canada have
not encouraged Blacks and Asians in Canada to take on the same kind of
pan-ethnic Black or pan-ethnic Asian identity. Blacks in Canada tend to
still self-identify as Jamaican Canadian, Haitian-born Canadian, Ghana-
ian, or Ethiopian, while Asians in Canada talk about themselves as Chinese
Canadian, Japanese Canadian, Filipino Canadian, Indian, Pakistani, Sri
Lankan, Vietnamese, and the like. Compared with the United States, Can-
ada’s visible minorities are more recent immigrants, many of them still
finding their way in their own communities and within the mixed cultural
mosaic of the country.
For example, according to statistics released in 2001, foreign-born resi-
dents comprise 43.7 percent of all residents of Toronto, a city that boasts of
having the world’s highest rate of newcomers. Compared with cities in the
United States, the percentage of foreign-born residents in Toronto is con-
siderably higher—30.9 percent foreign-born residents in Los Angeles, and
even in a diverse city like New York, only 24.4 percent are foreign-born.28
It takes time for newcomers to become acculturated to their new commu-
nity, and time for alliances between them and other minorities to form.
These figures do not mean that there has been no history of resistance in
Canada. However, the resistance has tended to come mainly from anti-
racist activists and intellectuals, or from a particular racialized group, like
the Japanese Canadians, for example. The National Association of Japan-
ese Canadians (NAJC), formed in 1947, successfully negotiated the historic
Redress Settlement on behalf of all Japanese Canadians who suffered in-
justices at the hands of their own government during and after World War
II when they were dispossessed, forcibly relocated, and interned. On Sep-
tember 22, 1988, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and NAJC President Art
Miki signed the redress agreement, acknowledging the wrongs committed
against Japanese Canadians.29
African Canadians and Asian Canadians, without identifying them-
selves particularly as belonging to those groups, have initiated and partici-
pated in many antiracist events and publications over the last two or three
decades. Some of the works that promote equity and social justice for
African Canadians and Asian Canadians are done in conjunction with
other movements, such as the feminist movement, antipoverty struggles,
rights for gays and lesbians, and environmental concerns. African Canadi-
ans and Asian Canadians do not tend to separate themselves strictly in
their designated groups but work collaboratively with or work on other
minority groups, and, in many cases, include issues that pertain to native
Complicating Racial Binaries 57

Canadians as well. For example, Himani Bannerji’s Returning the Gaze is a

collection of essays by Asian, native, and black women. Telling It by the
Telling It Book Collective features native, Asian Canadian, and lesbian
writers, while Our Words, Our Revolutions, edited by G. Sophie Harding
includes poems, stories, and essays by black, First Nations, and other
women of color in Canada.30
In a similar manner, black Canadian Frances Henry has written about
the racism experienced by Caribbeans living in Toronto, but her other
books discuss the issue of racism in the larger context of Canadian soci-
ety.31 Asian Canadian Roxana Ng is known for her work on antiracism in
the classroom and has written about being Chinese in Canada, but she
has also worked more generally on antiracist education.32 In the fields of
literature and culture, critical work on Black Canadian and Asian Cana-
dian writers, along with work on writers from India, Asia, Africa, and the
Caribbean, and on native writers, often appears under the rubric of “post-
colonial studies.” Unlike the situation in the United States, where Asian
American and African American studies are usually distinguished from
postcolonial studies,33 in Canada, “postcolonial literature” includes the
study of ethnic and non-ethnic Canadian literatures. Unhomely States, a
“collection of foundational essays of Canadian postcolonial theory” in-
cludes an essay on “A Poetics of Black Space(s)” by Rinaldo Walcott and
an essay on reading South Asian Canadian texts by Arun Mukherjee.34 A
sampling of a couple of recent anthologies on “postcolonial” and Cana-
dian literature shows the tendency in Canada to look at what might be
called Asian American or African American issues or cultural production
through postcolonial approaches and theories.35
A number of scholars have attributed the lack of politicization of par-
ticular minority groups to Canada’s Multiculturalism Act. For them, the
Multiculturalism Act promotes only the celebratory aspects of one’s cul-
ture and does not address contentious political issues. For example, Kogila
Moodley argues that Canadian multiculturalism promotes a “festive aura
of imagined consensus,”36 while C. Mullard points out that the model
highlights the “three S’s”: “saris, samosas, and steel bands,” in order to dif-
fuse the “three R’s: resistance, rebellion, and rejection.”37 Others see Can-
ada’s policy of official multiculturalism as a way of managing difference.
The policy, called “Multiculturalism within a Bilingual Framework,” iden-
tified some “eighty different ethnic or cultural groups which could apply
for financial support from various ministries, particularly the newly
formed Ministry of Multiculturalism, to support programmes for devel-
58 e l e a n o r t y

oping and maintaining cultural and linguistic identity.”38 Some have seen
it as a means to undercut Quebec’s demands for special recognition by
bestowing recognition on other cultural groups. Eva Mackey claims, “Mul-
ticultural policy extends the state recognition of multiple forms of dif-
ference, so as to undercut Québec’s more threatening difference.”39 She
points out, “By defining and recognising immigrants as ‘ethnocultural
groups,’ the policy provided a means through which cultural difference
became politicized, but also politically manageable through the funding of
‘cultural programmes,’ the main function of the early policy.”40 Peter S. Li
remarks that the federal multiculturalism policy “was a calculated political
strategy aimed at winning the support of ethnic minorities by promising
them cultural equality, and at the same time assuring all Canadians that
multiculturalism meant advancing individual freedom without compro-
mising national unity of official language policy.”41
In contrast to a host of critics who have written against multicultural-
ism, Will Kymlicka argues:

There is no evidence to support the claim that multiculturalism is promot-

ing ethnic separateness or impeding immigrant integration. Whether we
examine the trends within Canada since 1971 or compare Canada with other
countries, the conclusion is the same: the multiculturalism program is
working. It is achieving what it set out to do: helping to ensure that those
people who wish to express their ethnic identity are respected and accom-
modated, while simultaneously increasing the ability of immigrants to inte-
grate into the larger society. Along with our fellow multiculturalists in Aus-
tralia, Canadians do a better job of respecting ethnic diversity while pro-
moting society integration than citizens of any other country.42

Approaching the multiculturalism issue from different angles, these

scholars do not want to dismantle Canada’s policy of diversity as much as
demonstrate that federal multiculturalism does not go far enough in pro-
moting opportunities and providing assistance to minority groups. Some
scholars, such as Frances Henry and Carol Tator, advocate what they call
“radical” or “critical multiculturalism” which “challenges the traditional
political and cultural hegemony of the dominant class or group.”43 Go-
ing a step further, Peter S. Li points out that the underlying assumptions
behind multiculturalism are flawed. He notes that the “pluralist perspec-
tive tends to view ethnic cultures as essentially homogeneous and primor-
dial in nature,” that it does not allow for “cultural diversities even within
Complicating Racial Binaries 59

the same ethnic group,” and that it mainly encourages cultural distinctive-
ness in the private rather than the institutional or public lives of ethnic
groups.44 These last points are particularly significant for my purposes
because, by promoting cultural diversity, with its assumptions of essential-
ism and homogeneity, as noted by Li, federal multiculturalism, in fact,
reinforces the separation of ethnic and minority groups and discourages,
rather than promotes, a pan-ethnic sensibility.
The encounters between Asians and Blacks in Canada that do take place
are theoretically constructed. They occur most often in statistics and lists
about minorities. For example, Statistics Canada released a report in June
2004 about hate crimes. According to this report, Jews were the most likely
minority group in Canada to be the victim of hate crimes. Of the one
thousand cases of hate crimes reported in 2001 and 2002, Jews were the
target 25 percent of the time, followed by blacks at 17 percent of the time,
Muslims at 11 percent, South Asians at 10 percent, and gays and lesbians at
9 percent.45 This report is interesting because of its assumptions and defi-
nitions of minority groups. In this case, the inclusion of Jews and homo-
sexuals as minority groups suggest that race and place of origin are not the
only bases for defining minority groups. The report also confirms the
point I made at the outset, that “race” and discussions of racial discrimi-
nation are more complicated in Canada than those of the black/white
binary. Underlying discussions of race are often other factors, such as reli-
gious affiliation, sexual orientation, and class.
Originally, the term “visible minorities” was coined by the Canadian
government under the liberal leadership of Pierre Trudeau in the 1970s
to designate those persons, other than aboriginal peoples, who are non-
Caucasian in race or nonwhite in color. Asians belong to this designated
group which differentiates racial minorities—Blacks from various parts of
Africa; West Indians, Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, Indians, Pakistanis, Sri
Lankans, Koreans, Vietnamese, and so on—from ethnic minorities, such
as Italians, Greeks, Ukrainians, Russians, Serbo-Croatians, and so on.46
This term, aligning Asian Canadians with Blacks, is most often used in
government and legal discourses, in studies about employment, immigra-
tion, and labor. For example, visible minorities matter in the Employment
Equity Act, as in the Canada census, and in literature about multicultural-
ism. It has become a widely accepted term, but it was not, initially, a polit-
ically motivated nomenclature, unlike a term such as “woman of color,”
“Asian American,” or “African American.”47
The other frequent site of encounter between Asians and Blacks in
60 e l e a n o r t y

Canada is the census. The newspaper reports and summaries of the 2001
census focus on new immigrants, the percentage of visible minority popu-
lations in big cities, and the fact that the Chinese are Canada’s largest visi-
ble minority group at 3.5 percent of the country’s population.48 Black
Canadians are the third largest visible minority group, following South
Asians who are the second largest immigrant group to come to Canada in
the last decade.49 What emerges from such newspaper and media reports
is the reiteration of the link between racial minorities and the foreign or
the other, and the emphasis of racial minorities and their difference from
Europeans who are assumed to be the norm.
Asians and Blacks in Canada are caught in the Scylla and Charybdis of
categories and naming. The official label “visible minority” marks one as
racially different, rendered obvious, vulnerable, non-major. Though the
term “visible minority” was created to promote equity and diversity in hir-
ing practices, it has the unintended, or perhaps the surreptitiously in-
tended, effect of rendering all those cultures that are not European in
origin marginal, more conspicuously minor against something which is
articulated as dominant.50 Himani Bannerji points out:

Unlike the radical alternative political-cultural activists, the Canadian state

was careful not to directly use the notion of color in the way it designated
the newcomers. But color was translated into the language of visibility. The
new Canadian social and political subject was appellate “visible minority,”
stressing both the features of being non-white and therefore visible in a way
whites are not, and of being politically minor players.51

In the United States, as Okihiro points out, by not being included in the
sweeping categories of black and white, Asian Americans, like Latinos, are
not named and are therefore invisible and at times rendered inconsequen-
tial in government policies and public discourse. Though “visible minor-
ity” is not an official term in the United States, categories of black, white,
Asian, and Hispanic are still very much predicated on the visible, or what
David Palumbo-Liu has described as the “physical sign” of otherness.52
In both countries, what generates classification and ordering of things
is still predominantly appearance or the scopic drive. Though thinking
about races has shifted and changed over time, to a large extent, visibility
is still what is used as the basis for discourses about difference. Ruth
Frankenberg notes the consequence of this for white people: “While dis-
cursively generating and marking a range of cultural and racial Others as
Complicating Racial Binaries 61

different from an apparently stable Western or white self, the Western self
is itself produced as an effect of the Western discursive production of its
Others.”53 The markings on our body have provoked from the dominant
culture an array of responses that are predictable and overdetermined.
Our appearance—skin color, black hair, nose, eyes—continues to play a
large part in determining how others read our identities, and it shapes,
in tangible and intangible ways, relations between European North Amer-
icans and nonwhites, even in relations between Asian Canadians and
Blacks.54 The concern of mainstream North American culture with surface
appearance is a lingering problem that faces Asians, Blacks, and other mi-
nority groups today.
A number of critics have noted this obsession with appearance in Ca-
nadian culture. In an essay called “Canada’s Visible Minorities: Identity
and Representation,” Anthony Synnott and David Howes similarly note
that the term “visible minorities” privileges the visual and foregrounds
skin color as “the primary determinant of group identification.”55 For
them, there are other kinds of minorities, particularly linguistic minorities
and religious minorities, as well as the very old and the very young, which
are not covered by the term.56 They argue that the concept of visible
minorities “was not well formulated in the first place, and raises serious
questions about the legislation which employs it.”57 Instead of promot-
ing equity, it further entrenches “difference by ‘racializing’ divisions which
. . . have always had more to do with social class and cultural beliefs
than with skin colour or ‘visibility.’ ”58 Other important problems Synnott
and Howes outline include the invisibility of such people as light-skinned
Arabs or a white Jamaican, and the lumping together of “multicoloured
humanity . . . under one rubric.”59 In their essay, they point to a scale of
difference between the average income of people of different ethnic ori-
gins, noting that not all “visible minorities are equally oppressed, impov-
erished, marginalized, and victimized by a ubiquitous Canadian racism.”60
According to Synnott and Howes, “Canada does not have a dichotomous
racial stratification system with all Whites above, and all non-Whites now
recorded as visible minorities, below.”61 Their points about the need to
take into account class and economic differences within racial minorities,
as well as the way such a term as “visible minority” further racializes peo-
ple by exaggerating certain physical and phenotypical traits, lead to the
last point developed here.
As I argue, the grouping together of Asians and Blacks in Canada as
visible minorities has the effect of designating a group of people in the
62 e l e a n o r t y

country as unimportant players, or a subnormal group of people against a

white group regarded as unmarked or invisible. In terms of a national
subjectivity, visible minorities become what Julia Kristeva in The Powers of
Horror would call the “not-self ” or the abject.62 In order for the self to
achieve subjectivity, he or she has to psychically affiliate with the nonvisi-
ble majority, rejecting those like himself or herself for those who are
deemed to have full subjectivity in the nation. Though the minority sub-
ject might feel pride in his or her ethnic origin and celebrate it through
multicultural festivals, there is the sociopsychic pressure to affiliate up-
ward and disaffiliate downward in order to have the full privileges and
promise of that nation. Disaffiliation occurs not just once but repeatedly
for visible minorities. For example, when one racial minority group is stig-
matized by the larger community for a particular problem, a member of
that group may consciously or unconsciously disaffiliate from his or her
community. Recently, for instance, when the Chinese were viewed as the
transmitters of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus in
Toronto during the winter of 2003, many Chinese people avoided going
shopping in Chinatown or the Asian malls in Markham. Some people,
Asians included, even refused to sit beside someone on the bus whom they
believed to be of Asian origin. The media’s association of violence in To-
ronto with Jamaican youths presents a similar ongoing problem.63 The
negative image of these visible minorities has caused tensions not just be-
tween Blacks and the police force but also within the black community.
For these reasons, Asians and Blacks are discouraged to form both socio-
psychic and political affiliations. Hence, Asian and black diasporic coali-
tions in communities have not been as developed in Canada as they have
been in Great Britain and the United States.
To look at the question of racial identification and coalitions from a
different and positive perspective, one could claim that the lack of active
coalitions between minorities is a sign that the politics of multiculturalism
and diversity are actually functioning relatively well in Canada. Compared
with the United States, discriminatory practices based on race in Canada
are more muted and less blatant. As Synnott and Howes note, visible mi-
norities in Canada are not equally oppressed. In one of their tables, Syn-
nott and Howes show that the average income for South Asians was higher
in 1989 than for those people of French origin.64 They also note that the
Japanese, who form the largest Asian ethnic group born in Canada, fare
better than other Asian groups in terms of employment rates and in secur-
ing managerial and professional occupations.65 This is not to say that dis-
Complicating Racial Binaries 63

crimination and racial prejudice do not exist in Canada; indeed, there is

still much antiracist work to be done. Rather, I have tried in this essay to
show that racial politics in Canada is layered and complex, involving not
just relations between black and whites but also the positioning of eth-
nic and racialized subjects within government discourse, within economic
and social hierarchies; moreover, racial politics depends on the individ-
ual’s language acquisition and fluency, education and professional skills,
and length of residence in Canada. As more and more African and Asian
Canadians become aware of and begin to question the privileges and the
limitations of occupying the place of the “visible minority” in Canada,
as our numbers grow, as people become more accustomed to a shifting
rather than a static notion of ethnic identity, productive and cooperative
encounters between diverse ethnic groups will rise. Much has changed in
the last ten years with the changing demographics and immigrant pat-
terns, especially in the medium to large cities in Canada. Understand-
ing the way we are viewed and the way we came to see ourselves, learn-
ing about the experiences and histories that we share with other ethnic
groups are steps that lead in the direction of fruitful pan-ethnic coalitional

1. Robert Miles and Rodolfo D. Torres, “Does ‘Race’ Matter? Transatlantic Per-
spectives on Racism after ‘Race Relations,’ ” in Race, Identity, and Citizenship: A
Reader, ed. Rodolfo D. Torres, Louis F. Mirón, and Jonathan Xavier Inda (Oxford:
Blackwell, 1999), 27.
2. Ibid., 21.
3. Ibid.
4. In the last two decades, black intellectuals like Paul Gilroy have been influ-
ential in attempting to move away from the manichaeism of black and white fixed
identities in their work. See Paul Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack
(London: Hutchinson, 1987).
5. Gary Y. Okihiro, “Is Yellow Black or White?” in Asian Americans: Experiences
and Perspectives, ed. Timothy P. Fong and Larry H. Shinagawa (Upper Saddle
River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000), 63.
6. Ibid., 75.
7. Only fairly recently have a few studies considered the similarities between
African Americans and Asian Americans. See, for example, Anne Anlin Cheng,
The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief (New York:
Oxford University Press, 2000), and King-Kok Cheung, “Don’t Tell: Imposed
64 e l e a n o r t y

Silences in The Color Purple and The Woman Warrior,” PMLA 103.2 (1988): 162–
8. A number of factors have created differences in the discussion of “race”
between Canada and the United States. Enoch Padolsky, for example, points to
Canada’s dual “Official Languages Act, official Canadian multiculturalism, . . . a
growing openness to Aboriginal self-government,” and the relatively small and
new community of Blacks in Canada as compared with the United States. Enoch
Padolsky, “Ethnicity and Race: Canadian Minority Writing at a Crossroads,” in
Literary Pluralities, ed. Christl Verduyn (Peterborough: Broadview Press, 1998),
9. Ann Laura Stoler, “Reflections on ‘Racial Histories and Their Regimes of
Truth,’ ” in Race Critical Theories: Text and Context, ed. Philomena Essed and
David Theo Goldberg (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002), 419.
10. George Elliott Clarke, Odysseys Home: Mapping African-Canadian Litera-
ture (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002), 4.
11. Ibid., 14.
12. Ibid., 12.
13. Rinaldo Walcott, Black Like Who? (Toronto: Insomniac Press, 1997), xii.
14. Ibid.
15. Will Kymlicka, Finding Our Way: Rethinking Ethnocultural Relations in
Canada (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1998), 78.
16. Ibid., 78–79.
17. Peter S. Li, Chinese in Canada (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1998), 3.
18. Ibid., 21.
19. Ken Adachi, The Enemy That Never Was: A History of Japanese Canadians,
introduction by Timothy Findley, afterword by Roger Daniels (Toronto: McClel-
land and Steward, 1991), 2, 13. Originally published 1976.
20. Suzanne McMahon, “Overview of South Asian Diaspora,” 22 June 1998,
available at (retrieved
23 June 2004).
21. Adachi, Enemy That Never Was, 87.
22. Donald C. Goellnicht, “A Long Labour: The Protracted Birth of Asian
Canadian Literature,” Essays on Canadian Writing 72 (Winter 2000): 3.
23. Ibid., 4, 6.
24. Ibid., 8.
25. Morton Weinfeld and Lori A. Wilkinson, “Immigration, Diversity, and Mi-
nority Communities,” in Race and Ethnic Relations in Canada, ed. Peter S. Li (Don
Mills, ON: Oxford University Press, 1999), 70.
26. Ibid.
27. Goellnicht, “Long Labour,” 3.
28. Elaine Carey, “City of New Faces,” Toronto Star, 22 January 2003, A6. This
information was based on statistics released by Statistics Canada in 2001.
Complicating Racial Binaries 65

29. For more information about the work of the NAJC, see their webpage:
“Japanese Canadians Then and Now,” 2005, available at
.php (retrieved 28 June 2005).
30. Himani Bannerji, ed., Returning the Gaze: Essays on Racism, Feminism and
Politics (Toronto: Sister Vision Press, 1993); Telling It Book Collective, Telling It:
Women and Language across Cultures: The Transformation of a Conference (Vancou-
ver: Press Gang, 1990); Sophie G. Harding, Our Words, Our Revolutions: Di/Verse
Voices of Black Women, First Nations Women, and Women of Colour in Canada
(Toronto: Inanna, 2000).
31. Frances Henry, Caribbean Diaspora in Toronto: Learning to Live with Racism
(Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994); Frances Henry and Carol Tator, with
Winston Mattis and Tim Rees, The Colour of Democracy: Racism in Canadian Soci-
ety (Toronto: Harcourt Brace, 1995).
32. Roxana Ng, “Sexism, Racism, Canadian Nationalism,” in Returning the
Gaze: Essays on Racism, Feminism and Politics, ed. Himani Bannerji (Toronto: Sis-
ter Vision Press, 1993), 182–196; Roxana Ng, Pat Staton, and Joyce Scane, Anti-
Racism, Feminism, and Critical Approaches to Education (Westport, CT: Bergin and
Garvey, 1995).
33. For more information about postcolonial studies in the United States and
its relation to American studies, see Malina Johar Schueller and Edward Watts,
eds., Messy Beginnings: Postcoloniality and Early American Studies (New Bruns-
wick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2003).
34. Rinaldo Walcott’s “ ‘A Tough Geography’: Towards a Poetics of Black
Space(s) in Canada” (1997) and Arun Mukherjee’s “How Shall We Read South
Asian Canadian Texts?” (1998) are both reprinted in Unhomely States: Theorizing
English-Canadian Postcolonialism, ed. Cynthia Sugars (Peterborough: Broadview
Press, 2004), 277–288, 249–266. The volume contains seminal essays on Canadian
postcolonialism by scholars such as Diana Brydon, Linda Hutcheon, Donna Ben-
nett, Stephen Slemon, Roy Miki, and others.
35. These collections of essays, on multicultural and postcolonial literature
demonstrate the way in which Canada’s categories of differences are handled.
Christl Verduyn’s Literary Pluralities (Peterborough: Broadview Press, 1998), Laura
Moss’s anthology Is Canada Postcolonial? Unsettling Canadian Literature (Water-
loo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2003), and Cynthia Sugar’s volume Home-
Work: Postcolonialism, Pedagogy and Canadian Literature (Ottawa: University of
Ottawa Press, 2004) all contain essays on African Canadian and Asian Canadian
culture and issues, on European ethnic minorities, native literature, and on non-
ethnic or mainstream Canadian culture.
36. Kogila Moodley, as quoted by Eva Mackey, The House of Difference: Cul-
tural Politics and National Identity in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto
Press, 2002), 66.
37. Ibid, 67.
66 e l e a n o r t y

38. Ibid., 64.

39. Ibid.
40. Ibid., 65.
41. Peter S. Li, “The Multiculturalism Debate,” in Race and Ethnic Relations in
Canada, ed. Peter S. Li (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1999), 152.
42. Kymlicka, Finding Our Way, 22.
43. Frances Henry and Carol Tator, “State Policy and Practices as Racialized
Discourse: Multiculturalism, the Charter, and Employment Equity,” in Race and
Ethnic Relations in Canada, ed. Peter S. Li (Toronto: Oxford University Press,
1999), 98.
44. Li, “Multiculturalism Debate,” 165, 166, 167–168.
45. Janice Tibbetts, “Jews Most Often Target of Hate Crimes: StatsCan,” Na-
tional Post, 2 June 2004, A9.
46. Enoch Padolsky, referring to a short story by Jewish-Canadian Matt Co-
hen, notes, “in an earlier Canadian racial terminology, ‘visible minority’ meant
dress and appearance and not just pigmentation.” Padolsky, “Ethnicity and Race,”
47. Sau-ling Wong has noted that the term “Asian American” “expresses a po-
litical conviction and agenda: it is based on the assumption that regardless of indi-
vidual origin, background, and desire for self-identification, Asian Americans have
been subjected to certain collective experiences that must be acknowledged and
resisted.” Sau-ling Cynthia Wong, Reading Asian American Literature: From Neces-
sity to Extravagance (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 6.
48. Carey, “City of New Faces,”A6.
49. “Study: Canada’s Visible Minority Population in 2017,” Daily, 22 March
2005, available at (re-
trieved 2 July 2005).
50. Smaro Kamboureli makes a similar observation about the ambivalent ef-
fect of multiculturalism: “The Multiculturalism Act (also known as Bill C-93) rec-
ognizes the cultural diversity that constitutes Canada, but it does so by practicing
a sedative politics, a politics that attempts to recognize ethnic differences, but only
in a contained fashion, in order to manage them.” Smaro Kamboureli, Scandalous
Bodies: Diasporic Literature in English Canada (Toronto: Oxford University Press,
2000), 82.
51. Himani Bannerji, “The Paradox of Diversity: The Construction of a Multi-
cultural Canada and ‘Women of Color,’ ” Women’s Studies International Forum 23.5
(2000): 545.
52. David Palumbo-Liu, Asian/American Historical Crossings of a Racial Fron-
tier (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), 86. In his chapter on “Race, Na-
tion, Migrancy, and Sex,” Palumbo-Liu looks at the willingness of minority in-
dividuals to use plastic surgery to transform their features today. The implication
is that the body is linked to the psyche: “The morphing of physical form antici-
Complicating Racial Binaries 67

pates the revision of the psyche within, and the way that transformed body will be
viewed by others.” Ibid., 95.
53. Ruth Frankenberg, White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of
Whiteness (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 17.
54. I have discussed the implications of the bodily features of Asians and their
visibility in North America in the introductory chapter of my book, Eleanor Ty,
The Politics of the Visible (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004).
55. Anthony Synnott and David Howes, “Canada’s Visible Minorities: Identity
and Representation,” in Resituating Identities: The Politics of Race, Ethnicity, Cul-
ture, ed. Vered Amit-Talai and Caroline Knowles (Peterborough: Broadview Press,
1996), 149.
56. Ibid., 141.
57. Ibid., 138.
58. Ibid.
59. Ibid., 142.
60. Ibid., 144.
61. Ibid.
62. Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (New York: Colum-
bia University Press, 1982), chapter 1. David Leiwei Li, Imagining the Nation: Asian
American Literature and Cultural Consent (Stanford: Stanford University Press,
1998), has also applied Kristeva’s notion of the abject to Asian Americans, 6–8. See
my discussion of Li’s argument and my own use of the term in Ty, Politics of the
Visible, 26–27.
63. A number of writers have criticized the media and police treatment of
Blacks. See, for example, Dionne Brand, Bread out of Stone: Recollections on Sex,
Recognitions, Race, Dreaming and Politics (Toronto: Vintage Canada, 1998), 120–
123, and Walcott, Black Like Who?, 118–119.
64. Synnott and Howes, “Canada’s Visible Minorities,” 144.
65. Ibid., 139–140.
Chapter 4

One People, One Nation?

Creolization and Its Tensions in Trinidadian and
Guyanese Fiction

Lourdes López Ropero

In his volume The Repeating Island, Antonio Benítez-Rojo provides an il-

lustrative, if not naturalistic, description of how the Caribbean developed:

Let’s be realistic: the Atlantic is the Atlantic because it was once engendered
by the copulation of Europe—that insatiable solar bull—with the Carib-
bean archipelago; the Atlantic is today the Atlantic (the navel of capitalism)
because Europe, in its mercantilist laboratory, conceived the project of
inseminating the Caribbean womb with the blood of Africa; the Atlantic
is today the Atlantic . . . because it was the painfully delivered child of the
Caribbean . . . stretched . . . between the encomienda of Indians and the
slaveholding plantation, between the servitude of the coolie and the dis-
crimination towards the criollo, between commercial monopoly and piracy,
between the runaway slave settlement and the governor’s palace; all Europe
pulling on the forceps to help at the birth of the Atlantic: Columbus, Cab-
ral, Cortés, de Soto, Hawkins, Drake.1

Historically, the Caribbean archipelago was an arena where Western

economic battles were fought by subsequent waves of Europeans. If the
archipelago was instrumental in the development of Western capitalism,
Western intervention dictated the shape of economic and social change in
the Caribbean. More specifically, the establishment of plantation societies
accounts for one of the Caribbean’s most idiosyncratic features, its com-
plex ethnic makeup. Plantation colonies witnessed a “vast collision of
races”—to borrow an expression by Antonio Benítez-Rojo2 —, the Af-
rican and the Indian featured prominently among them. This essay ana-

One People, One Nation? 69

lyzes AfroAsian ethnic relations in Samuel Selvon’s novels of the Indian

peasantry set in colonial Trinidad, A Brighter Sun (1952) and Turn again
Tiger (1958); and Fred D’Aguiar’s novels on postcolonial Guyana, Dear
Future (1996) and Bethany Bettany (2003). I trace the discourse of creoliza-
tion in these works, which the authors uphold as a suitable model of cul-
ture and nationality to address the cross-cultural nature of these societies.
At the same time, I point at the way these authors refuse to romanticize
the Caribbean as a site of unproblematic creolization and foreground the
ethnic conflict endemic to creole societies.

The history of the Caribbean is one of displacements and migrations. The

Ameridian tribes, the Arawaks and the Caribs, left the South American
continent for the Caribbean islands around 5000 bc. These were the peo-
ples that the first European settlers, the Spanish, found on the islands.
Other European countries joined in the scramble for the archipelago and,
as a result, it was divided into Spanish, French, Dutch, and British territo-
ries. In the early seventeenth century, the British established plantation
societies and brought Africans to work as slaves. Coolie servitude is linked
with the abolition of slavery in the colonies. Antislavery sentiment that
had spread throughout Britain during the last quarter of the eighteenth
century led to the passing of the Emancipation Act in 1834. Since abolition
amounted to the loss of cheap labor, planters implemented two policies in
order to maintain profit and ease the transition to a free labor market.3
Apprenticeship and indentureship were introduced in the post-emancipa-
tion period. During the apprenticeship, although working fewer hours and
being allowed to work for wages, former slaves were forced to keep work-
ing for their masters for a period of six years. Naturally, this policy failed
to satisfy emancipated Blacks, who were unwilling to engage in field labor.
Planters then decided to introduce new groups of workers who would
compete with the ex-slaves on the labor market and keep wages down.
Portuguese from Madeira, Chinese and Indians from the subcontinent—
East Indians, nicknamed coolies—were brought to the Caribbean islands
as indentured servants subject to five-year contracts that they were unable
to breach and were lured into renewing. The East Indians, the largest
immigrant group, were the ones who eventually replaced Africans in the
sugar states. In contrast, unused to heavy agricultural work and taking
advantage of their whiteness or near-whiteness, the Portuguese and the
Chinese refused to reindenture and turned to the retail trade that they
eventually monopolized. Thus, the East Indians became “the new slaves,”4
70 l o u r d e s l ó p e z r o p e r o

confined to the rural. When the practice of reindenture was ended in the
1870s, many East Indians left the plantations to become peasant farmers,5
which contributed to perpetuating their rural associations. This vast colli-
sion of races, therefore, was not natural but engineered in Europe’s “mer-
cantilist laboratory,”6 which has had a profound influence on interethnic
relations and social change. Vere Daly argues that “acting on the principle
of ‘divide and rule’ ”7 British planters deliberately encouraged racial dis-
unity and status competition among the different immigrant groups.
The racially heterogeneous societies created by Western powers in the
Caribbean have been described as “plural societies,” lacking in a “common
social will.”8 The situation did not improve after the European withdrawal
and the achievement of self-government, which accentuated competition
for status. Trinidad and Guyana are two cases in point. Despite having dif-
ferent geographical locations (Trinidad is an island and Guyana a main-
land country), these countries share key sociohistorical features. They
both have a history of plantation slavery and indenture, which resulted in
a similar ethnic composition, Africans and East Indians being the largest
groups. They both are encumbered by racial conflict and have created
institutions to promote racial harmony, the Centre for Ethnic Studies in
Trinidad and the Ethnic Relations Commission in Guyana.
Politics are racially polarized in both islands. Thus, in their march
toward self-government, the young democracies went through a brief
period of political cooperation between Blacks and Indians, followed by a
growing separation across ethnic lines. An infamous example is the split in
Guyana’s People’s Progressive Party, which started out as a multiracial
party led by an Indo-Guyanese and an Afro-Guyanese, whose leadership
disputes ended the coalition. The slogan apanjhat, “support your own
race,” was then introduced.9 A brief look at some local newspapers reveals
that this ethnopolitical conflict continues today. In Guyana, power sharing
is seen as the only solution to alleviate ethnic unrest.10 In Trinidad, the
naming of Arrival Day, originally an Indian celebration, continues to gen-
erate controversy. Whereas the African party favors dropping the word
“Indian” to commemorate all the groups that came to Trinidad, Indian
activists regard this gesture as discriminatory. The 2004 celebration was
marked by the same controversy.11

In spite of this, the mottoes of Trinidad and Guyana—“Together We

Aspire, Together We Achieve” and “One People, One Nation, One Destiny,”
respectively—attest to the fact that racial harmony was one of the goals
One People, One Nation? 71

that these young independent countries set out to achieve. Moreover, a

whole syncretic culture has developed in the Caribbean since plantation
societies were established. This development has been termed “creoliza-
tion,” a trademark of the Caribbean cultural experience defined by Mar-
tinican theorist Edouard Glissant as “a limitless métissage, its elements dif-
fracted and its consequences unforeseeable.”12 Rojo has referred to this
limitless métissage as a supersyncretism, “arising out of the collision of
European, African and Asian components within the Plantation.”13 Cre-
olization differs from métissage or hybridity in that the elements forming a
creolized cultural expression are no longer identifiable but have blended
into something completely new. As Guyanese writer Wilson Harris points
out, creolization is “an issue of complex linkages and mixed traditions,
transcending black, transcending white . . . throw[ing] a ceaseless bridge
across the chasm of worlds.”14 This paradigm of culture contact is non-
directional and nonhierarchical, transcending ethnic particularisms and
“nativist” essentialisms. Glissant places creolization at the centre of his
poetics of relation, as opposed to rootedness. A poetics based on rooted-
ness proves inaccurate to describe the sociocultural dynamics of a land
which no group can lay exclusive claim to, for its only “native” inhabitants
—the Ameridians—were exterminated. Speaking of his “native” island,
Glissant claims:

Indeed, Martinican soil does not belong as a rooted absolute either to the
descendants of deported Africans or to the békés [whites] or to the Hindus
or to the mulattoes. But the consequences of European expansion—exter-
mination of the Pre-Columbians, importation of new populations—is pre-
cisely what forms the basis of a new relationship with the land: not the
absolute ontological possession regarded as sacred but the complicity of

Creolization amounts to the formation of a complex syncretic culture on

“New World” soil, stemming from the new relations that developed there.
A creole is someone born in the Caribbean regardless of ethnic affiliation
or mixed ethnic background.
Despite its appeal, the notion of creolization is not devoid of problems.
Michael Dash warns us that the Caribbean is liable to be turned “into a
centre of exemplary creolity.”16 Discussions of creolization should there-
fore avoid romanticizing the Caribbean and expose the reality of ethnic
conflict endemic to creole societies. Besides, nativist claims may encroach
72 l o u r d e s l ó p e z r o p e r o

into the nonhierarchical discourse of creolization to the detriment of a

given ethnic group. In fact, East Indians have complained about the iden-
tification of creoleness with blackness as the African component of the
culture was incorporated earlier than the Asian one. In 2004, the Letters to
the Editor section of the Stabroek News featured a heated debate between
an Indo-Guyanese and an Afro-Guyanese over this issue. The Afro-
Guyanese correspondent claimed that a creole culture is not exclusively
Afro-European but contains several elements—European, African, Amer-
indian, East Indian, Chinese, and others—any of which “may be domi-
nant, marginal or absent . . . at varying times and places,”17 and by virtue
of being born in the Caribbean, East Indians are irreversibly creolized. The
Indo-Guyanese respondent, who happened to be an Indian-rights cam-
paigner, protested that creolization had amounted to “an Africanised cul-
tural ethos” with only some fragmented Indian elements in an over-
whelmingly African mass.18 He believed that those Indians who upheld
creolization were severing the links with their heritage and contributing to
the degeneration of Indian culture in the Caribbean.
Whereas the views on cultural identity of the Afro-Guyanese corre-
spondent strike us as less essentialist than those of the Indo-Guyanese,
the former does reveal that it is not difficult for an Afro-Guyanese to slip
into the equation “creoleness equals blackness.” Thus, in another letter he
boasts, “The feminist, nativist, even gay liberation movements are benefi-
ciaries of the models and struggles of the Africans in the New World. From
liberation theology to movements for ethnic pride and civil rights . . . the
pattern of protest and argumentation owe much to our Creoles.”19 Such
inconsistency, however, partly justifies the East Indian anxiety about creole
From the above, it must be clear that the discourse of creolization coex-
ists with endemic conflicts between Blacks and East Indians in the socio-
political arena of countries like Trinidad and Guyana. It is the purpose of
this essay to show how literary artifacts articulate the complex tension
between creolization and ethnic particularism in creole societies. Interest-
ingly, in this regard, one can observe that anthropologists are increasingly
turning to fiction for a nonreductionist analysis of creolization. Sylvia
Schomburg-Scherff, for example, explains, “I discovered that Caribbean
novelists are a special source of knowledge. If we cultural anthropologists
want to gain an understanding of the processes of creole identity forma-
tion, we cannot neglect the insights Caribbean novelists have to offer.”20
The complex discourse of creolization impregnates the works of Samuel
One People, One Nation? 73

Selvon and Fred D’Aguiar and mediates their portrayal of AfroAsian rela-
tions. In the two sections that follow, I trace this discourse in a selection of
their novels. I highlight the extent to which the generation gap separating
these two authors and the different timeframes of their novels have a bear-
ing on their portrayal of interethnic relations.

Despite being the son of an Indian from Madras and a half-Indian, half-
Scottish daughter of an overseer on a cocoa plantation, Samuel Selvon
grew up “creolized” rather than “Indianized” in the racially mixed streets
of San Fernando, a town in Southern Trinidad.21 He migrated to London
in 1950, became a writer of the pioneering West Indian Renaissance, and
moved to Canada in the late 1970s, where he died in 1994. Speaking of his
childhood in San Fernando, he wrote:

She [his mother] spoke fluent English. . . . I never heard my father, who was
a Madrasee, speak anything but English. . . . In our house, we ate curry once
a week—the other days it was creole food, souse and black pudding on Sat-
urday night, and stew beef or chicken and calaloo for Sunday lunch. We
never observed any religious or cultural ceremonies, nor wore national gar-
ments. . . . By the time I was in my teens I was a product of my environ-
ment, as Trinidadian as anyone could claim to be, quite at ease with a
cosmopolitan attitude, and I had no desire to isolate myself from the mix-
ture of races that comprised the community.22

Creolization became for Selvon a way of belonging to Trinidadian soil.

This process was so effective that he was turned down for a job in the
Indian High Commission of London because he came from Trinidad and
was not an Indian from the subcontinent.23 His multicultural upbringing
led him to write about Blacks as convincingly as about East Indians, as his
much-acclaimed Moses trilogy24 —The Lonely Londoners, Moses Ascending,
and Moses Migrating—has shown.
The plots of his novels reflect Selvon’s politics of creolization. In A
Brighter Sun, the newlywed East Indian Tiger and Urmilla leave the sugar
state in Chaguanas where they grew up to settle down as free peasants in
Barataria, a suburban town near San Fernando. There they develop a very
close friendship with Joe and Rita Martins, their black neighbors, over-
coming the sectarism and antiblack bias their parents had instilled in
them within the overwhelmingly Indian world of the plantation. In Turn
again Tiger, the sequel, the young couple returns to the sugar plantation,
74 l o u r d e s l ó p e z r o p e r o

following the invitation of Tiger’s father to participate in an experimental

crop, only to realize that it was multicultural Barataria that they felt they
truly belonged to.
In a key scene of A Brighter Sun, the split between Tiger and Urmilla’s
generation and that of their parents is made clear. Rita and Joe are invited
to the party their Indian friends have organized to celebrate the birth
of their daughter. The atmosphere becomes strained because the Indian
elders disapprove of their children’s black friends: “ ‘Is only nigger friend
you makeam since you come?’ His bap asked. ‘Plenty Indian liveam dis
side. Is true them is good neighbour, but you must look for Indian friend,
like you and your wife. Indian must keep together.’ ”25 Urmilla’s mother
goes so far as to pinch Rita’s son for touching the baby: “Nigger boy put he
black hand in my betah baby face!.”26 Whereas Tiger’s and Urmilla’s par-
ents perceive the Martins as members of a stigmatized group—Blacks
who carry the harmful creolizing influence—the young couple perceives
them as individuals they interact with daily, as Urmilla explains: “But, mai,
these people good to us; we is friends. I does get little things from she
[Rita], and sometimes she does borrow little things from me.”27 In gen-
eral, Urmilla tends to mix more with women like Rita or black-Chinese
Berta, avoiding the Indian women who “prattle all the time in sing-song
Selvon also dares to foresee the issue of mixed marriages. Through the
marriage of Chinese Otto and black-Chinese Berta, a match made by In-
dian Soylo, the taboo of miscegenation is ironically reversed.
Although Selvon intends to show that his characters are able to interact
successfully with each other as individuals, regardless of their ethnic pecu-
liarities, he acknowledges that they may also perceive each other in a
biased way when they “become” group members. In this regard, it is im-
portant to remember that Selvon’s novels on the Indian peasantry are set
in colonial Trinidad, a time when group perceptions were deeply en-
trenched in society. Thus, his narrator admits that in Trinidad “there is a
shortcut to identity,”29 referring to the stereotypes that groups hold of
each other. Social psychologists have defined stereotypes as “representa-
tions of groups” based on the “accentuation of differences.”30 Far from
being mere representations of social reality, stereotypes are political be-
cause “in a world of inter-group politics . . . [stereotypes] are carefully-
crafted weapons . . . to consolidate advancement.”31 Naturally, stereotyping
thrives in situations of intergroup competition, allowing certain groups to
enhance their social image by stressing the negative features of another
One People, One Nation? 75

group or providing ideological justification to maintain a given status

quo. Caribbean plantation society was a breeding ground for stereotypes,
given the status rivalry between the different ethnic groups due to their
historical positions. The white plantocracy stereotyped Blacks as savages
in order to cast their colonization of the islands as a civilizing mission.
Afterward, Blacks were stereotyped as lazy because of their refusal to work
on plantations as pseudoslaves. East Indians interiorized those prevailing
stereotypes about Blacks soon after their arrival. Blacks, in turn, saw Indi-
ans who took the jobs they themselves had refused as being thrifty and
Selvon’s characters indeed resort to stereotyped knowledge about each
other. When Joe finds out that Rita has lent their bed to Urmilla, who will
soon give birth, he invokes the stereotype of Indian thrift: “Dem Indian
people does have plenty money hide away. Why Tiger don’t buy ah bed for
he wife?”32 Similarly, Boysie, an Indian friend of Tiger’s, is incensed when
he and Tiger are forced to share a taxi with an old black woman who car-
ries a fish basket. The black woman feels abused by Boysie’s complaints
throughout the drive and curses him when he leaves the taxi: “Yuh nasty
coolie! I smelling of fish, but wat you smelling of?”33
Selvon’s analysis of AfroAsian relations also includes the Chinese. The
Indians and Blacks of Barataria hold the stereotype of the Chinese as
hard-working shopkeepers, a trade monopolized by this group. Through
his portrayal of Chinese characters, Selvon raises the issue of trade as an
ethnicity marker that accentuates the differences between groups. Werner
Sollors uses the example of Chinese-American laundry owners to under-
score the cultural construction of ethnicity: “ ‘The Chinese laundryman
does not learn his trade in China; there are no laundries in China.’ . . . One
can hardly explain the prevalence of Chinese-American laundry owners
by going back to Chinese history proper.”34 Trade may become an ethnic-
ity marker, but there is nothing essentially ethnic about it. Indeed, there is
nothing essentially Chinese about shopkeeping.35
Selvon examines the figure of the Chinese shopkeeper to highlight the
stifling effects of stereotypes on the individual. Tall Boy, Barataria’s Chi-
nese shopkeeper, complains that he is not perceived as “a human being”
but just as “the symbol of the shop.”36 He longs to attend the parties that
his customers organize because he wants to feel he belongs in the larger
creole society. It hurts him that he should be perceived merely as the alco-
hol provider for the parties, and that nobody should ever think that he
might like to join them as well. The fact that he suffers in silence for a long
76 l o u r d e s l ó p e z r o p e r o

time means that he has internalized the stereotype and resigned himself to
the role assigned to him by the stereotype. However, one day he decides to
go to one of these parties and, to his surprise, nobody is shocked by his
presence. Joe exclaims, “you is a creolised Chinee . . . a born Trinidadian.”37
Through this incident, Selvon is stressing the point that categorical per-
ception is not fixed but context-dependent; outside the shop, the Chinese
shopkeeper is perceived simply as Trinidadian. Besides, that the villagers
remained undisturbed by Tall Boy’s sudden appearance implies that the
internalization of stereotypes by those who suffer from them contribute to
their persistence. Though Blacks, East Indians, and Chinese may perceive
each other as members of ethnic groups in certain contexts, overall they
can interact successfully as individuals.
Even though Selvon attempts to resolve ethnic rifts in his novels, he
also foregrounds the tensions underlying creole society. The following
statement by Joe toward the end of A Brighter Sun sounds premonitory:
“Yes, Ah hear bout it. Dat [self-government] is wat we fighting for now,
but you yuhself know how dis place have so much different people, it go
be ah big fight. Is always wite man for wite man, coolie for coolie, nigger
for nigger.”38 The character of Mr. Ramroop encapsulates the attitude that
Joe denounces, for he mobilized the Indian bloc, promising to fight for
“Indian rights” in order to get a seat in the municipal government.39 It
should be noted that though this novel depicts Trinidadian society in the
early 1940s when the island was still a colony but the way to independence
was being paved, it was published in 1952. By that time it was becoming
clear that politics would develop along racial lines in the new democracy
since Indian politicians had split from the African party and formed their
own party, the People’s Democratic Party, during the previous year.40
Selvon chose not to conceal this problem.

Unlike Selvon, Fred D’Aguiar belongs to the young generation of Carib-

bean writers. He began his literary career as a poet in the mid-1980s with
Mama Dot and has combined poetry with the writing of fiction since 1994.
Born in 1962 in London to Guyanese parents, Fred D’Aguiar was raised
in Guyana, where he spent his childhood and early youth. Though D’Ag-
uiar was a U.S.-based author teaching at the University of Miami when
Bethany Bettany was released, Guyana remains the touchstone of his po-
etry and fiction. Thus, he includes this country in the acknowledgments
to his latest novel: “And to Guyana: you keep me dreaming.” The word
“dream” should be understood here both as inspiration, because Guyana is
One People, One Nation? 77

at the center of D’Aguiar’s poetry and fiction, and as mission, because one
of the characters in this novel protests that the country “remains un-
dreamt” and must be “dreamt into being.”41
The fact that Selvon and D’Aguiar belong to different generations
accounts for their different treatment of interethnic relations in the novels
that concern this essay. Intending to denaturalize ethnic stereotypes, Sel-
von uses ethnic labels throughout his novels, echoing their unconscious
absorption into everyday speech in colonial Trinidad and exposing their
functionality in certain contexts. D’Aguiar, however, provides in Dear
Future and Bethany Bettany a more contemporary picture of Caribbean
society, writing about Guyana’s postcolonial condition. He focuses on
characters who are both culturally and biologically creolized, which points
to a higher degree of intermingling and a more fluid social structure in the
postcolonial era. At the same time, D’Aguiar creates an atmosphere of po-
litical urgency. The Guyana he portrays is diseased by its past and unable
to handle its independence. He underscores the fact that the manipulation
of ethnic divisions for political purposes has led to the racial polarization
of Guyanese politics. While writing in a nonrealist mode with touches of
allegory and magic realism, D’Aguiar features key political events through
their destructive effects on the domestic life of his characters. Tragedy
befalls the Santos family in Dear Future due to their opposition to the rul-
ing party during elections. Through their story, D’Aguiar portrays a fierce
and corrupted struggle for political power, reminiscent of the rivalry be-
tween the Afro-Guyanese and the Indo-Guyanese leaders Burnham and
Jaggan. Likewise, Bethany Bettany features a quarreling family, the Abra-
hams, whose fracture can be traced back to the split in the first native-
ruled party of Guyana.
In both novels, D’Aguiar attempts to break the circle of ethnic con-
flict and to offer a network of social relations based on creolization. The
grandfather of the Santos family, a Portuguese from Madeira, for example,
voices D’Aguiar’s identity politics. When the house of an Indian family is
set on fire, he tries to gather a crowd to help find the arsonists. The scene
is described by Red Head, the child narrator of the novel:

As Grandad began to speak, a strong moon emerged from a bundle of

clouds. . . . Everyone shone under that moon. The demarcations of white,
brown and black that were so apparent in daylight were softened by the
moon to subtle gradations of tone. If people were intent on locating such
differences they would have to look hard and long in this equalising light.
78 l o u r d e s l ó p e z r o p e r o

. . . Grandad spoke of men who’d married women they’d fallen in love with
regardless of race and who had been themselves the product of various
unions between the races. He pointed to the fact that he was Portuguese, his
wife African, one daughter-in-law half Amerindian, another Indian. Let
them try and separate us, let them try. . . . Everyone applauded Grandad and
shook hands. They divided into groups . . . intent on apprehending the per-

The Santos patriarch seems to have Guyana’s motto, “Together We Aspire,

Together We Achieve,” in the back of his mind when he lectures the crowd.
Earlier, he had already been branded as “coolie lover”43 for his unpreju-
diced thinking. In the ethnically polarized election climate, he appeals
now to the community for solidarity with the Indian family, reminding
them of the creole nature of their society. With this passage, D’Aguiar
intends to underscore the arbitrariness of racial categorization; skin com-
plexion is made to appear unimportant, contingent as it is on the fluctuat-
ing gradations of light.
In another revealing passage, the patriarch complains that politics in
independent Guyana are “skin-deep”—a clear allusion to the prevailing
politics of ethnic domination. “What do they know about Africa or India?
Anyway I’m from Madeira if they want to be exact,”44 he goes on to say,
referring to the two parties in dispute, the African and the Indian party.
Through the old man’s voice, D’Aguiar is criticizing the inadequacy of
the labels “African” and “Indian” in a culture where both the African and
the Indian components are no longer “pure” but creolized. Consequently,
India and Africa can only take the role of mythic motherlands rather than
of places to return to. Naturally, Singh, the wrestler that the government
brings from India to entertain their supporters, wishes to be introduced as
“wrestler from India” and not as “an Indian wrestler”45 to dissociate him-
self from the creole Indians he meets in Guyana, who do not observe caste
and may intermingle with other races. He finds it amusing that the ances-
try of his opponent, Bounce Santos, should include “not only African and
Indian blood but Portuguese, too.”46 One could see this as D’Aguiar’s at-
tempt to criticize the existing labels: besides being inadequate to describe
the creole reality, these labels prove to be exclusive, for they fail to include
more marginal components such as the Portuguese.
Further evidence of D’Aguiar’s concern with creolization is the friend-
ship that develops between Red Head and Sten, the daughter of the Indian
family. Usually, D’Aguiar endows his children characters with a privileged
One People, One Nation? 79

insight into the world of adults and turns them into embodiments of
union, acting as harmonizing influences in troubled environments.47 Red
Head, of mixed ancestry but with a dark complexion, has several Indian
friends like Raj and Sten. The following dialogue between Red Head and
Sten as they play in their tree house is worth quoting:

[Red Head] You [Sten] look like a red zebra.

[Sten] You look like a black zebra.
Zebras are black and white.
Then how can I be a red zebra?
Your red skin in these bars of light.
And your black skin in it too.
Our children will be red and black zebras.
What a nice mix-up.48

In their innocent dialogue, the children reflect on the arbitrariness of skin

complexion, which changes shade as the afternoon light filters through
the coconut branches. They project themselves into the future as a mixed
D’Aguiar envisions a more harmonious society with the new genera-
tion represented by Sten and Red Head, but he warns that this potential is
threatened by the petty conflicts of adults. Violence is unleashed again
when Bounce Santos defeats the Indian wrestler sponsored by the govern-
ment. An angry mob besieges the Santos household, whose men, backed
by Sten’s father, try to protect their family, and a torch sets the house on
fire. The Santos family strand of the plot ends on a tragic note, as smoke
creeps under the door where the children are kept, while Sten and Red
Head play unconcerned.
The sense of political urgency and racial turmoil is even stronger in
Bethany Bettany, where Guyana is referred to as a “shared jungle”49 and a
“country of quarrelling people.”50 The Abrahams are a large, locally pow-
erful family, who live in a small village called Boundary, on the edge of the
Guyana jungle. This family embodies Guyana racially and politically. The
novel’s protagonist is Bethany, a member of the Abrahams’ youngest gen-
eration. Endowed with a privileged mind, like the child protagonist of
Dear Future, Bethany is despised and mistreated by her aunts and uncles
because she takes after her mother, whom the family blames for the suicide
of her husband, their kin. For Bethany, her mother resembles an “African
princess” with her “onyx” skin.51 Bethany describes the disappointment of
80 l o u r d e s l ó p e z r o p e r o

one of her aunts at her dark complexion: “She passes a hand over my hair
to ascertain its texture, its coarseness. From the look that plays for an
instant around her mouth, as if she tastes tamarind, I must fail some com-
plex indexes of hers defined by the mix of our South Asian, African and
European antecedents.”52 The aunt dislikes the fact that Bethany’s nappy
hair should set off the African component in the family’s genetic mixture,
which reveals her prejudiced views on Afro-Guyanese people. These allu-
sions to Bethany and his mother’s hair type and skin complexion are
worth noting, since there is a tendency for D’Aguiar to gloss over the ap-
pearance of his characters, who do not appear as distinctively Indo or Afro
but mixed, in order to reinforce their creoleness. Yet, D’Aguiar avoids ro-
manticizing creole mixtures. The scrutinizing gesture of Bethany’s aunt
reveals that some blends are preferred over others.
In the course of a complicated choral narrative with touches of magic
realism that defies linearity and forces the reader to piece bits of informa-
tion together, one learns that the Abrahams are split by their loyalty to dif-
ferent political parties. Reginal Abrahams, the grandfather, and his daugh-
ter-in-law, Bethany’s mother, represent democratic ideas. The rest of the
family blame these ideas for the division of their “big name”53 and struggle
to retain their influence, which is granted by the corrupted government of
Boundary. They oppose the short-lived multiracial party the country had
launched its new democracy with, which one of the aunts describes as a
“coalition government . . . with its many heads on the one glued-together
monster body,”54 to the point that they burn the local school because the
headmaster running it supports the coalition and instills subversive ideas
in Bethany’s head. The headmaster is one of D’Aguiar’s spokespersons for
racial harmony and democracy in the novel. He believes it is the youth’s
role to lead the new republic on the road to democracy. He lectures them

There is the country we see all around us and then there is the country that
we dream about and wish to make into a reality. Our country remains
undreamt. We live the practical side of it, the side we find ourselves in and
tolerate because we lack the dream, the dreamed alternative. The youth, all
of you, must dream this country into being.55

The burning of the school, run by a headmaster holding democratic

views, is tantamount to the burning of the Santos household in Dear
One People, One Nation? 81

Future. The arson motif is used by D’Aguiar to highlight the stifling of the
democratic and conciliatory impulse in Guyanese society.
The atmosphere of ethnopolitical turmoil evoked by D’Aguiar in this
novel is compounded by the border war raging in the jungle between Guy-
ana and a neighboring country, allegedly Venezuela, over a rich logging
area, allegedly the Essequibo region. The border war widens the gap be-
tween the two factions of the family, since, whereas most of its members
had deserted the war, the head of the household, Bethany’s grandfather,
chose to stay and fight to regain lost territories, abandoning the family. At
the end of the novel, Bethany runs away from the Abrahams household to
join her mother and grandfather in the jungle. When she meets her grand-
father, whom she had never seen before, he explains to her the need to de-
fend the country from the foreign invasion. “The other side” had sold that
region, which was not even theirs but a disputed territory, to a consortium
of American logging companies which threaten to turn it into a desert.56
There is a suggestion that Bethany will stay in the jungle to fight for her
country alongside her mother and her grandfather, whereas the rest of the
Abrahams continue to support a corrupted local government, undis-
turbed by the problems of their country. The inclusion of Guyana’s border
problems in the novel is not gratuitous, since, as it has been argued, the
definition of the country’s frontiers, unsettled by its complicated colonial
history, was one step in its achievement of postcolonial wholeness.57

As a conclusion, I would like to pick up the thread of Rojo’s metaphorical

description of the Caribbean. Once the Caribbean gives birth to the At-
lantic, there remains “the febrile wait through the forming of a scar: sup-
purating, always suppurating.”58 Both Selvon and D’Aguiar bring the leg-
acy of racial slavery and indenture to bear on their examination of ethnic
conflict between Blacks and Asians in Trinidadian and Guyanese societies.
Such conflicts express themselves in the circulation of stereotypes about
ethnic groups, in the reductive perception of creoleness as blackness to the
exclusion of other components, and in the political manipulation of eth-
nic blocs. Writing about and in postcolonial times, D’Aguiar is less opti-
mistic than Selvon about the achievement of wholeness in Caribbean cre-
ole societies. The political corruption and apanjhat practices that Selvon
hints at are rampant in D’Aguiar’s novels. His creole families are torn by
conflicting views of the Guyanese nation, like the Abrahams, or threatened
by the destructive forces within it, like the Santos.
82 l o u r d e s l ó p e z r o p e r o

In foregrounding conflict, these writers refuse to romanticize the Car-

ibbean as a site of harmonious creolization and instead explore the com-
plexities of creole identity. At the same time, nonetheless, both authors
uphold creolization as essential to the nation-building processes of young
Caribbean democracies, showing the extent to which it operates in these
societies. Selvon’s novels portray healing scenes of interaction among
Blacks, East Indians, and Chinese characters. D’Aguiar offers characters
that exert harmonizing influences on communities divided across ethnop-
olitical lines. Moreover, he approaches creolization as an irresistible force
within Guyanese society by depicting characters that bear the profound
racial mixture of the population in their genes.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Trinidadian and Guyanese
societies are still in need of a model of nationality and culture that privi-
leges neither the black nor the Indian groups but addresses the creolized
nature of the population. Both authors succeed in addressing this need.

1. Antonio Benítez-Rojo, The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Post-
modern Perspective (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996), 5.
2. Ibid.
3. T. Vere Daly, A Short History of the Guyanese People (London: Macmillan,
4. Ibid., 189.
5. Ibid., 225.
6. Benítez-Rojo, Repeating Island, 5.
7. Daly, Short History, 196.
8. Lloyd Braithwaite, “Social Stratification and Cultural Pluralism,” in Peoples
and Cultures of the Caribbean: An Anthropological Reader, ed. Michael Horowitz
(New York: Natural History Press, 1971), 97.
9. The party split in 1953, one faction being led by the Indo Cheddi Jagan and
the other faction by the Afro Forbes Burnham. This split was formalized in 1957,
when Burnham formed the People’s National Congress (PNC). Daly, Short His-
tory, 302–303.
10. Participants of an international conference on political conflict called for “a
complete reversal of Guyana’s political culture embodied in the concept of power
sharing.” See “Feel the Other’s Pain,” Stabroek News, 6 February 2004, available at (retrieved 19 July 2004). In another news item, the leader
of the opposition presses the current leader of the People’s Progressive Party
(PPP), now in power, for shared governance. See “Corbin Withdraws from Dia-
One People, One Nation? 83

logue,” Stabroek News, 1 April 2004, available at (retrieved

19 July 2004).
11. “Beyond Platitudes of Indian Arrival,” Trinidad Guardian, 31 May 2003,
available at (retrieved 19 July 2004). See also “Racial Under-
tones Mar Arrival Messages,”, 6 June 2004, available
at (retrieved 6 August 2004).
12. Edouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan
Press, 1997), 97.
13. Benítez-Rojo, Repeating Island, 12.
14. Wilson Harris, “Creoleness: The Crossroads of a Civilization?” in Carib-
bean Creolization: Reflections on the Cultural Dynamics of Language, Literature and
Identity, ed. Kathleen M. Balutansky and Marie-Agnès Souricau (Barbados: Uni-
versity Press of the West Indies, 1998), 5.
15. Glissant, Poetics of Relation, 147.
16. Michael Dash, “Psychology, Creolization and Hybridization,” in New Na-
tional and Post-Colonial Literatures, ed. Bruce King (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996), 51.
17. “Indians Are Already Deeply Creolised: Mr. Panday Is a Propagandist for a
Hindu/Indian Cultural Revival,” Stabroek News, 13 April 2004, available at www (retrieved 6 August 2004).
18. “Creolization Is Almost Synonymous with an Africanised Cultural Ethos,”
Stabroek News, 27 April 2004, available at (retrieved 4 Au-
gust 2004).
19. “We Live in a World of Composite Cultures” Stabroek News, 5 May 2004,
available at (retrieved 19 July 2004); emphasis mine.
20. Sylvia Schomburg-Scherff, “Women Versions of Creole Identity in Carib-
bean Fiction: A Cultural-Anthropological Perspective,” in A Pepper-Pot of Cultures:
Aspects of Creolization in the Caribbean, ed. Gordon Collier and Ulrich Fleisch-
mann (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2003), 368.
21. Peter Nazareth, “Interview with Sam Selvon,” in Critical Perspectives on Sam
Selvon, ed. Susheila Nasta (Washington: Three Continents Press, 1988), 83.
22. Samuel Selvon, “Three into One Can’t Go: East Indian, Trinidadian, West-
indian,” in India and the Caribbean, ed. David Dabydeen and Brinsley Samaroo
(London: Hansib, 1987), 14–15.
23. Ibid., 17.
24. See Swift Dickinson, “Sam Selvon’s ‘Harlequin Costume’: Moses Ascending,
Masquerade, and the Bacchanal of Self-Creolization,” MELUS 21.3 (1996): 69–106.
25. Samuel Selvon, A Brighter Sun (London: Longman, 2002), 47.
26. Ibid.
27. Ibid.
28. Samuel Selvon, Turn again Tiger (London: Heinemann, 1979), 78.
29. Selvon, Brighter Sun, 50.
30. Craig McGarty, Vincent Yzerbyt, and Russel Spears, “Social, Cultural and
84 l o u r d e s l ó p e z r o p e r o

Cognitive Factors in Stereotype Formation,” in Stereotypes as Explanations: The

Formation of Meaningful Beliefs about Social Groups, ed. Craig McGarty, Vincent
Yzerbyt, and Russel Spears (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 2–3.
31. Alexander Haslam et al., “From Personal Pictures in the Head to Collec-
tive Tools in the World: How Shared Stereotypes Allow Groups to Represent and
Change Social Reality,” in Stereotypes as Explanations: The Formation of Meaning-
ful Beliefs about Social Groups, ed. Craig McGarty, Vincent Yzerbyt, and Russel
Spears (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 183.
32. Selvon, Brighter Sun, 39.
33. Ibid., 87.
34. Werner Sollors, The Invention of Ethnicity (New York: Oxford University
Press, 1989), xvi.
35. “The Baker’s Story” (1962) by V. S. Naipaul is worth mentioning to illus-
trate this point further because it presents an extreme example of how stereotype
can affect behavior. The black narrator of this story puzzles over the fact that
“though Trinidad have every race and every colour, every race have to do special
things” (121). Blacks are not accepted in the retail business, especially when it
comes to handling food or selling it behind a counter. When he manages to set up
his own bakery, having learned the trade from a Chinese family, he realizes that his
blackness scares away customers. Therefore, he is forced to put a Chinese man
behind the counter, hang “a Chinee calendar with Chinee women and flowers and
waterfalls” (122) on the wall, and conceal the fact that it is him who bakes the
bread. Only then does he become successful. Through this story, Naipaul exposes
the efficacy of the stereotype and, at the same time, denaturalizes it, unmasking
the anxieties that underlie it. “The Baker’s Story,” in A Flag over the Island (New
York: Penguin, 1969), 111–123.
36. Selvon, Turn again Tiger, 14.
37. Ibid., 15.
38. Selvon, Brighter Sun, 196.
39. Ibid., 203.
40. Percy Hintzen, The Costs of Regime Survival: Racial Mobilization, Elite
Domination and Control of the State in Guyana and Trinidad (Cambridge: Cam-
bridge University Press, 1989).
41. Fred D’Aguiar, Bethany Bettany (London: Chatto and Windus, 2003), 191.
42. Fred D’Aguiar, Dear Future (London: Chatto and Windus, 1996), 48.
43. Ibid.
44. Ibid., 38.
45. Ibid., 72.
46. Ibid., 74.
47. See Joan Hyppolite, “Interview with Fred D’Aguiar,” Anthurium: A Carib-
bean Studies Journal 2.1 (2004), available at www// (re-
One People, One Nation? 85

trieved June 2004); and Gerard Woodward, “A Child of Conflict,” Times Literary
Supplement, 15 July 2003, 22.
48. D’Aguiar, Dear Future, 45.
49. D’Aguiar, Bethany Bettany, 21.
50. Ibid., 60.
51. Ibid., 36.
52. Ibid., 15
53. Ibid., 226.
54. Ibid., 212.
55. Ibid., 191.
56. Ibid., 293.
57. Daly, Short History, 280.
58. Benítez-Rojo, Repeating Island, 5.
Chapter 5

Black-and-Tan Fantasies
Interracial Contact between Blacks and
South Asians in Film

Samir Dayal

Discussing the Hollywood biracial buddy films of the 1980s such as Alien
Nation (1988), Ed Guerrero argues that the sci-fi buddy feature transcodes
social tensions and fears about racial mixture as a result of increasing im-
migration; in doing so, he points beyond the biracial paradigm that often
constrains a film’s critical reading offered by contemporary scholars.1
Guerrero writes, “Because its complex imbrication of politicized and ra-
cially coded meanings allude to all non-White racial minorities, the film’s
narrative is allegory for the present wave of Latino, Asian and West Indian
immigration to this country, while it also evokes the nation’s repressed,
historical relationship to Blacks and chattel slavery.”2 As he notes, what
makes these films so popular is “their ability to transcode, even into terms
of fantasy, social unease over rising racial tensions of a recently pluralized
society with an expanding non-White population to accommodate and a
shrinking reserve of economic opportunities.”3 Guerrero’s claim invites
the following questions: How do those non-White populations imagine or
fantasize interethnic contact, and how do their nightmares and fantasies
complicate the “biracial” paradigm? It is not just that there is a plurality
of non-White groups within the multicultural polity of North America.
Rather, the question is, what fresh insights emerge on interethnic contact
in film if we change our perspective from a two-dimensional view to a
three-dimensional one? What interests me is the way in which interracial
or interethnic contact is triangulated; for me it is not exclusively a ques-
tion of tracking the “master signifier” of whiteness but of attending to the
complexities of the ways in which brownness or blackness or yellowness
can also function as the tertium quid—the obscured referent or object of

Black-and-Tan Fantasies 87

desire, the signifier that stitches the triangulation together. I am interested

in the way this third term operates as a spectral third term, structuring
what is overtly represented as a binary relation. There is more often than
not, although perhaps not always, a third party moving behind the scenes
or behind the screen on which interethnic contact is being projected.
What is interesting is that sometimes it is not the white man or woman. I
am arguing, then, that if there is a structural “three-ness” that character-
izes interethnic contact, it is crucial to see that whiteness does not always
play the role of the supplementary or constitutive other.4
While I agree that the fundamental fantasy of wholeness undergirds the
dynamic of racialization, in this essay I look in particular at how the rep-
resentation of interethnic contact in film—“race” itself being a relational
construct—employs fantasy at several levels. Here the racialized fantasy is
not just the “fundamental” fantasy. Rather, fantasy here is often to be un-
derstood in an everyday sense, as projecting self and other, not in a binary
relation but in what I am calling a triangulation. It is not a fantasy of
“being” but of being in a social relation to the other that gestures beyond
the apparent binary—although I am not claiming that the third is always
a strong presence or that it is more significant than the two parties in-
volved in the first instance, and it is not always a relation between white
and black people. In films such as One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975),
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), and City of Joy (1992), the
primary relation is between whites and red or brown people. Blackness is
perhaps not significant here, except as the occluded signifier: after all, in
these films, the dominant drive is to affirm the white man as “savior.”5 Yet,
my point is that we need to be alert to the spectral presence of the third
when it does operate as a spectral signifier so that we do not miss the fact
that sometimes two parties are in contention precisely because a gesture is
being made in relation to a third party, or some message is being en-
crypted about the second party by way of a cryptic premise about a third.
And even if there is a necessary misrecognition or even a scotomization
involved in screening off the fundamental fantasy, there can be little ques-
tion that this more commonplace “fantasy” is powerful and that in this
sense social relations among racialized groups have a significant psycho-
logical dynamic. If films are “one of the resources through which power is
wielded by the classes that benefit from the racial status quo,”6 I suggest
that the very expression of such power exposes the vulnerability of the sta-
tus quo, as well as its flexibility: for it is not always the black man who is
denigrated as the lowest of the low and not always the white man who
88 s a m i r d a y a l

strives to seem superior to another. On occasion, it is a minority figure

who seeks to establish himself or herself as the superior of a person of a
different minority group, and this is not just about competition between
My discussion of AfroAsian or black-brown encounters in contempo-
rary cinema featuring South Asians aims chiefly to offer such a perspec-
tive. In each of these black-and-brown interactions, I trace the presence of
a third that is screened off in some respects, but which points to the fact
that we need to think beyond the binary frame to understand these racial-
ized representations. It is imperative to conceptualize ethnicity as differen-
tial, or even, following Jacques Derrida, différantial, in the sense that the
meaning of each position of the enunciation of ethnic belonging is not
known in advance but is deferred into a “sovereign incalculability”7 in the
shifting instantiations of ethnic difference.
The psychic force of race thus does not just tether two parties—us and
them—but is haunted by a third, an oppressive or an abject third. This is
often glossed over in identity politics. Similarly, what holds ethnic enclaves
together is the rhetoric of binaries, and minority group rights claims are
often expressed in terms of a competition between and among minority
groups. Furthermore, while there has long been, in the black imagination,
a conscious, strategic knowledge about white people, as bell hooks writes,8
there has also been a special unconscious or spectral presence of whiteness
in the way that nonwhites have imagined themselves. This is one of the
more pernicious effects of a diffuse racism permeating every aspect of cul-
ture. And one could go further and say that spectrality is the very hallmark
of racism: the standard against which the other is denigrated (literally and
figuratively) is anxiously removed from view, often by the legerdemain of
official denial that either race or ethnicity has a role in political or eco-
nomic determinations such as affirmative action in educational institu-
tions or in the workplace.
Racism indeed takes the form of denial in everyday social intercourse,
as when well-meaning white people say that they do not “see color” in
friendships or at work. The fact remains that as psychic reality, racism re-
mains entrenched even when it seems to have been erased from the overt
discourses of the public sphere. Thus in most Euro-American contexts,
whiteness is often reinscribed as a hegemonic standard, simultaneously
spectral and obdurately in the position of the Other as it mediates rela-
tions between minorities.
Yet, there are situations in which the racial drama is played out in less
Black-and-Tan Fantasies 89

predictable ways. To understand such staging, we must bring to this famil-

iar model of racism a third dimension that suggests another, third figure
operating at a different level. I am proposing an optics of triangulation
that would solicit the structural position whiteness occupies but also com-
plicates the narratives of interethnic contact by adding a third dimension.
In the first instance, as race theory has it, whiteness functions as the spec-
tral master signifier, or in psychoanalytic language as the phallus of power.
This master signifier is often obscured by the very intensity of interethnic
contact, even as it functions as a spectral prosthesis, psychologically an-
choring and completing the triangulated relationship between brown and
black. It plugs the hole in the symbolic fabric of the status quo, obscuring
the “real” of racism, to employ a psychoanalytic analogy. According to this
analogy, the form of or impediments to one subject’s desire for another
may in fact have a lot to do with a third party: the mother, the father, a
nameless Other whose own enigmatic desire the subject wants somehow
to appease or fulfill. As Lacan has it, desire is always the (enigmatic) desire
of the Other. The Lacanian Other is the symbolic order itself, a trove of
signifiers. But it is also possible to extricate oneself from a Lacanian vo-
cabulary to speak of the order of intersubjectivity where there are oth-
ers whose desires are sometimes anything but enigmatic and where the
other’s reality is to be understood in the most immediate, material sense
or as a fantasy of a third subject mediating or interfering with a relation-
ship between two other subjects. This is a realist account of race rather
than a psychoanalytic account.
It has to be said in this connection that rarely does contemporary
South Asian diasporic cinema achieve, much less surpass, such sophisti-
cated realism that engages hybridity in the Deleuzian sense of being multi-
perspectival and ambivalent—and potentially subversive by opening up
“any-spaces-whatever.”9 These are spaces in which agency can emerge in
ways not totally determined by the dominant powers. Rarely does it ex-
plore psychic interiority in Giorgio Agamben’s sense of making possible
“whatever” subjective singularities.10 Such singularity—the “whatever” in
Agamben—is admittedly possible only in the utopia that functions as the
distant and ever-receding goal of antiracist, postcolonial, and other pro-
gressive struggles, where difference is recognized and acknowledged but
not enforced to entrench a hierarchy of power. However, that need not
make the struggles meaningless, for the journey can transform social rela-
tionships, including those among members of racialized groups. Further-
more, in the films I am considering, those “any-spaces-whatever,” those
90 s a m i r d a y a l

singularities sometimes show themselves only momentarily, as it were, de-

spite what seems to be happening at the surface. In looking at diasporic
South Asian films, then, we need to be alert to trace moments—evanes-
cent intensities in which fantasies and anxieties of interracial contact leap
up, revealing the saturated affect and ideological background of profes-
sional, political, or personal contact between brown and black individuals.
Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala (1992) is a key cinematic text in this con-
nection. The triangulation of race flashes up painfully in the scene when
Demetrius, Mina’s black lover, upbraids her father, Jai, for his racist objec-
tions to his being with Mina. Jai is a double diasporic from Idi Amin’s
Uganda, now an immigrant in Mississippi; Demetrius accuses him of “act-
ing white” in the United States—in other words, of misrecognizing him-
self in the racialized economy of U.S. culture. Demetrius seems to be sug-
gesting that, in a psychological calculus, this is a category error—not just a
matter of definition or semantics but of behavior, of presentation of self to
self. For Jai and other Indians with skin only a shade lighter than Deme-
trius’s black skin, to “act white” is not willful, perverse behavior. It is not as
though Indians know that they are “only acting white” but that this acting
white is a part of the performative subjectivity of South Asians like Jai. It
stems from a deeper identification with whites: a psychic motor drives the
identification. That is the real point of Demetrius’s critique.
In this revealing irruption of whiteness as fantasmatic prosthesis, we
glimpse the real of racism. The film shows that interracial contact does
not necessarily transcend a racism complicated by class and sexual over-
tones. Indeed, there is an isomorphism between race and sex in the (La-
canian) real, but they are also chained together in actual social or symbolic
relations. As Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks argues, “Race should be understood
in its particularity as something that is neither totally like sexual differ-
ence, which is indeterminate and exceeds language, nor purely symbolical
or cultural lie class or ethnicity. Race resembles class in that it is of purely
cultural and historical origin, but it is also like sex in that it produces
extra-discursive effects.”11 These extradiscursive effects are the real objects
of antiracist critique. Throughout the film, sexuality and race are imbri-
cated in a rich intertextuality. In a cameo appearance, the director herself
makes a comment that desublimates class from the fantasmatic chroma-
tism that divides browns from blacks. Nair’s character says that Mina, dark
of skin and short of money, cannot hope to catch a match like Harry Patel,
well-off and Westernized, with his Americanized name and bow tie and
tux—a wannabe white.
Black-and-Tan Fantasies 91

Yet things are not quite so simple, even in the case of Harry: when he
takes Mina dancing, it is to a club where there are more blacks than whites
or even browns present. Surely, in Mississippi this cannot have been a sur-
prise to Harry. At the critical moment, feeling out of place among the
dancing black people and their various pleasures, he tries to pull Mina
away from Demetrius, who is dancing close to Mina; she chooses to stay
with Demetrius. Unlike Mina, Harry makes no effort all evening at the
club to interact with blacks, and his body language suggests his alienation
from them. When he leaves, he clearly seems to understand that he has
lost both a racial and a romantic contest. In Harry’s reaction to this em-
barrassment and to the whole evening one can read not so much surprise
but what David Roediger might call an envy of the pleasure principles of
black culture—or, more simply, the brown man’s envy of the black man’s
sexuality, as seen through the desire of the woman he desires. Once again,
we see a triangulated structure.12
Yet, if Harry is a wannabe white who disdains blacks, what about Mina?
She appears much more open to interacting with blacks even as a young
girl; in Uganda, Mina had cultivated an extremely deep bond with Okelo,
a childhood friend of her father and possibly a rival for the affections of
Mina’s mother. Mina’s bond with Okelo is almost as deep as that with her
own father. She certainly seems not to have the stereotypical disdain for
blacks that Indians are supposed to have. Clearly, she is the protagonist of
the film, and the spectator is supposed to find this openness to black peo-
ple at every level admirable. Yet, can we assume that the ordinary South
Asian or South Asian American spectator will identify with her desire for
the black as erotic object? Or is that the pedagogical object of the film
itself, to endorse such an object choice or to educate the brown person to
be open to erotic attraction to a black person? Does Mira Nair really be-
lieve that her film shows that she wants us not to see color at all—that
most feeble liberal attitude? And how is the mainstream (white) audience,
surely an important target audience for this diasporic film, expected to
enter into a triangulated spectatorial relationship (exoticized brown wom-
an, projected as eye candy for mainstream white viewers; black erotic ob-
ject choice; and white mainstream viewer). However, we are expected to
interpret the filmmaker’s position on Mina’s attitude: the spectral presence
of whiteness haunts all the black-brown interactions in such diasporic
films, acting as a prosthesis to complete the fantasy.
Across the Brown Atlantic, though in a very different social context,
Gurinder Chadha’s Bhaji on the Beach (1994) offers another landmark
92 s a m i r d a y a l

example of a complexly triangulated interracial contact. Hashida, a South

Asian woman, is pregnant with the child of her black Caribbean boy-
friend. Their miscegenating relationship is presented as considerably more
distressing to the older generation than to the younger South Asians, who
also seem much more tolerant than their counterparts in Mississippi Ma-
sala. In Chadha’s film, however, whiteness shows itself in a lurid, halluci-
natory masquerade of brownness. Asha, an older South Asian woman, is
courted by a white man who seems sympathetic, unlike the South Asian
men. She fantasizes a Bollywood romance with her white admirer in
brownface and Indian clothes chasing her around trees. Although clearly
the white seducer’s role, however innocuous it may seem, requires inter-
pretation, here it is not primarily a question of the white man’s perfidy.
Rather, the performance testifies to the vectors of the brown woman’s
desire. She is on the rebound from her failing relationship with a South
Asian man, and in her fantasy the white man, though transformed into a
romantic hero in a Hindi film’s song-and-dance sequence, offers an alter-
native; the white man appears to her to be more sympathetic, but this is
not just a casual episode.
In the film, South Asian men are portrayed as almost universally un-
sympathetic. Even the black men in the film, such as Hashida’s boyfriend
and his father, are presented in a much more positive light. Yet if the cen-
tral theme of this film has to do with the fact that the South Asian women
are mistreated by “their” men and that is why they are going to the seaside
in exclusively female company for a break from the rigors of having to
answer to men, then this central argument is presented by triangulating
the black, white, and brown men. Asha’s Bollywood fantasy collapses when
her would-be white suitor/savior/seducer’s brown makeup runs down his
face in a rain shower, calling attention to the flimsiness of the fantasy. Yet,
Asha’s fantasy speaks volumes about her unfulfilled desires as a South
Asian woman. In this heavily cathected triangulation of race in Chadha’s
film, a third agent again functions as spectral prosthesis, completing the
minoritarian narrative of interracial contact. For instance, the white man’s
appearance as a lovable if unreliable rake, like the black man’s appearance
as a confused but ultimately loyal lover, is intended to shed light by con-
trasting the brown man’s inadequacies or brutishness. When the brown
man finally shows up at the beach where the women are vacationing, he
reveals himself as utterly despicable and violent—and the climax of the
film hardly redeems him.
Black-and-Tan Fantasies 93

Such examples of the cinema of the Brown Atlantic are usefully con-
trasted with films in which it is not whiteness but Asianness or blackness
that occupies the position of the spectral Other. What does this mean? In
Specters of Marx, Derrida speaks of the “helmet effect.” The power of the
ghost of Hamlet’s father comes, as it were, from the fact that he wears a
helmet with a visor. The visor is an index of the power to see without be-
ing seen. Derrida writes this is the “supreme insignia of power.”13 When
the white man—or whiteness, which is not the same thing—enjoys this
privilege, whiteness functions as the master signifier. But the visor does
not function as a rigid designator for whiteness. Even in many Hollywood
films, whiteness is sometimes displaced from its default position of master
signifier, and thirdness offers a more adequate category for analysis than a
mere binary frame.
In recent years, there is no better example than The Matrix (1999), in
which a black man, Morpheus, is placed in a position of power as the ora-
cle—or, we could say, the Other. Even though this film once again presents
a white messiah, Neo, for a change it is the black man who must reeducate
him, welcome him to “the desert of the real”—and is that not the task of
the Other, to beckon toward the real? Morpheus’s blackness is here a trace
that marks the fact that he is able to move beyond “the Matrix”: he is
explicitly associated with the “real.” Vera Hernán and Andrew Gordon re-
mark that The Matrix “seems to favor racial and gender diversity through
its casting. Morpheus is black, and his crew are both black and white, men
and women. . . . The movie . . . implies that the real, human world in
which the good guys live is multicultural and multigendered whereas the
computer simulation world of the Matrix is dominated by white men.”14
Yet, the issue of diversity is more complex than they suggest. First, Neo’s
training, both mental and physical, is clearly marked as “Asian” because it
is a mishmash of neomystical Zen mind-bending and guy-wired martial
arts. Indeed, one could argue that Asianness is even inscribed into Reeves’s
half-“Asian” eyes. The very multiracial presence of Keanu Reeves as Neo as
well as Morpheus, not to mention Tank (an ambiguously black character
played by Marcus Chong) and Choi (played by Marc Gray) seem to ges-
ture to an Asian subtext, thus triangulating the interracial contact.
Occasionally, what is crucial is simply that whiteness is displaced from
the position of master signifier: no one wears the helmet, as it were. In
Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), the primary conflict is between the
Italians who own Sal’s Pizza and the blacks who predominantly patronize
94 s a m i r d a y a l

it. Pino, one of Sal’s sons, says, “I’m sick of niggers. . . . They’re animals,”
while Sal insulates himself from his black customers by focusing on the
bottom line: money is his anodyne against political reality.15 The racial
standoff sublimates the differential class positionings of the two groups.
Yet in the film’s climax of racial violence the saturated triangulation of
race flashes up on the screen, in what I have called a saturated moment of
intensity, desublimating class again from race by the intrusion of a third
ethnic party, this time a Korean American. When this worthy fears his
store is about to be looted in the racial conflict, he protests, “I no white, I
no white, I black. You me same.” Yet, the blacks advisedly reject this at-
tempt to collapse difference. One of the blacks disabuses him: “Same? We
black. Open your eyes, motherfucker.” The film insists on a kind of equiv-
alence-in-difference among these communities as a precondition for a
remaking of the multicultural polity. If the black community is devastated
by Radio Rahim’s murder, Sal’s pizzeria is also razed to the ground, and
the Korean’s desire to remain safe behind the façade of “sameness” is re-
vealed as a misrecognition. Doing the right thing means refusing mis-
recognition of the differential positionings of blackness (and Asianness)
vis-à-vis the hegemonic position of whiteness as the master signifier and
phallus. For my purpose, it is remarkable that the film knocks whiteness
out of its presumptive role as master signifier. It is not because of an un-
seen white gaze that the African Americans, the Italians, and the Koreans
are thrown into a conflicted triangulation.
In The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), blackness again stands in the place of
the mediating Other without quite displacing whiteness. But it is not an
unseen white gaze beneath the visor that structures the interethnic contact
in this film. Here the white man is once again not the all-powerful Other:
the triangulation or race is somewhat more complex than that. The film
presents the curious spectacle of Pagoda, an Indian who stabbed Royal
Tenenbaum in Calcutta, and then, inexplicably, saved him. Grateful for
having been saved in turn by the white man from the black hole of the
former empire, Pagoda remains Royal’s only faithful companion. But that
this is a deeply troubled relationship is clearly evident, for the almost
voiceless brown retainer seems to find only one way of registering his frus-
tration, namely stabbing Royal again, only to revert to taking care of him
again, as if the two were bound together in a neocolonial codependency.
The fantasized orientalization of the South Asian Other precisely refer-
ences a third: in this case a black man, Henry Sherman (Danny Glover),
Black-and-Tan Fantasies 95

who now stands in place of the Other without displacing whiteness. This
black rival of the white man has usurped Royal’s bed, having moved in
with his wife. If there is an Other, then it is the black man, for it is against
him that the brown man is measured. Here blackness is prosthetically
affixed to the minor plot of the neo-orientalizing relationship between
Royal and his factotum, Pagoda.
A more explicit triangulation of race could hardly be imagined. Each
figure illumines the place of the others. Today it is no longer politically
correct to openly denigrate the black man. So here the black man is dandi-
fied and thus covertly made ridiculous. Yet, he is not as ridiculous as the
brown man, the newly abject figure within the social triangle. In one no-
table scene, the triangulation of ethnic positionalities is starkly on view.
The long-suffering but elegantly restrained black suitor of Royal’s sepa-
rated wife, Henry Sherman, rises up the stairs in bow tie and blue blazer to
confront the Asiatic lounging in his room, glorified servants’ quarters with
the bric-a-brac of orientalia on the walls and on the tables. He accuses
Pagoda of being paid by Royal to support him in his lies that go against
his own (Henry’s) courtship of the white woman. The white man (Royal)
does not appear in this scene, but whiteness itself is strongly inscribed in
the tense scene. For instance, Henry seems to mimic the white man, pro-
duced by the ambition to enjoy the white man’s enjoyment (white man’s
bow tie and jacket, white man’s house, white man’s wife). And the brown
man is similarly produced by a white regime of power as a near-mute ser-
vant of the white “sahib” who saved him from his own culture, “the black
hole” of Calcutta. For a change, the brown man looks even more ridicu-
lous than the black man. Why? The answer may be that while “multiculti”
political correctness has made it improper to denigrate blacks in public
discourse, American pop culture still considers it safe to denigrate or ex-
oticize the South Asian. For example, in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut
(1999) Sanskrit verses are chanted in an orgy scene—provoking a storm of
protest against the exoticizing misappropriation.
It is not only the discourses of domestic multiculturalism that license
this totemization according to which ethnic categories trade places in a
fluid hierarchy. The flows of globalization also affect South Asians’ posi-
tioning as a model minority, happy to seek approbation and appropriation
by whites simultaneously and unable to protest their co-optation in the
project of denigrating blacks. In Mississippi Masala, Mina’s willingness to
clean toilets (work that is anathema to aspirational South Asians) takes on
96 s a m i r d a y a l

a political edge as a refusal of this model minority syndrome, of what

Anannya Bhattacharjee calls the habit of “ex-nomination.” Bhattacharjee

As a minority community in a foreign nation, the Indian immigrant bour-

geoisie experiences the loss of its power of ex-nomination. Where once it
had stood for the no-name universal in the nation of its origin, it now per-
ceives itself (and is perceived) to be in a position defined by difference. It
now risks being named. The immigrant bourgeoisie’s desire to overcome
this condition manifests itself through its grasping for familiar essentials in
whose shadows it can regain the power to remain un-named.16

Cleaning toilets refuses the anxiety of the South Asian immigrant bour-
geoisie of descending into racialized visibility as black, as nonwhite. As
Bhattacharjee writes, the Third World immigrant bourgeoisie in the First
World “finds itself in a position of subordination to the native bourgeoi-
sie: a position defined partly by the experiences of Western Colonialism
and imperialism.”17 For Indian immigrants, “considered to be predomi-
nantly highly educated and relatively wealthy,” this subordination “is de-
fined more through race/nationality than through class.”18 However, I
would suggest, pace Bhattacharjee, that it is as much about class as it is
about color, and as much about the desire to be seen as successful as it is
about the desire for “ex-nomination.” Seshadri-Crooks argues that “the
signification of class belonging, so long as it is purely a category of eco-
nomic discrepancy, can be manipulated by its subjects. But the minute
class makes a claim to inheritance through the language of ‘stock’ and
‘blood,’ it lapses into ‘race,’ and this is true for all other categories of group
In another telling moment in the film, one of the Indians tells two
black men that they hold the same position in society: “United we stand,
divided we fall.” In context, however, this turns out to be a hollow and
phony gesture of class and racial solidarity. Do the Right Thing poses simi-
lar questions about the interpellation of Asians within a triangular racial-
ized economy, but there, too, it is clear that class is at least as much a factor
as race or nationality in the self-construction of Korean Americans vis-à-
vis African Americans.
In addition, Bhattacharjee’s approach fails to emphasize the triangula-
tion that intensifies the desire for “ex-nomination.” It is precisely in order
Black-and-Tan Fantasies 97

to distinguish themselves from blacks and to approximate the comfortably

ex-nominated whites that Indians often behave as they do. Bhattacharjee’s
analysis might have been more effective if she had recast the dynamics of
ex-nomination in light of the powerful spectral presence of whiteness in
this racialized economy of power. Rarely is this complexity captured, how-
ever, even in theoretically astute readings of the South Asian presence.
Contemporary South Asian diasporic films even more rarely rise to this
level of self- consciousness about the triangulation of race. Often the truth
about interracial contact glances out of the fabric of the film only in the
most saturated but evanescent moments, as a fragmentary inscription of
the real affect and psychological investment that motivate such contact or
its avoidance. For example, in American Desi (2001), Salim mimics black
speech, clothing, and style. Does this racial masquerade constitute cul-
tural appropriation, middle-class racial slumming, or emancipation from
South Asian racism toward blacks? Can it be all three at once? I would
argue that it is not so much black drag as a parody of blackness, and we
should see it as both approach and distancing from blackness by a South
Asian. Marjorie Garber, in another context, suggests that we look at rather
than through masquerades of race: to see the masquerade for what it is, to
be alive to its possible reincorporation and recommodification by cultur-
ally hegemonic interests or even by young South Asians themselves as a
sign of their own hipness to contemporary hip-hop.20 Many middle-class
youths, both white and brown, adopt black culture chic in their college
years, but only until it is time to get serious and get a job.
An analysis of racial triangulation also projects, even etymologically, its
deconstruction. With the uncovering of the spectral third term, a new
optics—or politics—can emerge, a corollary of which would be a critique
of the state and institutions of power. In the Benjaminian flash of satu-
rated intensity there is a spark of a promise for challenging the transcen-
dental signifier of whiteness, a dethronement of the phallic plenitude
against which minorities are played off against each other in a semblance
of competition for the goods of a multicultural society. Truly liberatory
interethnic contact would transform the language of miscegenation and
preservation of culture.
Perhaps one of the most important questions to ask is whether films in
which such contact is portrayed have market appeal—perhaps as refor-
mulated interethnic buddy films. But at the level of the social, the real chal-
lenge of interculturalism entails risking the cultural self and individual
98 s a m i r d a y a l

subjectivity. Risking the self means first recognizing the co-production of

social selves, not necessarily in a binary frame. This, in turn, involves defa-
miliarization of what is most intimate to oneself: dismantling the carapace
of race and delaminating cultural stereotype from ethnicity. It means chal-
lenging the presumptive colorless “normativity” of whiteness. I do not
share Dinesh D’Souza’s optimism about how the melting pot will natu-
rally bring about the end of racism.21 Rather than such a homogenized,
McDonaldized dystopia, we might seek to preserve Agamben’s singularity
as a precondition for heterotopia in which multiple and unpredictable
interracial alliances are nurtured, where black-brown alliances need not be
haunted by the spectral Other but might invite the other to share the ago-
nistic space of civil society. Heterotopic singularities, then, are what repre-
sentation can aim for: not setting off minority against minority, forgetting
about the spectral presence of whiteness, but seeking to prevent the clo-
sure of the space in which social meaning emerges through negotiation of
The question is, what more than entertaining fantasies can this cinema
of interracial or interethnic contact offer—and particularly cinema repre-
senting South Asians—even if it does not rise to the level of a Third Cin-
ema? As Paul Willemen observes, this kind of cinema “was selected as a
central concept in 1986, partly to re-pose the question of the relations
between the cultural and the political, partly to discuss whether there is
indeed a kind of international cinematic tradition which exceeds the lim-
its of both the national-industrial cinemas and those of Euro-American as
well as English cultural theorists.” It eschewed emotional manipulation,
insisted on clarity, avoided prescribing an aesthetic, and condemned the
smothering of thought while it disavowed professionalized intellectualism
just as it was opposed to colonial and imperialist power.22 Can it offer a
better cognitive or diagnostic representation of the actual conditions faced
by the parties involved in interethnic contact, and can it offer a spring-
board to imagine other ways of seeing that respect singularity—difference
as well as shared hopes of a more democratic future? If in this essay I have
sought to burden popular cinema featuring interracial contact with the
question of whether it can transform social interaction particularly with
regard to “race” relations, that is because, unlike the specialized discourses
of the scholarly academy, or the sometimes too narrowly targeted screeds
of progressive or “radical” groups, films have the potential to break
through to a broad audience. For now, there is mostly potential.
Black-and-Tan Fantasies 99

1. See, for example, Vera Hernán and Andrew Gordon, eds., Screen Saviors:
Hollywood Fictions of Whiteness (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003).
2. Ed Guerrero, “The Black Image in Protective Custody: Hollywood’s Biracial
Buddy Films of the Eighties,” in Black American Cinema, ed. Manthia Diawara
(New York: Routledge, 1993), 240.
3. Ibid.
4. In an essay on Josephine Baker, I argue that sometimes the black as Other is
what phantasmatically completes and confirms subjectivity even for the Euro-
American subject. See Samir Dayal, “Blackness as Symptom: Josephine Baker and
European Identity,” in Blackening Europe: The African American Presence, ed. Heike
Raphael-Hernandez (New York: Routledge, 2003).
5. Hernán and Gordon, Screen Saviors, 40.
6. Ibid., 13.
7. Joan Copjec, Read My Desire: Lacan against the Historicists (Cambridge:
MIT Press, 1994), 208.
8. bell hooks, “Representing Whiteness in the Black Imagination,” in Displac-
ing Whiteness: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism, ed. Ruth Frankenberg (Dur-
ham: Duke University Press, 1997), 165.
9. Laura U. Marks, “A Deleuzian Politics of Hybrid Cinema,” Screen 35.3 (Au-
tumn 1994): 245.
10. Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community (Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press, 1993), 2.
11. Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks, Desiring Whiteness: A Lacanian Analysis of Race
(London: Routledge, 2000), 4.
12. David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the Ameri-
can Working Class (New York: Verso, 1991).
13. Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourn-
ing, and the New International (New York: Routledge, 1994), 8.
14. Hernán and Gordon, Screen Saviors, 49.
15. See Dennis Sullivan and Fred Boehrer, “Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing:
Filmmaking in the American Grain,” Contemporary Justice Review 6.2 (June 2003):
16. Anannya Bhattacharjee, “The Habit of Ex-Nomination: Nation, Woman and
the Indian Immigrant Bourgeoisie,” Public Culture 5.1 (Fall 1992): 19–44, available at (retrieved
21 November 2004).
17. Ibid.
18. Ibid.
19. Seshadri-Crooks, Desiring Whiteness, 4.
100 s a m i r d a y a l

20. See Marjorie Garber, Vested Interests: Cross-dressing and Cultural Anxiety
(New York: Routledge, 1997).
21. Mayer Schiller and Dinesh D’Souza, “Racial Integration or Racial Separa-
tion? Two Views,” American Enterprise Online, Deep Politics (January/February
1996), available at
(retrieved 28 June 2005).
22. Paul Willemen, Looks and Frictions: Essays in Cultural Studies and Film
Theory (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 177–180.
Part II

Confronting the Color Hierarchy

Chapter 6

“It Takes Some Time to Learn the

Right Words”
The Vietnam War in African American Novels

Heike Raphael-Hernandez

When one thinks of African American involvement in the Vietnam War,

the following, probably well-known facts come immediately to mind: Af-
rican Americans were more than twice as vulnerable to draft-board calls
as whites—in 1967, for example, 64 percent of eligible blacks were drafted
in comparison with only 31 percent of eligible whites1 —and blacks were
many times more likely to serve in combat units, whereas many white
troops were assigned to support duties in the rear. In many combat units,
together with Puerto Ricans, Chicanos, and Latino Americans, African
Americans constituted more than 50 percent of the group.2 Of the sixteen
thousand people who served on draft boards, blacks constituted less than
2 percent of the total and were not represented at all on draft boards in
Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Therefore, since these mi-
nority units did much of the “dirty” work, the death rate percentage was
much higher for them than for whites. For example, by 1965 alone African
Americans accounted for 25 percent of American combat deaths.3
Because of these obvious forms of draft injustice and because of dis-
proportionately high numbers of casualties and permanently disabled vet-
erans, one would assume that the Vietnam War had caused some immedi-
ate reflection in the literature by African American authors. One would
expect to meet fictitiously the fighting soldiers, the returning dead bodies,
the physically disabled and emotionally destroyed veterans, the mothers
and wives who contemplate their lost loved ones even many years after the
war’s end, the “disproportionate numbers of blacks among incarcerated
veterans . . . among homeless veterans . . . among jobless veterans,”4 and

104 h e i k e r a p h a e l - h e r n a n d e z

the next generation that had to grow up with either a dead or a dysfunc-
tional father. But, to one’s surprise, this is not the case at all. Regarding the
Vietnam War in African American fiction, one can observe the strange fact
that for the longest time, the war seemed not to have existed in the im-
mense explosion of African American literature that has occurred since
the 1970s. On the contrary, it is astonishing how silent the literary black
community was about the Vietnam War during the war itself and during
the decades afterward.
Likewise astonishing is the current growing interest and even a certain
intellectual fascination with the war. Starting in the late 1990s, an increas-
ing number of novels focus either on the historical battlefield itself or on
the problems of the returned soldier, dead or alive, and his impact on his
home society. In addition, we find an expanding body of academic studies
dealing with the same issues. One might wonder from where such an in-
terest after a long period of silence has sprung. In this essay, I first discuss
possible reasons for that “phenomenon of the missing war” in African
American novels, and I then look at those recent novels published since
the late 1990s that include Vietnam, comparing their discussion of the
legacy of the Vietnam War with similar discussions by their earlier writing
peers. My thesis is connected to the complicated positioning of the Viet-
nam War in general—societal, in popular cultural, and in intellectual dis-
course—a positioning that tore apart a whole society already during the
“hot” years and that still caused rifts as “war legacy” in the decades that
followed. I claim that the seeming silence of the older African American
writers generation is a logical one, and understandable when connected
to the idea that African American writers have often served as intellectual
vanguards of their communities, yet any intellectual positioning of the
Vietnam War was much more complicated for African Americans than for
any other group in the United States as they simultaneously faced the dif-
ferent racist connotations of the war on the one hand and the turmoil of
the civil rights movement on the other hand. As I show with Alice Walker’s
novels, for example, it took writers time to suggest wisely any possible
positioning of the war and its legacy for African America.

In 1989 Sandra Wittman compiled a bibliography of Vietnam War novels;

from these nearly six hundred novels only six were by African American
authors: three were published during the war itself—Coming Home by
George Davis (1972), Captain Blackman by John A. Williams (1972), and
Runner Mack by Barry Beckham (1972)—and three were part of the Viet-
“It Takes Some Time to Learn the Right Words” 105

nam Renaissance of the late 1980s and early 1990s that produced a sub-
stantial number of novels and movies about the Vietnam War by white
authors but only three by black authors: De Mojo Blues by A. R. Flowers
(1985), Shaw’s Nam by John Carn (1986), and Fallen Angels by Walter Dean
Myers (1988).5 When looking at other genres, one does not discover a rad-
ically different number. In his 1997 article in African American Review, Jeff
Loeb supplies a list that in addition to novels includes also poetry collec-
tions, interviews, oral history projects, and autobiographies. Loeb lists ex-
actly nineteen books by African Americans.6 Nineteen is indeed a small
number, considering the amount of black people involved in the war. Sev-
eral scholars have wondered about it, and one of the common explana-
tions is that since a disproportionately large group of black soldiers had
received poor education—historian Gerald Gill states that fewer than half
had a high school degree,7 and from the remaining half many did not have
any basic college education—they were not the group that would deal
with their experiences in books.
But while this answer might apply to the battlefield writing and to Viet-
nam veterans becoming writers themselves, it is not relevant in connec-
tion with the tremendous number of African American authors who have
entered the market since the end of the war. What is really astounding is
the fact that the war seems not to exist in the immense explosion of Afri-
can American literature that has occurred since the 1970s. Considering
that African American authors during this period dealt in their works with
nearly everything that has been connected to contemporary and historical
forms of racism and injustice done to the black community, it is strange
that the Vietnam War was so rarely addressed. To write about Vietnam, it
is not even necessary to have had any battlefield experience because, as it
has often been stated, the war also influenced and changed communities
at home. Bobby Ann Mason, a white Vietnam fiction author, for example,
explains that she had had no prior connection to the war and did not
know any veteran personally; simply by being an American, she says, it hit
her one day that Vietnam was also part of her community, so “eventually
I had to confront the subject.”8 Barry Beckham, one of the above-men-
tioned few African American authors who wrote a Vietnam novel and a
nonveteran himself, supports Mason’s point about the “forced” realiza-
tion: in an interview, he admits that his novel Runner Mack is not sup-
posed to be about Vietnam but about baseball; however, “Vietnam was in
the background, the landscape, as I was writing from 1970–1971, so I think
the military action was something I could not ignore.”9 His statement
106 h e i k e r a p h a e l - h e r n a n d e z

suggests that Vietnam and the large number of returning black soldiers,
dead or alive, cannot have gone by unnoticed by the African American
Yet, one wonders where the war is in all these fictitious black communi-
ties that were created during the war and during the three following dec-
ades. Where are the physically disabled and emotionally destroyed veter-
ans, the grieving mothers and wives, the fatherless children, the incarcer-
ated, homeless, and jobless veterans? Two novels, Alice Walker’s Meridian
(1976) and Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters (1980), even make the
1960s their focus and deal with many aspects of this period in connection
to the black community. But Vietnam is not part of their critical discus-
sion. In The Salt Eaters, the political spectrum ranges from the civil rights
fight to nuclear disarmament, pan-Africanism, ecological and environ-
mental issues, and revolutions in Latin America. Vietnam, however, makes
it into the book only on a T-shirt: seven women, the seven political sisters,
take a bus to the Clayborne Festival, and the bus driver, a black man, tries
to read their T-shirts while driving down the road. He has a hard time
with one T-shirt that says get the u.s. out of. He is unable to read the
last word because the woman is not wearing a bra; although he goes
through every possible word asked for in a crossword puzzle, he is not able
to think of the last word to get the u.s. out of.10 One can hardly claim
that as a serious discussion of the Vietnam War.
In Meridian, Vietnam is not critically reflected on, either, although the
book carries this possibility: Alice Walker makes her protagonist even state
at one time that the 1960s were a “decade marked by death. Violent and
inevitable. Funerals became engraved on the brain.”11 Yet, Meridian’s long
list of people who died during the 1960s includes names such as Medgar
Evers, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Che Guevara,
Robert Kennedy, and Patrice Lamumba,12 but there is no mention at all of
the tremendous dying in Vietnam. Nevertheless, Vietnam is indeed men-
tioned in the book once: a young preacher who imitates Martin Luther
King thunders commands at the different groups in his church. Among
them is one Vietnam-related command: “He looked down at the young
men in the audience and forbade them to participate in the Vietnam
war.”13 However, Walker does not include and does not intend any critical
discussion of this statement, for she makes the statement being followed
by many other, non-Vietnam related ones; the preacher had one for every
particular group:
“It Takes Some Time to Learn the Right Words” 107

He told the young women to stop looking for husbands and try to get
something useful in their heads. He told the older congregants that they
should be ashamed of the way they let their young children fight their bat-
tles for them. He told them they were cowardly and pathetic when they sent
their small children alone into white neighborhoods to go to school. He
abused the black teachers present who did not, he said, work hard enough
to teach black youth.14

A few books by black writers seem logically connected to the Vietnam

War, but their authors do not allow this connection to happen. Gloria
Naylor’s Bailey’s Cafe (1992) presents such an example: Naylor depicts one
of her protagonists, Miss Maple, a man who wears women’s clothes, as a
“female” man. To show his otherness, she creates him with many features
and traits a “normal” man would not possess; among other things she
makes him a Conscientious Objector (CO).15 Considering that the novel
was published in 1992 and Miss Maple is a man in his forties and Naylor’s
other protagonists in the same novel fit into her logical timeframe, the
reader expects Miss Maple to be a CO against the Vietnam War. But Nay-
lor makes him a World War II CO without any further explanation, thus
avoiding any possible Vietnam War positioning.
Other novels do mention Vietnam, but in very minimalist ways. Paule
Marshall’s novel Daughters, published in 1991, serves as an example here.
Marshall mentions Vietnam in one paragraph as rather a side remark as
the paragraph’s focus is on another aspect. She makes one of her charac-
ters be unable to spend the weekend with his girlfriend as his weekends
are often committed to his sister and her three boys whom he supports
financially and emotionally since the husband was killed “in the stupid
war,” which he himself was able to avoid by going to college.16
One simply has to ask why the reader encounters such seeming silence
about Vietnam in African American fiction. Wallace Terry, an African
American journalist who covered the war for Time magazine and who is
the author of Bloods, was asked that question in an interview in 1991. He
agreed that this silence is particularly disturbing since blacks were so dis-
proportionately represented in Vietnam, but he, too, had no answer to this
troubling question.17
One could perhaps argue that one of the reasons was connected to the
fact that all the returning soldiers, whether black or nonblack, were fac-
ing a historically new dilemma; Maria Bonn notes that “never before had
108 h e i k e r a p h a e l - h e r n a n d e z

Americans returned so quietly and so unwelcomed” after the end of a

major war since their failure had violated America’s sense of mission.18
However, this phenomenon would be an excuse for the general public for
not talking about the war and its resulting influence on American every-
day society, yet writers often see their responsibility especially in con-
fronting the public with the unspoken, the denied. American writers of all
ethnic groups at all times have seen it as their responsibility to present the
public with the myth of American innocence and American righteousness.
Alternatively, it has sometimes been suggested that most of the large
group of newly emerged African American authors are women, and wom-
en traditionally do not write about war. Even Beckham suggested this
answer in his interview; he claimed that “you have to look for a male to
write about war. Women writers are just not that interested.”19 While this
answer might apply to typical battlefield writing, it does not work with
writings that cover society at home: women do indeed deal with the fami-
lies that are left behind, with the reception of the war at home, with the
possible problems and changes that a returning soldier or a dead soldier
might bring to his family and his community, and with the problems that
the war might cause for future generations long after its end.
So, here is my attempt to answer this question of strange silence: I think
that the Vietnam War and the period during which it took place embodied
extremely complicated aspects for the African American community that
made it much harder for them than for any other group in American soci-
ety to grapple with the war and later with its legacy. From the start, Afri-
can America was deeply divided over the issue of protesting or supporting
the war, which has to be seen in close linkage with the historically simulta-
neous civil rights movement. While many public African American figures
vehemently protested not only the draft-connected and militarily institu-
tionalized forms of racism but also the deadly irony of forcing soldiers to
fight for democracy in another country and denying the same democratic
rights to them at home, initially also many African Americans supported
the war for various reasons. Many hoped that by actively participating in
the war, they would finally win the respect and recognition long overdue
to them at home. And even later, when many realized that Vietnam would
not help them to gain that hoped-for respect and began to oppose the war,
a large part of the black community was still not in favor of openly pro-
testing the war. Many feared that openly criticizing the government would
endanger any possible improvements promised to them for their civil
“It Takes Some Time to Learn the Right Words” 109

rights status; others believed that African America needed all its protesting
strength to concentrate on the civil rights struggle, which did not allow
any leftover time or energy to deal with other forms of injustice that were
not in direct relationship to their own.
To make this dilemma even worse, the war in Southeast Asia meant
that, for the first time in history, African Americans participated in racism
toward another people of color, thus not being the victim but becoming
themselves the oppressor and the racist. And African American writers
in their function as intellectual vanguards of their communities at first
seemed to have missed not just the words but perhaps even the theoretical
frame for placing all these dilemmas—the war itself, the conflict it caused
for the American society at large, the linkage of the war to the civil rights
movement, racism in all its different forms, the war as war against another
people of color, the concept of individual responsibility and personal
guilt, and the African American place in all of this—into a meaningful re-
lationship that would make interpretative sense for African America. It
seems logical and understandable that African American writers took their
time to suggest wisely any possible positioning of the war and its legacy
for African America.

To understand this claim, one has to look in detail at these diverse forms
of African American protest and nonprotest. Many voices considered both
the draft and combat injustices repugnant, and they pointed to the Ameri-
can government’s hypocrisy of fighting for democracy (or at least claiming
to do so) in a far-away country and of using for that deadly fight African
American soldiers who were denied basic democratic rights in their own
country. Public figures such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King often
spoke out against this special form of American hypocrisy.20 King, for ex-
ample, told his audience during one of his Massey lectures:

We [are] taking the black young men who ha[ve] been crippled by our soci-
ety and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in
Southeast Asia which they ha[ve] not found in Southwest Georgia and East
Harlem. And so we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of
watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together
for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools.
We watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but
we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit.21
110 h e i k e r a p h a e l - h e r n a n d e z

Not only famous African American intellectuals like King and Malcolm
X saw the hypocrisy of the U.S. government in connection with Vietnam
and the black community.22 In David Loeb Weiss’s documentary film No
Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger, many so-called normal people voice
their concern about that fact and show that they indeed recognize the con-
nection; many express ideas similar to those of one black woman: “I think
the war, I think it’s very unfair. Why should the people, American boys,
white and black, go to Vietnam to fight when a quarter of the Ameri-
can population can’t even vote?”23 And radical groups such as the Black
Panthers and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)
spoke out vehemently against what they called the genocide of young
black males by the U.S. government.24 If Vietnam had only implied these
different forms of racism experienced by the black community, I assume
that postwar African American literature would have dealt more with Vi-
etnam, and any positioning of the African American community would
have been possible or at least easier.
Yet, the African American connection to Vietnam is not only deter-
mined by experienced injustice and racism and subsequent protest. With
the Vietnam War, the position of the oppressed and the oppressor is not
that easy to determine because, especially during the first half of the war,
many black Americans supported the war in the same way white Ameri-
cans did. African Americans used the same justification as white people
for U.S. imperialism—namely, that the United States had a right to be in
Vietnam because they had the duty or a special call to fight the spread of
communism. A Gallup poll in early 1966 found that three out of four Afri-
can Americans still supported the war and the draft.25 Writer Ralph Elli-
son himself declared his full support by stating in an interview, “I don’t see
us withdrawing from the war. We have certain responsibilities to the Viet-
namese and the structure of power in the world.”26 According to historian
Gerald Gill, “in letters and in comments to journalists, many [African
American soldiers] proudly defended their presence in and the American
military commitment to South Vietnam.”27 For some African Americans
even the high death rate offered some sense of pride; for example, Lieu-
tenant Colonel George Shoffer, one of the highest-ranking blacks in the
army in 1968, said, “I feel good about it. Not that I like the bloodshed, but
the performance of the Negro in Vietnam tends to offset the fact that the
Negro wasn’t considered worthy of being a front-line soldier in other
wars.”28 In the beginning years of the war, many black soldiers who fought
“It Takes Some Time to Learn the Right Words” 111

in Vietnam were not draftees at all, but enlistees and career soldiers. Of
course, the explanation for that fact is also connected to the racism that
African Americans had to experience in American society because many
black military personnel and civilians alike viewed the armed forces favor-
ably as an opportunity for black people for social mobility and occupa-
tional advancement that was not possible for them in the more racially
stratified civilian world.
But even with these occupational aspects in mind, many African Amer-
ican soldiers defended the war like many other white Americans with all
the well-known arguments, such as “America has the duty to fight the
spread of communism.” This attitude, shared by many, is partly under-
standable because many African Americans felt that it was ill-timed and
even disloyal or hypocritical to ask their government for full citizenry
rights and simultaneously to criticize the same government for their poli-
tics. Concerning this loyalty to the American government and its politics
and personal citizenry duty, the University of California conducted a sur-
vey of urban African Americans in 1967, and 90 percent indicated a will-
ingness to fight for the United States.29 Private First Class Reginald Ed-
wards serves as an example for this ambivalent attitude; in an interview he
confessed: “What we were hearing was that Vietnamese was killing Ameri-
cans. I felt that if people were killing Americans, we should fight them. As
a black person, there wasn’t no problem fightin’ the enemy. I knew Ameri-
cans were prejudiced, were racist and all that, but, basically, I believed in
America ’cause I was an American.”30
From 1967 on, the period of the demands of increased manpower,
things changed because many African Americans were draftees. This fact,
coupled with the rising Black Power movement in the United States, led to
more and more black troops who were opposed to the war and were
openly protesting against it. Their protest had several reasons. On the one
hand, along the same lines of the antiwar protest back in the United States,
they started to doubt the legitimate rights of the U.S. military to be in
Southeast Asia, calling it the white man’s war—the white man who was
hypocritical enough to talk about bringing democracy to an Asian country
but was simultaneously using black soldiers for that task and denying
them these same democratic rights in their own country. On the other
hand, as a result of a rising black consciousness, black soldiers protested
against the racism they had to experience in the military itself. That in-
cluded, for example, protests against the underrepresentation in the offi-
112 h e i k e r a p h a e l - h e r n a n d e z

cer’s corps, against being passed over for promotions, and against being
sent by racist commanding officers on patrols or missions that they per-
ceived as overly dangerous or suicidal.
However, even these later years of the Vietnam War did not cause Afri-
can Americans to stop considering the armed forces a career choice. Con-
trary to post-Vietnam assumptions of hostility toward the military in the
black community,

African American enlistment in the new “all-volunteer” army rose signifi-

cantly. In the first postwar year, 1974, African Americans constituted around
16 percent . . . not much different from the prewar 1964 percentage. . . . As
the services continued the conversion to an all-volunteer force, the number
of African Americans in uniform quickly rose, peaking in 1979, when blacks
made up nearly one third of the enlisted strength.31

Even during the heavy-draftee times of the second part of the war, African
Americans continued to voluntarily enlist and former draftees reenlisted,
as a government report showed in 1970.32
Closely connected was another form of collective nonprotest: silence.
Many African Americans who were involved in the civil rights movement
believed that their own fight needed all their undivided attention, so there
would simply be no room for any antiwar protest. This aspect already
points in the direction of “triangulating” the claim of African Americans
participating in a racist war. Many interviewed soldiers in Bloods ex-
pressed their concern about their stay in Vietnam, not because of any anti-
war notions but simply because they believed that as black people they
should fight the civil rights war at home. Such an attitude led many blacks
to protest Vietnam only in regard to the specific racism African Americans
had to experience by the war. In No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger, for
example, not one voice talks about the racism and the oppression the Viet-
namese had to experience, but many interviewees voice their concern
about the racism the black community had to face.
Martin Luther King’s experience is a good example of how many Afri-
can Americans approached any black anti-Vietnam war protest. King re-
ported that his antiwar protest was often questioned with “Peace and civil
rights don’t mix. Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people?”33 His pro-
test was still accepted by his community when he was just protesting the
obvious racism of the war toward African Americans. However, when he
started to not connect his critique to black topics any more but simply
“It Takes Some Time to Learn the Right Words” 113

straightforwardly criticized the government for its imperialistic ideas and

for their genocide of an Asian people, he got into serious trouble with his
peers. A speech like the following was not viewed favorably at all by many
black people:

When I see our country today intervening in what is basically a civil war,
mutilating hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese children with napalm,
burning villages and rice fields at random, painting the valleys of that small
Asian country red with human blood, leaving broken bodies in countless
ditches and sending home half-men, mutilated mentally and physically;
when I see the unwillingness of our government to create the atmosphere
for a negotiated settlement of this awful conflict by halting bombings in the
North and agreeing to talk with the Vietcong—and all this in the name of
pursuing the goal of peace—I tremble for our world. I do so not only from
the dire recall of the nightmares of the wars of yesterday, but also from
dreadful realization of possible nuclear destructiveness and tomorrow’s
even more [disastrous] prospects.34

Speeches like this caused the Southern Christian Leadership Conference

(SCLC), for example, to vote that, if King were to speak out against the
war in Vietnam, he had to do so as a private person but not as the presi-
dent of SCLC.35 In their defense, one has to recognize that they were in a
tricky situation because President Lyndon Johnson told them in no uncer-
tain terms that if anti-Vietnam War protests like King’s and SNCC’s under
Stokely Carmichael continued, civil rights negotiations would cease.36
In addition to all these various aspects of protest, quite a few African
American individuals and groups pointed openly to another complicated
aspect of Vietnam: U.S. military intervention in Southeast Asia implied
not only a fight in ideological terms—capitalism or so-called democ-
racy against communism—but Southeast Asian U.S. involvement carried
strong racist connotations. This already partly applied to the U.S. involve-
ment in Japan in World War II as well, and several black intellectuals such
as Langston Hughes clearly called the Pacific war a “race war.” In Southeast
Asia, whether it was Japan, Korea, or Vietnam, soldiers were taught to see
the local population as racially inferior. The tragic novelty for Vietnam,
however, was that this time black soldiers were “invited” to take a higher
place in the colonial color hierarchy and to see Asian people as inferior
people with different skin and facial features and different cultures—
Buddhists and Animists who “farmed wet rice [and] plowed fields with
114 h e i k e r a p h a e l - h e r n a n d e z

oxen”37 —and to develop ideas of racist superiority, ideas that had been
reserved for “whites only” before. In her analysis of Vietnam buddy
movies, Hazel Carby comments about that tragic novelty of Vietnam for
the black community: “It is the history of the desegregation of the United
States armed forces and the ‘policing’ of Southeast Asia that enables the re-
lationship of equality between [men who] become buddies not in a move-
ment for liberation but in a shared experience as oppressors.”38
In his autobiography, Korean American writer Heinz Insu Fenkl ob-
served that many soldiers, black and white, who were stationed in Korea
during the Vietnam War period became “full of hate for Asian people
and tense with the fear” of them.39 And the military not only supported
that attitude but also actively promoted it among its troops; soldiers were
brainwashed to enable them to commit murder and atrocities without too
much sense of guilt. One example of this general, indoctrinated sense of
racist superiority can be seen with a Marine who in Fred Turner’s study of
the Vietnam War, Echoes of Combat, confesses that he and his buddies
were “disgusted with the Vietnamese” and describes his impressions of the

They dress differently and the women chew betel nut and have these ugly
teeth. The kids deal dope all the time and all these things which to us make
them look like animals—and they wear filthy clothes and they have all these
habits we’re not used to, like sleeping on dirt, picking up and spreading out
manure with their hands, eating food we wouldn’t be seen with, drinking
terrible water, not brushing their teeth or washing. I realized the Vietnamese
people were the enemy.40

Many African American soldiers interviewed by Wallace Terry supply ex-

amples of military racist indoctrination; Haywood Kirkland, for instance,

Right away they told us not to call them Vietnamese. Call everybody gooks,
dinks. Then they told us that when you go over in Vietnam, you gonna be
face to face with Charlie, the Viet Cong. They were like animals, or some-
thing other than human. They ain’t have no regard for life. They’d blow up
little babies just to kill one GI. They wouldn’t allow you to talk about them
as if they were people. They told us they’re not to be treated with any type
of mercy or apprehension. That’s what they engraved into you. That killer
instinct. Just go away and do destruction. Even the chaplains would turn the
“It Takes Some Time to Learn the Right Words” 115

thing around in the Ten Commandments. They’d say, “Thou shall not mur-
der,” instead of “Thou shall not kill.” Basically, you had a right to kill.41

Of course, that does not imply that every black soldier turned into a racist,
but in many personal reports African American veterans confess that they
had been so brainwashed by the military that they too were buying into
the lies of racial superiority.
Black troops must have been aware of the racialized aspect of the war
because the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong themselves made sure
that black soldiers knew about it. For example, they sometimes dropped
leaflets among U.S. troops with statements like the following: “Black sol-
diers of America. . . . Our battle is not against the exploited, captive Black
Soldiers of America, but against the white imperialist government that
threatens the peace of Asia. Lay down your arms. No harm will come to
you. We welcome you as Brothers seeking freedom.”42 And Radio Hanoi
played messages like “Soul brothers, go home. Whitey raping your mothers
and your daughters, burning down your homes. What are you over here
for? This is not your war. The war is a trick of the Capitalist empire to get
rid of the blacks.”43 And there were stories among the soldiers that the Viet
Cong would shoot less at black than at white troops. Whether these stories
were true or not does not matter here, as they serve for the awareness of
the white/brown/black color hierarchy perspective among the U.S. soldiers.
Protest back at the home front was definitely aware of this racialized
aspect—of being second-class citizen at home because of their color and
being first-class citizens in Vietnam, fighting against another people of
color. Individual protests in this regard such as Muhammad Ali’s became
famous, but also several African American organizations were very out-
spoken about this aspect. The Black Panther Party, for example, forbade its
members to fight in the “colonial wars of aggression.”44 One branch of the
Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party declared, “No one has a right to
ask us to risk our lives and kill other colored people in Santo Domingo
and Vietnam, so that the white American can get richer.”45 SNCC leaders
spoke up repeatedly against a war that embodied the “American pattern of
racism,” and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) resolution in 1965
criticized the Johnson administration for its “immoral policy of racism

So, how should African American authors then address the role of African
America concerning the war and the protest and nonprotest? Protest the
116 h e i k e r a p h a e l - h e r n a n d e z

racism they themselves had to experience and quietly ignore any possible
support or involvement? Or first admit the guilt of support and involvement
and then protest the racism African Americans had to endure? Or even
address the complicated issues of participating in racist superiority? In his
novel, John A. Williams, one of the above-mentioned three authors, did just
that already in 1972—describing African American soldiers in Vietnam that
tasted racial superiority; he has his Captain Blackman meditating about
that new black soldier:

They’d killed people—old men, women and children—who might’ve been

Viet Cong. In other words, killed them because they had the same skin color
that was what it amounted to. . . . Who’s Gonna Care What Happen to
These Dinks Out Here? White soldiers you could understand talking like
that, but black soldiers? . . . Black men became like white men; they too
raped, murdered and castrated: murdered in the heat of hysteria. Once,
wherever the American Army had been, from Guam to Germany, its black
soldiers had been its kindest; the stories of those kindnesses were legion.
But today. A sickness of laughing and giggling hit everyone. The whites were
relieved that blacks at last had joined them, had lost, finally that essential
human quality for which they were well known. And his black soldiers had
been giggling and murdering because they’d come to know what it felt like
to kill without fear of punishment, in broad daylight, challenging the uni-
verse to break out of positions in the heavens; had come to know, like
whites who’d done most of it in history, just how mothafucking easy it was
to kill a colored sonofabitch.47

To portray one’s own people in such a harsh way might not have felt
correct to many other authors. Therefore, it might indeed have been the
case that out of certain helplessness, they rather avoided any positioning
of the war for the African American community. Only recently, in the late
1990s, African American authors began to address the complex alliance of
forced participation in racism and of defining for oneself the borders for
individual responsibility. It seems that perhaps Elie Wiesel’s words in con-
nection to the Holocaust, “when an event is unspeakable, it takes some
time to learn the right words”48 applies also to this specific silence. Toni
Morrison and Alice Walker both initiated this new discourse in their nov-
els published in 1998. They both succeed in using literature for something
that Michael Rogin has observed as a typical characteristic of Vietnam lit-
erature of the 1990s in general; he sees the move away from the silent, the
“It Takes Some Time to Learn the Right Words” 117

violent, the psychotic veteran to “the healing returned soldiers and thera-
peutic communities,” to healing communities.49 Yet, Morrison, Walker,
and the young authors of the twenty-first century all go further: they do
not simply allow the returned soldier and the community to heal but ask
both to realize the close connection between forced duty and personal re-
Walker especially seems to prove the point that authors needed this
time as she had tried to deal with the Vietnam War before in her above-
discussed novel, Meridian. Her second attempt, By the Light of My Father’s
Smile, displays the maturity of time and distance. This time, one meets a
Vietnam veteran, Manuelito, who gets the chance to heal from his spiritual
wounds. In a somewhat “Alice-Walker-new-age” fashion, Walker has him
die first in desperation about his guilt, only to give him a chance to come
back as an angel with unfinished business in Vietnam. In his specific case,
his soul can only find peace when he confesses his personal guilt and re-
sponsibility to a little Vietnamese girl whose parents he had killed during
the war. When another angel tries to ease Manuelito’s pain by telling him
that in a war setting, a soldier cannot be blamed for crimes committed,
Manuelito answers him, “It does not seem to work that way, Señor. It
seems we are responsible for everything we do, no matter how the chain of
events began.”50
In Paradise, Morrison portrays one of the mothers, Soane, having a
hard time dealing with her everyday life and her mental stability even
many years after her two sons’ deaths in Vietnam. For the longest time,
Soane’s only answers to cope with the deaths have been bitterness and
confusion. Yet, Morrison allows Soane to start a healing process when
Soane finally begins to meditate on the complex relationship between rac-
ism and personal guilt. Contemplating the death of her two sons, Scout
and Easter, Soane realizes how much she, too, was guilty of their deaths
by being so naive about Vietnam. Her sons’ intention had not been to vol-
unteer for Vietnam but to go up north to the big cities and join some rad-
ical civil rights movement groups there. Since she had not questioned at
all the imperialistic goals of the U.S. government in Vietnam, she had
talked them out of their own plans into her Vietnam volunteering plans,
thus unintentionally, but still actively, supporting U.S. imperialism: “How
proud and happy she was when they enlisted; she had actively encouraged
them to do so. Their father had served in the forties. Uncles too.”51 In her
naïveté, Sloane indeed had believed that young black men would be safer
in Vietnam than in any other American city, “safer in the army than in
118 h e i k e r a p h a e l - h e r n a n d e z

Chicago where Easter wanted to go. Safer than Birmingham, than Mont-
gomery, Selma, than Watts. Safer than Money, Mississippi in 1955 and
Jackson, Mississippi in 1963. . . . [In Vietnam] her sweet colored boys
[would be] unshot, unlynched, unmolested, unimprisoned.”52 But Morri-
son makes Soane also realize that her naïveté was actually caused by the
lifelong personal experience of American racism; because of American
racist reality, Soane was indeed right to assume that her black teenage boys
would be in true danger in any American place. Soane learns to see and
understand the complex connection between racism and personal guilt.
By finally admitting personal responsibility and accepting her failure and
at the same time recognizing the parts where she has a right to blame
America for its racism, Soane is able to find the distance necessary to heal
Like Walker, Devorah Major in Brown Glass Windows (2002) depicts a
Vietnam vet, Ranger, in all his agonizing pain about personal guilt; for
example, she has him conversing with his wife:

“I’m going to have to pay. You can’t kill somebody’s baby and not pay the
“Ranger, it was a war, for God’s sake!”
“Yeah, I saw it that way at the time, but I am not so sure now.”53

After repeatedly failing to battle his drug addiction, he allows himself

intentionally to be killed in a drive-by shooting. His teenage son, Sketch,
cannot cope with his own life as he has been hoping for a father who
would indeed do what he always promised—to pick up the pieces of his
spiritually broken life and start all over again. After his father’s death,
Sketch travels to Washington to write on the Vietnam Monument “1989-
Ranger E.”54 Yet, it is another Vietnam vet, his stepfather, who finally helps
him understand the next generation’s responsibility in dealing correctly
with the legacy of the war when he forces Sketch to look into a mirror:
“You are your father’s fucking Vietnam monument. . . . Stand up straight
with your poop-butt self. . . . You are the one that keeps it going, not some
damn piece of marble.”55
The unfinished and problematic legacy of the war for the next genera-
tion is also the focus of Asha Bandele’s Daughter (2003) and Marcia King-
Gamble’s Jade (2002). Bandele’s Vietnam vet, Bird, often had agonized
about the connection between his personal guilt and the government’s
politics, asking “how this country could send me halfway around the
“It Takes Some Time to Learn the Right Words” 119

world to kill people who are half my size. People I ain’t got no struggle
with. People who didn’t enslave my ancestors yesterday or patrol or en-
danger my community today.”56 She allows her character to find that
much needed spiritual rest, yet to have him only shortly thereafter getting
killed “accidently” by a police officer. Bandele uses an interesting symbolic
twist in her legacy plot for her next generation, as Bird’s daughter, Aya,
has suffered throughout her childhood and early youth from growing up
without a father. When she finally is able to pick up her emotional pieces
and starts to rearrange her life, she also becomes the fatal victim of white
law enforcement “mistakes.”
Marcia King-Gamble’s Jade is an adopted Amerasian “burnt rice” child
in search of her birth mother and father in Vietnam. On her way over to
Vietnam, she meets Cameron, who is also searching for some information
about his father, missing in action (MIA). Both adults, Jade and Cameron,
are very successful professionals in their respective careers, and an outsider
would not guess that anything is wrong with their emotional lives. Yet, as
King-Gamble depicts them, dealing with missing parts for their war-deter-
mined identities is a negative legacy that both are not able to cope with.
From the few fragments of information they have about their missing par-
ents, they both initially make the mistake of blaming their parents entirely
for any wartime-related action or decision. Jade, for example, freaks out
when she learns that her biological mother was a bar girl, meaning prosti-
tute, for GIs—something that for Jade is under no circumstances morally
excusable at all with any notion of poverty and war and desperation. After
their spiritual quest, however, both learn that the next generation holds
responsibilities in their hands even many decades after the war’s end—
to understand the complex nexus of personal responsibility and govern-
ment-enforced action that does not give the next generation any right for
righteously judging or even condemning the involved ones.
Grace F. Edwards’s The Viaduct (2004) tells the story of Chance and
Marvin, two Vietnam vets in New York. When Marvin’s newborn baby
daughter is being kidnapped, he can only think that since he had killed
children in Vietnam, fate finally punishes him for committing murder. Yet,
like the other authors, Edwards throughout the course of the novel allows
him to grow in his understanding of personal guilt, and he is finally able
to put his agony into the correct perspective.57
In his Bombingham (2001), Anthony Grooms offers the perhaps most
radical confrontation of personal responsibility with blindly following of-
ficial duty. His protagonist, Walter, grew up in rural Alabama and partici-
120 h e i k e r a p h a e l - h e r n a n d e z

pated in workshops and civil right marches in Birmingham with Martin

Luther King before being drafted. In Vietnam, he considers himself quite a
responsible “race man”; yet, his consciousness only connects to the binary
black/white position. One event, however, changes his concept and cata-
pults him into many years of spiritual searching for answers. When he
shoots an old Vietnamese man for no apparent reason other than that he
was Vietnamese, Walter is being haunted by the image that he turned into
the same white firefighter who sprayed water at the marchers in Birming-
ham. Over the years, he contemplates again and again:

I was cool, when I shot that papa-san. But I was loose. I saw him long before
Haywood pointed him out. He was wearing the black pajamas, and he was
running away, so I said to myself, I can shoot him, if I want. It would be all
right. I couldn’t see him, but my heart told me he was an old man. My heart
said, so what if he was a VC? He was just an old man. A man tending his
crops. A man just strolling along, minding his business, thinking about the
blueness of the sky and the warm way the sun lay on the rice. That was
when I decided to shoot him. Who was he to enjoy the sun. . . . I wasn’t
raised this way, and I have been in the civil rights workshops with Reverend
King. I know better. What a murderer I have become. I don’t feel like a mur-
derer, though I don’t feel like anything, but scared. And I think I know how
those firemen in Birmingham felt, and I think I know how Mr. William who
shot my grandfather felt . . . but no. I don’t know because they had never
been to a civil rights workshop. They had never heard Reverend King. I have
a dream . . .58

Walter’s spiritual renewal begins when he accepts this “triangulated”

black/brown/white position; and, like the other protagonists, he learns to
understand the complex nexus of personal responsibility and govern-
ment-enforced action.
In 1992, Wallace Terry claimed that the African American novel about
the Vietnam War and its legacy was still waiting to be written.59 The novels
since the late 1990s present the answer to this void.

A shorter version of this essay with a different focus is also part of the collection
The Sixties Revisited: Culture, Society, Politics, ed. Jürgen Heideking, Jörg Helbig,
and Anke Ortlepp (Heidelberg: C. Winter Universitätsverlag, 2001), 287–302.
“It Takes Some Time to Learn the Right Words” 121

1. Herbert Shapiro, “The Vietnam War and the American Civil Rights Move-
ment,” Journal of Ethnic Studies 16.4 (Winter 1989): 136.
2. Gerald Gill, “Black Soldiers’ Perspectives on the War,” in The Vietnam
Reader, ed. Walter Capps (New York: Routledge, 1991), 173.
3. Ibid. For further facts, see also James E. Westheider, Fighting on Two Fronts:
African Americans and the Vietnam War (New York: New York University Press,
1997), chapter 1.
4. Wallace Terry, “It Became an Absolute Crusade,” in Vietnam, We’ve All Been
There: Interviews with American Writers, ed. Eric James Schroeder (Westport, CT:
Praeger, 1992), 69.
5. Sandra Wittman, Writing about Vietnam: A Bibliography of the Literature of
the Vietnam Conflict (Boston: G. K Hall, 1989).
6. Jeff Loeb, “MIA: African American Autobiography of the Vietnam War,”
African American Review 31.1 (Spring 1997): 105–124.
7. Gill, “Black Soldiers’ Perspectives,” 173.
8. Bobby Ann Mason, “Eventually I Had to Confront the Subject,” in Vietnam,
We’ve All Been There: Interviews with American Writers, ed. Eric James Schroeder
(Westport, CT: Praeger, 1992), 165.
9. Barry Beckham, Personal interview via e-mail (6 July 1999).
10. Toni Cade Bambara, The Salt Eaters (New York: Random House, 1980), 65.
11. Alice Walker, Meridian (New York: Pocket Books, 1976), 33.
12. Ibid.
13. Ibid., 195.
14. Ibid., 195–196.
15. Gloria Naylor, Bailey’s Café (Thorndike: G. K. Hall, 1992).
16. Paule Marshall, Daughters (New York: Atheneum, 1991), 92.
17. Terry, “It Became an Absolute Crusade,” 62.
18. Maria S. Bonn, “A Different World: The Vietnam Veteran Novel Comes
Home,” in Fourteen Landing Zones: Approaches to Vietnam War Literature, ed.
Philip K. Jason (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991), 2.
19. Beckham, Personal interview.
20. For Malcolm X’s examples of public protest, see Westheider, Fighting on
Two Fronts, 18–19.
21. James Washington, ed., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and
Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1986), 635.
22. For an excellent compilation of prominent African Americans’ public
protest, see the following two essays: J. Craig Jenkins, David Jacobs, and Jon Ag-
none, “Political Opportunities and African-American Protest, 1948–1997,” Ameri-
can Journal of Sociology 109.2 (September 2003): 277–303; Shapiro, “Vietnam War,”
23. Beate Karch, “No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger” (1968): Eine Analyse
(Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 1994), 57.
122 h e i k e r a p h a e l - h e r n a n d e z

24. For SNCC and Black Panther documents, see Westheider, Fighting on Two
Fronts, 180, notes 10 and 11.
25. Ibid., 19.
26. Richard Kostelanetz, Master Minds: Portraits of Contemporary American
Artists and Intellectuals (Toronto: Macmillan, 1969), 55.
27. Gill, “Black Soldiers’ Perspectives,” 174.
28. Westheider, Fighting on Two Fronts, 12.
29. Ibid., 34.
30. Wallace Terry, Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans
(New York: Ballantine Books, 1984), 6.
31. Westheider, Fighting on Two Fronts, 170.
32. Thomas Gates, Report of the President’s Commission on an All-Volunteer
Armed Force (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1970), 16.
33. Washington, Testament of Hope, 634.
34. Ibid., 627.
35. David Lewis, King: A Biography (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978),
36. Ibid., 311.
37. Heinz Insu Fenkl, Memories of My Ghost Brother (New York: Plume, 1997),
38. Hazel V. Carby, Race Men (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,
1998), 183.
39. Fenkl, Memories of My Ghost Brother, 131.
40. Fred Turner, Echoes of Combat: The Vietnam War in American Memory
(New York: Anchor Books, 1996), 23.
41. Terry, Bloods, 90.
42. Ibid., 306.
43. Ibid., 39.
44. Westheider, Fighting on Two Fronts, 33.
45. Shapiro, “Vietnam War,” 119.
46. Ibid., 120, 121. Shapiro’s essay in general offers a thorough overview of
protest by different African American organizations.
47. John A. Williams, Captain Blackman (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press,
1972), 315.
48. Walter Capps, ed., The Vietnam Reader (New York: Routledge, 1991), 1.
49. Michael Rogin, “Healing the Vietnam Wound,” American Quarterly 53.1
(September 1999): 702.
50. Alice Walker, By the Light of My Father’s Smile (New York: Random House,
1998), 205.
51. Toni Morrison, Paradise (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998), 100.
52. Ibid., 101.
“It Takes Some Time to Learn the Right Words” 123

53. Devorah Major, Brown Glass Windows (Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press,
2001), 111.
54. Ibid., 174.
55. Ibid., 177.
56. Asha Bandele, Daughter (New York: Scribner, 2003), 90.
57. Grace F. Edwards, The Viaduct (New York: Random House, 2004).
58. Anthony Grooms, Bombingham (New York: One World Ballantine Books,
2004), 299–300.
59. Terry, “It Became an Absolute Crusade,” 69.
Chapter 7

Chutney, Métissage, and Other

Mixed Metaphors
Reading Indo Caribbean Art in Afro Caribbean Contexts

Gita Rajan

In this essay, I explore the staging of identity by select Caribbean artists of

Indian descent as they simultaneously assimilate and resist the influences
of Afro Caribbean politics and cultures within their contemporary na-
tional contexts.1 By using the work of situated artists like Bernadette In-
dira Persaud and Shastri Maharaj, who are from Guyana and Trinidad,
and comparing them to doubly diasporic artists like Lucilda Dassardo
Cooper and Andrew Cheddie Sookrah, who are from the United States
and Canada, I reveal complicated and hybridized representations of iden-
tities. My rationale for selecting Indo Caribbean artists from the United
States and Canada is simultaneously a matter of gesturing toward one
strand of the recent theoretical work emerging from Atlantic studies,
which reinscribes the ocean as a spatial continuum as a metaphoric Carib-
beanization and acknowledges the migration of an educated class of Car-
ibbeans who have come to the new world of their own volition.
At the risk of simplifying history, it is accurate to say that the presence
of Indians in the Caribbean is the result of British colonial impulses to
control the African slave revolt of the nineteenth century and maintain
optimum labor levels in the sugarcane fields. Consequently, Indians,
mostly from the Bihar region, were brought to Jamaica, Trinidad, and
Guyana as indentured workers.2 After almost two centuries of living to-
gether in relationality and as a consequence of various multiracial contacts
with already hybridized African, Creole, Amerindians, and European peo-
ples, Indo Caribbeans embody the metaphor of chutney in their lived real-
ities. In the section below, I explain more fully what chutney has come to

Chutney, Métissage, and Other Mixed Metaphors 125

signify in Indo Caribbean identity politics in the public sphere. I also

explain the rationale for using métissage as a theoretical term to see how
this identity functions in recognizably Afro Caribbean contexts. Then, I
interpret select artworks of the four artists to show how the metaphor
of chutney combined with the concept of métissage reveals wonderful in-
stances of Afro-Indo encounters in the Caribbean.
In order to appreciate the creation and reception of Caribbean art
made by those of Indian origin, it may be useful to understand the cul-
tural history of Afro Caribbean art and its reception in a global art world.
A reason for this brief digression is to show how firmly our perceptions of
Caribbean art are entrenched solely in its Afro Caribbean systems of signi-
fication. From the perspective of art and art history, strategies of Black
resistance efforts provided fertile ground for what has come to be known,
over the last century, as Caribbean art. Afro Caribbean art and artists have
been anchored in a transcontinental space of a racial and sociocultural
continuum of Black resistance originating in the United States, Europe,
and Mexico. This framing of an aesthetic of Caribbean art includes repre-
sentations of anti-imperialist struggles, aspects of the negritude move-
ment, and the coalition-building efforts of African American literary and
cultural theorists with African diasporas; it even incorporates modernist
modalities that are rooted in nodes of cultural nationalism. This presented
a caveat, though; modernism in the hands of Caribbean artists of the early
twentieth century was not a mimetic exercise based on European tech-
niques and styles but was an innovative revisioning of resistance to Euro-
pean political and cultural hegemony. As an aside, it is ironic that Africa
was made to stand as a monolithic entity in order to facilitate the reading
of sociocultural symbols as translatable representations of numerous and
distinct nations, peoples, and cultures from the continent.
When modernism was all the rage in major metropolises like Paris
and New York, for example, both in the literary and art worlds (and in art
markets), Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Haitian artists were credited with
combining modernist styles with vocabularies of local nationalisms. One
of the earliest standards of measuring the value of Afro Caribbean art was
the idea of authenticity as linked to a proximity to the primitive, or what
David Boxer, a cultural historian from Jamaica called the “intuitive.” This
idea of intuitive became firmly entrenched in both creating and receiving
Afro Caribbean art, which suggests at once its distance from traditional
Western art and a specific reliance on mythical and originary African cul-
tural symbols and religions. While such measures of artistic value may
126 g i t a r a j a n

sound pejorative today because of their reliance on stereotypes of racial-

ized differences constructed on an ideology of Western supremacy, they
have, nonetheless, helped promote Afro Caribbean art and artists over the
last century.
But the overall aesthetic undergirding Afro Caribbean art is larger than
the sum of its parts. Veerle Poupeye notes in Caribbean Art:

Although anti-colonial nationalism was brewing among the peasantry and

working class, it was essentially articulated and spearheaded by the emerg-
ing Caribbean intelligentsia. Many of these intellectuals studied in London,
Paris, Madrid, or New York. . . . Martiniquan writer and politician Aimé
Césaire . . . met the future Senegalese president Léopold Senghor there in
the late thirties, an encounter that led to the development of the negritude
movement, one of the most influential expressions of black cultural nation-

Afro Caribbean art thus effectively fused high culture with pop cultural
morés and brought together transcontinental and cosmopolitan tastes
with an indigeneity presumed to be inherent in island cultures and exem-
plified by its peoples. This was a signal feature in promoting Afro Carib-
bean art within the world of museum aesthetics and Western art markets.4
In contrast, Asian influences in Caribbean art remained, consciously or
unconsciously, on the sidelines.
This is indeed a strange omission because art critics have credited Car-
ibbean artists with the ability and propensity to borrow from other sign
systems such as Amerindian cultural codes and Mexican muralism, for
example. As a case in point, Poupeye is correct in stating that Afro Carib-
bean art produced at this moment also exhibited “significant” traces of
transcontinental elements because of a “relationship between cultural na-
tionalism and the developments in African American culture.” She states:

The migration of West Indians to North American cities contributed to this

alliance and provided new channels for intellectual and cultural exchanges.
Claude McKay, key literary exponent of the Harlem Renaissance, was a
Jamaican, as was Marcus Garvey, the founder of the internationally active
United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). . . . Several important
Harlem Renaissance figures traveled to the Caribbean, including the writer
and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston who studied Afro-Caribbean ritual
practices in Jamaica and Haiti as a Guggenheim fellow in the late thirties.5
Chutney, Métissage, and Other Mixed Metaphors 127

In other words, the range and depth of influences shaping Afro Caribbean
art of the early twentieth century were indeed disparate. And these com-
bined forces resulted in complicated borrowings from metropole aesthetic
conventions, indigenous art and myths, and popular Caribbean culture
and religions. This, in effect, resulted in theatrically hybridized representa-
tional forms that juxtaposed local, modernist styles against Vaudou and
Santería symbols and practices.6
In contrast, Sino and Indo Caribbean artists are less well known, and
their art is less readily circulated. One of Poupeye’s critical insights is use-
ful even though she glosses over art created by peoples of Asian origin
(she mentions Bernadette Persaud and provides brief analyses of Wendy
Nanan and Isaiah James Boodhoo’s work) in her encyclopedic review of
Caribbean art, to write:

Until recently, the Afro-Caribbean components in Caribbean popular cul-

ture have received most academic attention. . . . The contributions of other
ethnic groups are nonetheless also significant and are now beginning to
attract attention. The East Indians of Trinidad and the Guyanas have started
claiming their space in national culture and this is reflected in contempo-
rary visual art. The Trinidadian artist Wendy Nanan . . . used popular reli-
gion as an ironic token of hope in the . . . very troubled “marriage” of multi-
racial, multi-cultural Trinidad in her relief construction, “Idyllic Marriage”
(1989). It represents La Divina Pastora in a wedding scene with Lord Krish-
na. La Divina, as she is popularly known, is a wooden statue of a Black Vir-
gin Mary in the town of Siparia in southern Trinidad that is venerated by
Hindus and Roman Catholics alike for its purported miraculous powers. As
a sacred sculpture of uncertain, probably Hispanic or Amerindian origin, La
Divina embodies the syncretism of Creole Caribbean culture. Although the
“bride” seems reluctant, her “marriage” to Lord Krishna challenges the per-
ception that the East Indian population of the Caribbean has retained its
own culture and does not participate in the creolization process.7

Such intrinsic confluences of African, Indian, Hispanic, Amerindian,

and Creole cultures with Hindu and Catholic symbols is a distinctive fea-
ture of Caribbean life, yet, they remain relatively unexplored in reading
Indo (creolized) Caribbean art. Even though people of Indian origin make
up a sizeable part of Trinidad, Tobago, and Guyana populations, few writ-
ers other than V. S. Naipaul have theorized their historic situatedness, and
he is a problematic figure to invoke here.8 There have been no concerted
128 g i t a r a j a n

local or diasproic efforts made by peoples of Asian origins (Indian spe-

cifically) to nurture Indo Caribbean artistic creativity. This oversight is
gradually undergoing a corrective, in literature at least, as now one finds
tangential references to Indo and Sino Caribbean and Creolized Indians
in Patricia Powell’s Pagoda, Maryse Condé’s Crossing the Mangrove, and
Shani Mootoo’s Cereus Bloom at Night.
One can speculate that the reasons for Afro Caribbean art shooting into
prominence lie both in external and internal conditions. External factors
can be partly attributed to the greater emphasis placed on the use of Afri-
can religious symbolism by local artists as their signature syntax, which
was read as uniquely Caribbean by the developed West and by trans-
national critics. Another external factor was the active manner in which
major Black intellectuals mapped a cohesive African diaspora and thus
brought Afro Caribbean art into global consciousness and markets. The
internal reasons are contradictory and more damaging. A certain part of
the problem is the deliberate marginalization of Indo Caribbean arts by
local (national) institutions because of class hostilities that are manifested
in racial tensions (Indians are perceived to be thriving merchants and thus
privileged and distanced from Afro Caribbean realities). This omission is
noted most vocally by Guyanese artist, activist, and educator Bernadette
Persaud, whose work I explicate below. But a vital factor in the occlusion
of Indo Caribbean artists from the eyes of the world is because Indians in
India and members of the Indian diaspora in general have had a history of
barely acknowledging the presence of these indentured workers—a prob-
lem that is evident even today. Vinay Lal notes how clearly class status
marks the ways in which Caribbeans of Indian descent are perceived and
writes with biting irony:

One hundred and fifty years ago, a ship carrying 217 Indians set anchor on
May 30 in Port of Spain, thereby inaugurating a new chapter in the history
of Trinidad, the Caribbean, and indeed the Indian diaspora [now celebrated
as Indian Arrival Day].
So unusual a holiday . . . should have received prominent attention in
Indian newspapers and the media. Had such a holiday been proclaimed in
the United States, the event would have been celebrated in India as an ac-
knowledgment, however belated, of the achievements of Indians, and of the
“arrival” of India upon a world stage as a not inconsiderable economic and
military power. But, Trinidad, and indeed a greater part of the non-Western
world, is of little interest to middle-class Indians, and few people in India
Chutney, Métissage, and Other Mixed Metaphors 129

are aware that Indians have been settled in Trinidad, Guyana, Surinam,
Mauritius, Fiji, Malaysia, and a host of other countries for a much longer
period than they have been in the West. There is a worldwide community of
Indians, but the world-view of middle-class Indians extends no further than
the culture of middle-class America.9

What Persaud reads as nationalist (racist) politics and Lal as class preju-
dice, I would argue, is also a prototypical caste bias that is inherent in
social interactions among Indians—both in India and in its diaspora.
Indo Caribbeans thus present a difficult analytical problem because
of their layered history and entry into the nation as indentured laborers
and their contradictory impulses of racial insularity on the one hand and
the reality of interracial marriages with indigenous, Spanish, African, and
French peoples (or douglarization, a contested marker of racial mixing) on
the other. Race was the point of simultaneous desire for contact and of the
fear of contagion. Further, culture—both high and popular—became the
problematic contact zone wherein such conflicting realities played out.
This makes reading Indo Caribbean art (and life) a challenging critical
problem. Many of these factors are inextricably bound together in the
multicultural, multilinguistic lifestyles today, which, in turn, are mani-
fested in Indo Caribbean artworks in the situated and diasproic artists
discussed here. Because of a totally different sociocultural system (albeit
hybridized now), theoretical parameters of creolization do not fit our
inquiry very well, hence finding vocabularies to analyze Indo Caribbean
art becomes a difficult adventure. As a result, Indo Caribbean art has yet to
gain acceptance in the public sphere as legitimate cultural representation
and read in its own right.
It is here that the word chutney proves useful. Chutney is a self-anointed
term—a Hindi word—it is an integral feature of Indian cuisine. It is a
spicy mixture of condiments, fresh herbs, raw vegetables, and unripe
fruits; the recipe has hundreds of variations and permutations because
each version of a chutney changes in content based on the vegetation of
the region. While métissage signals Afro Caribbean adaptations through
language, customs, and culture working primarily from French linguistic
conventions, chutney in the Indo Caribbean context suggests a similar
kind of hybridized, uneasy syncretistic fusion of words, secular and sacred
symbols, and folk and popular cultural mythologies gleaned from memo-
ries of home and adapted to Caribbean contexts. By the late 1960s, East
Indian pop music, dubbed as “chutney,” was the most exciting new sound
130 g i t a r a j a n

broadcast by a local radio program by the Mohamed brothers called

“Mastaana Bahar,” where Indian film music was combined with folk
songs from the Bihar, reggae music, and set to disco dance beats. Connell
and Gibson in Soundtracks note that this form soon became the most
spectacular celebration of East India in the West Indies. By the early 1990s
a newer version was created that fused Bollywood music with island
sounds and frenetic dance beats and rhythms from soul and calypso music
to produce a pulsating musical form called chutney soca. This became ex-
tremely popular all over the Caribbean and a much anticipated feature of
the Trinidadian Carnival celebrations.10 Pure Chutney (1998) is a tongue-
in-cheek film made by Sanjeev Chatterjee and narrated by Amitava Kumar
that dramatizes the history and lifestyles of Indo Caribbeans who merge
social and religious rituals as the remembered legacy of their indentured
ancestors from India with Afro Caribbean words and rhythms to create a
Caribbean reality. Chutney in yuh Soca11 is still another documentary film
that explains the immense popularity of a performative cultural form that
combines Bhojpuri lyrics (from the Bihar region) with calypso sounds and
Bollywood dance styles as a uniquely Indo Caribbean part of the national
parade in the pre-Lenten Carnival. Thus, chutney captures the compli-
cated, fused sign systems deployed by Indo Caribbeans and is useful now
in explaining some of the hybridized iconography and representations of
identity in Indo Caribbean art.
Edouard Glissant, speaking of African influences on creolized subjects,
says in Poetics of Relation that “what took place in the Caribbean, which
could be summed up in the word creolization, approximates the idea of
Relation. . . . It is not merely an encounter, a shock . . . a métissage, but a
new and original dimension allowing each person to be there and else-
where, rooted and open, lost in the mountains and free beneath the sea, in
harmony and in errantry.”12 Even though Glissant places a higher value on
the phenomenon of creolization because he sees it as continuously incor-
porating other life and cultural signs, the practice of métissage which con-
stantly proliferates meaning illustrates better how Afro and Indo Carib-
bean artists deploy visual syntax in their works. His theory of métissage as
encoding “a poetics of Relations” serves as an apt metaphor to describe the
Caribbean question because of the relational proximity that exists between
the different islands and among the various peoples who inhabit this re-
gion. Thus, métissage not only combines randomly the various lived expe-
riences but also defies notions of racial or cultural purity and singular
origin, which then can be productively extended to illuminate the ways
Chutney, Métissage, and Other Mixed Metaphors 131

in which Indo Caribbean art and artists negotiate the self-other divide in
Afro Caribbean contexts.
In Edouard Glissant and Postcolonial Theory, Celia Britton notes that his
“insistence on the ambiguous and constrained nature of the struggle to
build a new mode of expression is theoretically illuminating,” which helps
us understand “a ‘new language’ outside the dominant one, a strategic
relationship of resistance and subversion to the dominant language.”13
Recalling from the section above on Afro Caribbean art, we note that Glis-
sant’s notion of a “strategic relationship of resistance and subversion” was
one of the driving forces in creating and circulating Afro Caribbean art in
the early part of the twentieth century because it helped explain the man-
ner in which these artists adapted European modernism to suit their
needs.14 Extending that same logic of national authenticity and, conse-
quently, inclusion in the canon, Indo Caribbean art, one can argue, effec-
tively engages modes of counterdiscourse. The artists discussed below ex-
emplify the idea of métissage in the visual vocabulary by borrowing from
and adapting local strains to resist Creole (Afro Caribbean) and hege-
monic Indian (insular, Indo Caribbean) influences while subverting tradi-
tional Indian mythologies to better fit Caribbean contexts. That is to say,
if métissage signals relationality with the land and with peoples of other
races and cultures,15 then it can be borrowed to explain the unstable and
multiple identities that are constructed in the mediated spaces of self-
other (Indo Caribbean artists in Afro Caribbean contexts), and we can
add the idea of chutney as framing the scene on which this relationality
works.16 Such a maneuver helps explain a gendered, racialized, and sexual-
ized space that allows for staging identity for the situated and diasporic
Indo Caribbean artists that I discuss below.

Shastri Maharaj

Shastri Maharaj’s painting (Figure 1) depicts a Lingam in a luminescent

shade of blue with an eye drawn in black at the apex. The Lingam is a tra-
ditional, religious icon signaling Shiva’s manifestation of energy and is
often painted in blue to show its close connection to Shiva as Neela-Kan-
tha—the blue-necked god. It is accurate to say that Indo Caribbeans in-
corporate more of Shiva imagery than of other Hindu deities. The bright
blue shaft in the center of the canvas concentrates the viewer’s gaze on the
starkness of the image and then draws it upward to the single eye at the tip
132 g i t a r a j a n

Fig. 1. Shastri Maharaj, “Blue Lingam” (acrylic on canvas, 1998). Used by permis-
sion of the artist.

of the shaft.17 The Lingam is a bold assertion of presence, and the eye at
the head suggests an omnipotent male gaze. But this forceful statement is
subverted as the green sheath covering the Lingam controls the gaze. The
domed shape of the stark Lingam also symbolically recalls the contours
of temple architecture found in the Bihar region in India. The red dots at
the bottom of the canvas are similar to an Indian floor decoration pattern
Chutney, Métissage, and Other Mixed Metaphors 133

called rangoli, a practice used extensively by Indians and Indo Caribbeans

to signal the boundaries of sacred space. From a racial point of view, the
dots enhance the religiocultural symbolism, almost suggesting a tantric
ritual by drawing and arresting power by circumscribing sacred space
much like totems in Afro Caribbean art. From an artistic point of view, the
dots balance the illusion of matching the curved tip and the black eye at
the apex of the Lingam and then draw the viewer’s eyes to the curve of the
green sheath, thus providing visual symmetry while also creating a dra-
matic contrast with the upright shaft.
The compelling assertion of a masculinized symbol in the Lingam is
inescapable as it quickly signals an Indo Caribbean religious iconogra-
phy. In a contemporary art context, the painting speaks to critics who are
conversant with the meaning of the eye as gaze, but complicates that by
sheathing and restraining that meaning.18 In Maharaj’s canvas one dis-
cerns a chutney and métissage moment wherein Hindu primal symbols
are combined with a dialogic meaning that gestures toward a contem-
porary interpretation of the patriarchal gaze.19 The masculine power of
the Lingam is compromised by the powerlessness of the Indo Caribbean
artist, who hybridizes a Hindu religious visual symbol with current dis-
courses of patriarchy and subverts the final meaning through a modernist
twist. It is an ironic reminder of what mainstream art critics had praised
in Afro Caribbean artists such as Victor Manuel, Amelia Peleaz, Wifredo
Lam, Carl Abrahama, and Eugene Good, for example, for wedding primi-
tive symbolisms with modern art to visualize resistance, which were then
authenticated as “Caribbean art.” Applying the same evaluative standards,
Maharaj’s work should have found an entry into the global art scene in-
stead of being exhibited locally in the Art Society of Trinidad and Tobago
and in the Savannah Gallery in Anguilla. The “Blue Lingam” captures
those very ideas seen as uniquely Caribbean—incorporating primitive,
ancestral, and folk mythologies into modernist styles by deploying reli-
gious symbols to assert one’s identity and create a subversive canvas. It can
be argued that Maharaj positions himself as a male Indo Caribbean artist,
who is intimately aware of the politics of exclusion.

Bernadette Indira Persaud

It is helpful in introducing Bernadette Persaud’s work through her cura-

torial statement made during the 2000 exhibition to grasp her mood of
Fig. 2. Bernadette Indira Persaud, “Shiva Embracing the
Other” (acrylic on canvas, 2000). Used by permission
of the artist.

Chutney, Métissage, and Other Mixed Metaphors 135

resistance, thus contextualizing the critical spirit behind her creative art-
works. She writes:

Concepts of art in our small postcolonial society [the Caribbean] tend to be

extremely narrow and limited especially as they are articulated by a tiny cir-
cle of art administrators and critics, who uphold outdated, academic or
modernist doctrines of art once espoused in the Western mainstream. The
pluralism of the contemporary international art scene is completely ignored
by this dominant, elitist vision, which is equally oblivious of its own art
community. . . . Our art [Indo Caribbean] is quickly dismissed, belittled,
marginalized or subjected to inappropriate models of analysis. . . . Underly-
ing this form of cultural arrogance is the simplistic assumption that all art,
irrespective of its cultural sources is homogenous and has one universal aes-
thetic appeal. Marxist analysis and feminist aesthetic theory have effectively
demolished this myth of art that is devoid of race, gender, class, or sex.20

These words demonstrate her knowledge of current modes of art criticism

and alert us to the institutionalized marginalization by an Afro Caribbean-
centered art world.
The figure at the center of Persaud’s canvas (Figure 2) stands against a
fiery background and in a hypnotic fashion draws attention to itself. The
title “Shiva Embracing the Other” is an allusion to Ardhanarishvara—or
the myth of a fused Shiva-Sakti (Parvati)—wherein masculine and femi-
nine energies are brought together. The Ardhanarishvara is a symbolic rep-
resentation of powerful fused primal energies, usually invoked at a mo-
ment of intense rage or crisis. It is not simple androgyny, as earlier West-
ern critics had argued, but is a complicated expression of a gathering of
primeval forces in readiness for war. As Ellen Goldberg argues in The Lord
Who Is Half Woman, the body is made to do the work of culture by pro-
viding new constructions of gender because the stereotyped passivity of
the feminine is systematically challenged.21 This nuanced and focusedly
feminist explanation of the Ardhanarishvara myth is more in keeping with
the curatorial statement that Persaud herself makes.
Shiva-Sakti stands tall and firm on the ground with a Trishul, Shiva’s
signature weapon that gestures to the artist’s world and her nation (Guy-
ana), which is split by the multiethnic, multiracial, and sexist politics on
the eve of the 2001 elections when tensions between Indo and Afro Carib-
beans had reached a breaking point. Here, the recognizable image of fire
consuming the world as an effective form of resistance is a historical
136 g i t a r a j a n

reminder of the revolt during days of plantation slavery and indentured

labor. Persuad actualizes it as a nation being consumed by the fire of
politicized racial hatred and rivalry. As the Shiva-Sakti figure stands half
in light and half in darkness, it also signals the uncertain outcome of ra-
cial tensions within the body of the nation. However, in a contradictory
move, Shiva’s hand is raised in a gesture of universal peace, indicating and
embracing another form of otherness—acknowledging the Christian, Is-
lamic, and Hindu populations that comprise the many religions of Guy-
ana. “Other” in Persaud’s title taken together with the theoretical com-
ponent of her curatorial statement noted above suggests that she is fully
conscious both of racial and religious diversity and of refashioning gen-
dered identity along the lines of continental feminists such as Toril Moi,
who read androgyny not as sameness or negation of difference but as
complicating received notions of gender. From a Caribbean discourse per-
spective, Persaud’s canvas illustrates Glissant’s view of the nonmonolithic
nature of otherness, specifically underscoring the idea of métissage that
posits gendered, Caribbean identity as always already hybridized, as resis-
tant and subversive. Whether geographic or psychic, transformations often
require vision and a certain violence, and here the juxtaposition of sys-
temic categories of male/female, Indo/Afro Caribbean, peace/chaos is Per-
saud’s vision of all these oppositions brought into play without resorting
to simplistic cancellations. Maharaj asserted his male Indo Caribbean
presence, however compromised by the sheath, but stands aloof and insu-
lar. Persaud, while equally assertive, is politicized, twining a feminist body
with that of her nation’s in contrast, acknowledging her identity as Indo-
Creolized Caribbean, as belonging to both worlds and scripting those very
markings on her gendered body. Persaud’s painting is as much a visualiza-
tion of Glissant’s concept of métissage as it is a performative identity of a
body made chutney by incorporating different religious and cultural sign

Lucilda Dassardo Cooper

Lucilda Cooper’s painting “Cosmic Dancer” (Figure 3) is sectioned off into

two compartments. On the right is a traditional Shiva imagery—that of
Nataraja, the dancing deity with a yogini (or mystical/ascetic female pres-
ence) at the right bottom corner creating a perception of energetic motion
by giving the circular wheel its push. On the left is a pastoral scene with a
Chutney, Métissage, and Other Mixed Metaphors 137

Fig. 3. Lucilda Dassardo Cooper, “Cosmic Dancer” (acrylic and water colors on
canvas, 2001). Used by permission of the artist.

placid brook and tree-lined bank and a bird whirling in a colored configu-
ration of energy. The two compartments are linked by the numerous blue
lines (Shiva as Neela Kantha) emanating from Nataraja’s circular, outer
frame and moving toward the ball held in place by the bird on the left.
The visual balance is maintained by the flow of blue and gold colors across
both compartments, and representational symmetry is created by the cir-
cular lines connecting the two compartments.
The thematic connection between the two seemingly discrete images is
evoked by the notion of transcendence. In the Hindu register, Nataraja
traditionally performs a tandavam, a dance of destruction-creation that
connotes transcendence, and in the Christian register, the bird is a tradi-
tional symbol of the soul’s flight away from this mundane world. While
there is no actual break between the two compartments, they are made
distinct through their iconography. But the two separate religious regis-
ters (Hindu and Christian) are also connected by the blue (Indo) and
gold (Christianized) lines flowing between the two images. The right side
138 g i t a r a j a n

represents the strong influence of Shiva imagery, also seen in other Indo
Caribbean artists thus far, but it has a twist in that Nataraja in a traditional
dance pose needs the female figure to spin the wheel that provides the
burst of energy to complement his sheer masculinity. While not as obvi-
ous as Persaud, Cooper here engages in a moment of chutney by re-pre-
senting traditional mythology. Again, unlike Persaud or Maharaj, Cooper’s
engagement is peaceful, invoking a transition for the Caribbean to the
United States through the metaphor of transcendence.22 Cooper’s painting
in this light adds, dissolves, and creates an unimaginable juxtaposition of
the self in order to represent the “I” at that moment of recognition. It is
it eclectic and transitory and can be read as an innovative instance of
métissaged chutney: an Indo Caribbean–gendered identity now anchored
in New England.

Andrew Cheddie Sookrah

Andrew Sookrah, now living in Toronto, has a very different body of work.
While we clearly saw Indo Caribbean imagery, icons, and systems of signi-
fication in Maharaj’s, Persaud’s, and Cooper’s canvases, Sookrah’s “Wallpa-
per Samurai” (Figure 4) hints at a different experiment with identity. This
life-sized portrait belongs to a series of mostly nude men and women, and
the bodies are clearly very stylized. The male figures in this series are well
muscled, beautifully proportioned, and athletic in build; they exude an
aloof and confident appeal; they are urban, cosmopolitan, and certainly
contemporary. A Canadian art critic writes that this series has “existential
giants. [Sookrah] paints nudes without skin. He paints the flesh and the
soul of humans wounded by life and passions. His paintings tell us how to
live life without denying ourselves.”23 Sookrah thus is not perceived as an
ethnic, Caribbean artist but is absorbed into the body of the nation and
claimed as a Canadian one.
The “Wallpaper Samurai” depicts a nude male body in the center of the
canvas, with an orientalized wall hanging in the background, perhaps an
indication of a memory of Indian and Chinese presences in the Carib-
bean. The title itself is interesting as it makes “Asian” an indeterminate cat-
egory, while deliberately orientalizing and exoticizing along the lines of
chutneyfying our perceptions of what is Asian in the Canadian-Caribbean
context. The nude figure that dominates our vision has black-Latino fea-
tures and leans forward in a lithe posture such that the well-defined mus-
Chutney, Métissage, and Other Mixed Metaphors 139

Fig. 4. Andrew Cheddie Sookrah, “Wallpaper Samurai” (oil on canvas, 2003). Used
by permission of the artist.

cles of the arms and the legs hint at restrained power and energy. The
métissaged body is perhaps another allusion to Guyana, his remembered
home where multiraciality is a daily occurrence. Other than this, there is
no direct reference to the Caribbean: that is, there is no religious symbol-
ism, not even the uniquely adapted version of the modern. The portrait
140 g i t a r a j a n

stands alone and exudes a charged sexuality with desire emanating from
the male body.
Like Cooper, one can speculate that Sookrah also has borrowed from
North America. The male portraits in particular are reminiscent of Rich-
ard Bruce Nugent’s work from the Harlem Renaissance. They reflect a re-
fined homoeroticism that is lacking in the portraits of female nudes.24 It is
possible to speculate that homosexuality, because it is unspeakable (it car-
ries a stigma of a strong social taboo) within the Caribbean, becomes im-
aginable, albeit in an artistic space. Interestingly, this portrait signals its
Indo-Afro Caribbeanness through lack: it defies an overt, aggressive, and
almost mandatory heterosexuality of the Caribbean to fashion in its place
tracings of homoeroticism in the outside world of Sookrah’s Toronto.
Here I categorically state that I am not positing a homosexual identity on
the artist but rather speculate on the freedom to paint homoerotic sub-
jects outside the boundaries of Guyana, thus subverting cultural imposi-
tions on Indo Caribbean identity through art. I mentioned Shani Mootoo
and Patricia Powell as authors who experiment with constructions of
hybridized, creolized identities. Both of them are important at this point
when speaking of Sookrah because they create gay, cross-dressing, and bi-
sexual characters that at one level refract the silenced reality of Caribbean
lives in diasporic literature and at another level experiment with gendered,
othered sexualities that are becoming part of global realities. Sookrah,
more than Cooper, falls into this global cosmopolitan continuum of home
and diaspora through his art by gracefully working through chutney and
métissage metaphors.


By examining two situated artists such as Shastri Maharaj and Bernadette

Indira Persaud in concert with two doubly diasporic ones such as Lucilda
Cooper and Andrew Cheddie Sookrah, both the sociocultural impulses
guiding their artistic vision and the limits exerted by the nation on one’s
expression and imagination become noticeable. Maharaj from Trinidad
focuses on Hindu iconic emblems to assert the problems with exclusion of
Indo Caribbean presence amid the multiracial and multicultural chaos
of his national location. Persaud, artist and lecturer at the University of
Guyana, invests her figures with revolutionary energy by borrowing from
transplanted Hindu mythopoetics and contemporary Afro-Guyanese ra-
Chutney, Métissage, and Other Mixed Metaphors 141

cialized politics. In contrast, Cooper, artist and local activist in Boston, re-
presents figures from Hindu mythology, such as Shiva and Shakti, as car-
rying the potential for global harmony. And, Sookrah from Toronto, per-
haps the most secular of the group, uses his diasporic distance to experi-
ment with contemporary forms of identity as invested with sexuality and
desire. All four artists reveal both a complicated dialogue with an imagi-
nary sense of home matched with the realities of inhabiting that contested
and undefinable space through lived realities.

I thank Gurudev and Rohin Rajan for their inspiring encouragement as I wrote
this essay. I am grateful to Lucilda Cooper, Andrew Cheddie Sookrah, Bernadette
Indira Persaud, and Shastri Maharaj for generously sharing their artwork with me
and for giving me permission to interpret them in my own fashion. I am obliged
to them for not forcing me to abandon my critical interpretations. I thank Fair-
field University and especially Johanna Garvey for supporting me with a Summer
Faculty Research Grant, and Ranjanaa Devi and Ann Ciecko from the University
of Massachusetts, Amherst, for inviting me to deliver a faculty lecture where I pre-
sented an earlier version of this argument. I am indebted to Marianita Amodio at
Hamilton College for carefully preparing these works for publication. And I ex-
press my gratitude to Heike Raphael-Hernandez for inviting me to contribute to
this innovative anthology.
1. I foreground the semiotic and theoretic impulses here. Semiotically, in not
hyphenating Indo and Caribbean, I signal the same move made by Asian Ameri-
cans in declaring their simultaneity of being both Asian and American. So, too,
here it signals the autonomous identity of peoples of Indian origin in the Carib-
bean. The theoretical consists of seeing the Atlantic space in its entirety as capable
of embracing Europe and the Americas into an imaginary Caribbean. I am grate-
ful to the editors for sharing Lopez’s essay from this collection, who quotes Anto-
nio Benítez-Rojo to make this point: “The Atlantic is the Atlantic because it was
once engendered by the copulation of Europe . . . with the Caribbean archipelago;
. . . stretched between the encomienda of Indians and the slaveholding plantation,
between the servitude of the coolie and the discrimination towards the criollo.”
Antonio Benítez-Rojo, The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern
Perspective (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996), 5. While Benítez-Rojo speaks
to the Afro Caribbean question, I widen his idea to discuss the hybrid nature of
Indo Caribbeans whose history of arriving in the islands and in North America is
2. Speaking of the different classes of Indian diasporas, Vinay Lal writes, “In
142 g i t a r a j a n

the nineteenth century, a large number of Indian were taken under conditions of
savage exploitation, to various British colonies as indentured labor to work on
sugar, tea, and rubber plantations, and the Indian populations of Fiji, Surinam,
Mauritius, Trinidad, South Africa and numerous other places owe their presence
in these countries to this particular circumstance. Diverse streams of the Indian
population have fed into the Indian diaspora in the twentieth century: while a
professional elite found its way to the United States, Australia, and other nations
of the ‘developed’ West, the laboring poor were recruited to build the shattered
economies of Britain, Holland, and Germany in the aftermath of World War II,
and another strand of this working class has been providing for some years its
muscle power to the Sheikdoms of the middle East.” See Vinay Lal. “Reflections on
the Indian Diaspora,” 12 December 2002, available at
sia/Diaspora (retrieved 10 July 2005).
3. Veerle Poupeye, Caribbean Art (London: Thames and Hudson, 1998), 49. She
continues that young Cuban intellectuals took this mood one step further in their
1927 manifesto, Grupo Minorista, which records, “Collectively or individually, our
nucleus has fought and is still fighting for: the revision of false and out-moded
values; for popular art, and in general, new art in all its diverse forms.” Cited in
ibid., 51. The major figures caught up in such sentiments were artists such as
Wifredo Lam and Eduardo Abela, as well as the Cuban writer and cultural theorist
Alejo Carpentier. Poupeye highlights the point that the intense interactions
between and among artists, theorists, and politicians produced what soon became
identifiably and uniquely Afro Caribbean art. For a slightly different selection of
artist and brief critical commentaries, see Touring Exhibition Catalogue, New
World Imagery: Contemporary Jamaican Art (Uckfield, UK: Beacon Press, 1994).
4. This is a trend that continues to this day as E. R. Gomez notes: “To those
who live and work in the Caribbean—and to others in indefinite exile who re-
member their islands—the region is a gorgeous mosaic of magic and myth.” E. R.
Gomez, “Myth, Magic, and Mainstream,” ARTnews 94 (Summer 1995): 112.
5. Ibid., 50. Poupeye points to a different kind of ideological influences: “Even
though the Eastern Caribbean produced internationally acclaimed literary and
political figures such as Aimé Césaire and the Trinidadian like C. L. R. James, de-
velopments in the visual arts were slower and comparatively modest, which may
be explained by the lack of art patronage in these societies.” Poupeye, Caribbean
Art, 79.
6. Poupeye claims that “two aspects of popular culture—the religions and fes-
tival arts—are particularly important to the visual arts, as subjects and as sources
of artistic production in their own rights” when reading Haitian primitive paint-
ers such as Hector Hyppolite, Robert Saint-Bryce, and Lafortune Félix (who was
a Vaudou priest before he turned painter). Poupeye, Caribbean Art, 81. More re-
cently, we have been reminded of such shared sensibilities in a historico-literary
arena through Paul Gilroy’s concept of the Black Atlantic.
Chutney, Métissage, and Other Mixed Metaphors 143

7. Poupeye, Caribbean Art, 104.

8. It is beyond the scope of this essay to catalogue the instances where Naipaul
has expressed, in fiction and in expository statements, his contempt for Afro Car-
ibbeans and through opposition structured a bourgeois profile of Indo Carib-
beans. And, he has paid absolutely no attention to Indo Caribbean art.
9. Lal made this statement in 1995. See “Reflections on the Indian Diaspora.”
10. It is vital to understand the role of chutney in popular Caribbean culture
because while Indo Caribbeans borrowed from Indian cinema that is circulating
freely across the globe, Afro Caribbeans adapted freely from Hollywood. And,
though chutney music and dance routines often bagged prizes during the Carnival
contests, it remains a local phenomenon. Annie Paul from the University of the
West Indies has commented on this innovative hybrid form. Poupeye writes that
in contemporary times, Carnival (or mas) has created space for popular culture
performative art forms through an intricate and dramatic combination of local
religions, popular music, Rastafarian dance routines, and Hollywood-like stage
productions. She claims that “the most spectacular case of overlap has been in the
work of Peter Marshall (b. 1941), a theater designer, who revolutionized ‘mas’ in
the early eighties and became one of Trinidad’s most influential artists” by adapt-
ing styles and techniques from the Star Wars trilogy for his elaborate and technol-
ogy-intensive Carnival king and queen presentation in ManCrab (1983). Quoted in
Poupeye, Caribbean Art, 106.
11. Chutney in yuh Soca, March 1998, available at
(retrieved 29 June 2005).
12. Edouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan
Press, 2000), 34, original emphasis. Glissant’s use of the word “errantry” carries his
intent to say that “while not aimed like an arrow’s trajectory, nor circular and
repetitive like a nomad’s, it is not idle roaming but includes a sense of sacred mo-
tivation” (211).
13. Celia Britton, Edouard Glissant and Postcolonial Theory (Charlottesville:
University of Virginia Press, 1999), 3.
14. I am aware of the anachronistic basis of this statement. Glissant theorized
the principle of métissage, and the word was not in usage when pronouncements
about Caribbean art were being made. Benítez-Rojo presents this idea differently
to say that the “spectrum of Caribbean codes [is] so varied and so dense that it
holds the region in a soup of signs.” Benítez-Rojo, Repeating Island, 12.
15. Glissant, like other postcolonial theorists, has noted that empires systemat-
ically posit otherness as the ground of exoticism. The first step in the Caribbean
context is to acknowledge otherness through intermingling; thus identity, whether
individual, communal, or collective, is also radically different from Western hu-
manist definitions. Britton summarizes Glissant’s explanations as follows: “The
static polarity of the same and other gives way, in Glissant’s relation theory, to a
situation in which identity exists only as a shifting term in a network of multiple
144 g i t a r a j a n

relations with others who constitute it. Glissant defines this as a questioning of
identity, in which it is the Relation to the Other that determines the self, but al-
ways in an open-ended way. It is based in interdependence rather than indepen-
dence; hybridity, creolization, and the rhizome all reinforce this implication. Thus
creolization makes our identities dependent on all possible ‘mutual mutations’
generated by this play of relations.” Britton, Édouard Glissant, 34.
16. See the section on the combined influences of Indian and reggae music in
John and Chris Gibson, Soundtracks: Popular Music, Identity, and Place (London:
Routledge, 1991). See also Shalini Puri, who says that because of an undue empha-
sis on language of theory, “the issue of equality is displaced. A displacement of the
politics of hybridity [is made in the name of ] a poetics of hybridity.” Shalini Puri,
“Canonized Hybridities: Resistant Hybridities: Chutney Soca, Carnival, and the
Politics of Nationalism,” in Caribbean Romances: The Politics of Regional Repre-
sentation, ed. Belinda J. Edmondson (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press,
1999), 50. I contend that interrogating this displacement might challenge the
almost formulaic association of cultural hybridity with the dismantling of the
nation-state. For a similar idea but with a different focus, see Sunaina Maira, “B-
Boys and Bass Girls: Sex, Style, and Mobility in Indian American Youth Culture,”
Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society 3.3 (Summer 2001):
17. While traditional Hindus see the Lingam as a masculine emblem of all-
powerful virility and do not equate it principally with the penis, many Western
scholars have filled whole library shelves discussing the phallocentrism of this
18. In a slightly different context and without the restraint or subversion, but
in the manner of asserting presence, Maharaj’s work brings to mind Anish Ka-
poor’s (U.K.) impressive sculptures, another diasporic artist, whose sphere “OM”
was exhibited in the M. Sackler Gallery in the Smithsonian Institution in Wash-
ington, D.C. in 2000.
19. One wonders how much of the exclusion Maharaj feels when reading this:
“Art is about making a statement informed by an awareness. . . . It is related to
spiritual growth and primal ancestry.” Artist’s statement posted on the website of
the Art Society of Trinidad and Tobago, where Maharaj’s recent paintings were
exhibited, November 2004, available at (re-
trieved 10 July 2005).
20. Bernadette Indira Persaud, Exhibition Catalogue, University of Guyana,
Georgetown, 2000.
21. See Ellen Goldberg, The Lord Who Is Half Woman: Ardhanarishvara in In-
dian and Feminist Perspectives (Albany: SUNY Press, 2002).
22. The left side is interesting in that it shows unmistakable influences of the
Hudson River School. Since Cooper was trained in Boston and has worked in the
United States for over three decades, it is possible to speculate that métissage oc-
Chutney, Métissage, and Other Mixed Metaphors 145

curred in a very different fashion and that she absorbed the sensibilities of her
new home by incorporating the influences of the Hudson River School.
23. Juan Pascual-Leone, Conversation with artist, Toronto, 28 October 2002.
24. The homoeroticism in this canvas is unmistakable, especially in light of the
Canadian reviewer’s comment that “living life without denying ourselves” carries
multiple valences.
Chapter 8

These Are the Breaks

Hip-Hop and AfroAsian Cultural (Dis)Connections

Oliver Wang

April 5, 2002, New York—Jin Auyeung, a rapper of Chinese American de-

scent, wins his seventh week in a row on B.E.T.’s [Black Entertainment
Television] Freestyle Fridays competition. He is only the second rapper in
B.E.T. history to have completed all seven weeks without a loss. During the
course of the competition, Jin is repeatedly attacked by his opponents with
remarks that draw attention to his race, including:

“I’m a star / he just a rookie / leave rap alone and keep making fortune
cookies . . . In the hood / is where they’ll find your body, dog / I’m the kid /
you’re just Mr. Miyagi.” (vs. Sterling, Week 2)

“What you wanna do? / Battle me / or sell me dollar batteries?” (vs. Skitzo,
Week 3)

“Who you supposed to be / Bruce Lee/ with his pants all sagging? / I’ll mur-
der you dog / they’ll be no ‘Return of the Dragon.’ ” (vs. Sean Nicholas,
Week 7)

November 19, 2004, Philadelphia—I am in Philadelphia to appear on two

different panels focusing on the role of Asian Americans in hip-hop. Dur-
ing the evening panel, held at the Asian Arts Initiative, African American
activist Kenyon Farrow asks the panel whether or not the presence of
Asian Americans in hip-hop represents a dehistoricizing or deracializing
of the African American relationship to hip-hop. I briefly address Farrow’s
question in an entry on my personal weblog.1 Farrow responds with an
essay, “We Real Cool? On Hip-Hop, Asian-Americans, Black Folks, and
Appropriation.”2 Within it, Farrow elaborates on his question at the panel:

These Are the Breaks 147

“Since we live in this multi-racial state which still positions Blackness

socio-economically and politically at the bottom, how does the presence
of Asian Americans in hip-hop, this black cultural art form, look any dif-
ferent than that of white folks in Jazz, Blues, and Rock & Roll?”

March 15, 2005, San Francisco—Jeff Chang, a music journalist of Chinese

American descent, appears on KQED FM’s morning talk show, “Forum,”
to talk about his new book, Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-
Hop Generation. During the call-in portion, former University of Califor-
nia, Berkeley, Professor Cecil Brown phones in and asserts:

The problem in the case of white journalists is even more insidious in the
appropriation because they are stifling, they are taking the voice of the
Black hip hopper. Who needs the voice of Chan [sic] giving us Black people?
We need Black people expressing themselves, their voice, it’s their hip-hop.3

The year 2004 represented an unprecedented time for public awareness

around Asian Americans in hip-hop, almost all of it stemming from the
debut release of Jin’s The Rest Is History, the first rap album by an Asian
American artist released on a major, corporate label.4 This sudden public-
ity helped bring Asian American rappers out of a state of relative invisibil-
ity, but it also exposed undercurrents of racial tension between African
Americans and Asian Americans. For much of the last fifteen and more
years, it has become commonplace wisdom and belief that hip-hop cul-
ture represents an idealized space for multicultural cooperation and com-
munity building. Journalists and scholars alike have focused on hip-hop’s
massive appeal among youth globally, drawing attention to how, as an
expressive form, hip-hop finds deep resonance with a wide array of com-
munities spanning racial, gender, class, and other social lines. Few debate
that hip-hop enjoys such large, diverse participation, but the idea that the
culture’s proliferation—and subsequent adoption—has been universally
celebrated is an assumption that is increasingly being cast into doubt, as
those three opening paragraphs attest. Rather than treat hip-hop as a
space for universal inclusion, it is becoming increasingly clear that the par-
ticipation of Asian Americans in hip-hop happens within a contested ter-
rain that is inextricably linked to long-standing tensions between Asian
Americans and African Americans. Therefore, hip-hop represents an
opportunity for contact but also potential grounds for conflict.
148 o l i v e r w a n g

This essay explores hip-hop as a social space where African Americans

and Asian Americans encounter one another in both constructive and
cautionary ways. In order to organize the range of issues present in such
a topic, first I briefly summarize a history of Asian American rappers, fo-
cusing on how they have negotiated their race and ethnic identities with-
in hip-hop’s own racial paradigm. Second, I look at how the increasing
prominence of Asian Americans in hip-hop, especially with the career of
Jin, has brought out concerns around cultural appropriation and Afro-
Asian race relations. Third and last, I hone in on a question that popular
culture scholar George Lipsitz raises in discussing the kind of “cultural
collusion and collision” that Asian Americans in hip-hop is an example of:
“Which kinds of cross-cultural identification advance emancipatory ends
and which ones reinforce existing structures of power and domination?”5

Since its emergence as a street culture from the South Bronx in the 1970s,
hip-hop has evolved into a dynamic expressive form that has long drawn
on a multitude of different cultural traditions and influences.6 It is also,
unquestionably, a Black cultural form, not only drawing from a range of
African American and Afro-diasporic vernacular, musical, and other aes-
thetic traditions but also positioning within American society as clearly
within a sociopolitical context of Blackness. In other words, hip-hop is in-
separably tied into Black public culture.7
Those two statements are not, in any way, contradictory. Hip-hop can
have its roots in Blackness yet also be the product of cultural encounters
from outside Afro-diasporic influences. In an age of electronic media,
contemporary cultures are almost always transformed when brought into
contact with others. Neither are there “pure” cultural forms that have not
been affected through hybrid practices or encounters. In this understand-
ing, the term “Black” does not presume there is a 100 percent authentic
Blackness out there any more than there is a 100 percent authentic “Asian
Americanness” out there (the latter identity was a construction from its
very inception as a term).8 However, understanding and appreciating hip-
hop’s syncretic roots does not fundamentally change its relationship—
especially in the popular imagination—to Blackness.9
With this in mind, one should also consider that just because culture
integrates does not mean that people necessarily do. Popular culture can
create opportunities for meaningful contact between communities, and
culture often absorbs and expresses tensions not easily resolved through
other social institutions like the government or an economic system. How-
These Are the Breaks 149

ever, this does not mean that culture is able to actually resolve these ten-
sions. Whatever potential might exist is only realizable through human and
social will and dedication and, therefore, culture’s emancipatory promise is
not always (or often) realized.

In regards to hip-hop and the Asian American community, the waves of

Asian American rappers from the early 1990s up through Jin’s emergence
reflect a series of changing perspectives and negotiations with race.10
Given the relationship between hip-hop and Black public culture, there
exists what one might call a “racial authenticity” within the public imagi-
nation whereas the idea of a “real” rapper is often automatically associated
with Black faces. Non-Black rappers, especially Asian Americans,11 create a
visible break from that norm, thereby necessitating some form of negotia-
tion or positioning to resolve the rupture.
Prior to Jin’s emergence, I posit three distinct waves of Asian American
rappers, each of which has pursued different negotiations of racial identi-
ties. The first wave, comprised of Asian American rappers from the early
1990s, were what I would call “Raptivists”—social activists who turned to
hip-hop as a means to reach the public through popular culture. Influ-
enced by both the radical racial politics of the 1960s Black Power and
other social movements, as well as by the emergence of politicized rap
groups like Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, and others, Asian
American college students began to form their own groups including (but
not limited to) the University of Washington’s Seoul Brothers (Korean),
University of California, Davis’s Asiatic Apostles (Chinese and Filipino),
San Francisco’s Fists of Fury (Korean), Oberlin College’s Art Hirahara
(Japanese), and Rutgers University’s Yellow Peril (Chinese). Most of these
groups were highly politicized in their song content—for example, Fists
of Fury rapped about interracial dating (“Sleeping with the Enemy”),
Black/Korean relations (“Black Korea II”), and a racist educational system
(“After School”). A quote from the latter should put into keen relief the
kind of attitude and mission these artists undertook:

First grade to college

You’re pushed to work hard,
Get all A’s on every report card;
Your teachers will say,
“Isn’t he a bright child,
Not like the Blacks,
150 o l i v e r w a n g

Who always act wild.”

Everyone expects you to be a genius,
Valedictorian when you’re a senior
But, hey, brother, sister, haven’t you heard?
Behind your back, they’re calling you a nerd!12

Raptivists performed mostly at Asian American collegiate and community

events, and very few harbored ambitions to continue with their rapping
careers after college.
By the mid-1990s, a new wave of Asian American rappers emerged, in-
cluding Los Angeles’ Key Kool (Japanese), Philadelphia’s Mountain Broth-
ers (Chinese), and the San Francisco Bay Area’s Lyrics Born (Japanese). I
refer to these artists as “Underground,” reflecting a self-aware aesthetic
of complex authenticity markers contrasting against “mainstream” or
“commercial” artists. Underground artists have generally been more am-
bitious and committed than Raptivists and, as a consequence, their in-
tended audience has been consciously developed to be more diverse than
the Raptivists’ more insular crowds. As such, Underground artists largely
eschewed similar overt political or racial content13 to what Raptivists en-
gaged in. Instead, they favor more conventional hip-hop narratives—
braggadocio, romance/sex, nostalgia—cast against a rhetoric of “the uni-
versal” where hip-hop is seen as belonging to a global community rather
than specific racial groups. Not surprisingly, Underground artists largely
avoid the rhetoric of racial pride (let alone exclusivity) in favor of appeal-
ing to the idea of “skills” (i.e., talent) as being the marker of authenticity
rather than origin.
While these artists have found some success as independent artists, they
have also had to struggle with finding a larger, mainstream audience. For
example, the Mountain Brothers were briefly signed to Ruffhouse Records
in 1997—no small feat considering that, at the time, Ruffhouse also had
superstars such as Cypress Hill and the Fugees signed to their label. How-
ever, an anticipated Mountain Brothers album never materialized, mostly
due to disagreements between the group and label, not the least of which
was Ruffhouse’s struggle to create a suitable marketing campaign for the
group given their racial difference.14
By the late 1990s, a peculiar wave of Asian American rappers appeared,
almost exclusively on the Internet: AZNs. “AZN” is a phonetic spelling of
“Asian” that also signifies the adoption of urban, hip-hop-inspired vernac-
ular.15 Around 1999–2000, a flurry of AZN-related songs began to emerge
These Are the Breaks 151

online, using instrumental tracks from popular hip-hop songs but with
new lyrics that expressed racial pride and superiority. The most famous
example first circulated in 2000, a song called “Got Rice?” that was cred-
ited to AZN Pride.16 Not only did the song adapt its title from the popular
“Got Milk?” advertising campaign of the time, but also its instrumental
track was taken from a hit song by the late rapper Tupac: “Changes.” Using
that familiar sound bed, the lyrics lie somewhere between self-pride and

It’s the A-Z-N, nigga, fuck the rest,

Dallas to New York, jigga, we’re the best.
Vietnam to Japan to Mongolia,
Philippines to Taiwan to Cambodia
Korea Ah Ah
Hometown China, who you got, huh?
You got shit, nigga feel the size,
it’s the A-Z-N better recognize.
Got rice bitch? Got rice?
Got food, got soup, got spice?
Got brains like us? Got skills like us?
Got cars, got clothes, got girls like us?17

On one level, the AZNs’ desire to put their race front and center bears a
passing similarity to the Raptivists, but the AZN understanding of race is
considerably uncritical and problematic, most obviously evinced by the
disturbing frequency of AZN rappers calling themselves and one another
“nigga” with no apparent recognition of the racial implications of the
term. As “Got Rice?” also suggests, many AZN songs also espouse racial
identities that resemble self-generated caricatures. The AZN phenomenon
has been a striking fusion of music, identity, and technology, but more
research is needed, especially in collecting and analyzing demographic
information on self-identified AZNs, many of whom exist anonymously
within the Internet.

Since the late 1990s, a select few Asian Americans have risen to places of
prominence in the public eye, including the Neptunes’ Chad Hugo (Fil-
ipino), Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda (Japanese), and the Black Eyed Peas’
Allan Pineda, aka (Filipino). However, the best-known Asian
American rapper has been Jin Auyeung, who performs as simply “Jin.”
152 o l i v e r w a n g

Born to immigrant Chinese parents, Jin grew up in Miami and in the early
2000s relocated with his family to the Flushing neighborhood in Queens,
New York.
Following his victories on the Freestyle Fridays competitions, Jin an-
nounced he had signed a contract with the record label, Ruff Ryders (a
subsidiary owned by Virgin Records). Signing Jin was an unusual, risky
move for the Ryders, not just because he was a virtual unknown outside of
the BET audience but most obviously because Jin and the Ryders had to
strategize a way to market an Asian American rapper to a largely Black and
White rap audience, most of whom had never before seen an Asian Amer-
ican rap artist.
While the Underground artists sought to downplay race in favor of
more universal ideals fixated on talent and aesthetics, Jin’s strategy was to
make race as prominent as possible in order to deny his potential detrac-
tors from raising it as an issue against him. His first single, “Learn Chi-
nese,” opens with Jin proclaiming, “Yeah, I’m Chinese. And what? The days
of the pork fried rice coming to your door are over.” That line is both a
statement and a challenge, effectively daring his would-be critics to make
race an issue. Not only that, but Jin symbolically kills off one dominant
stereotype of Asian masculinity, the docile delivery boy, and replaces it
later in the song with an equally flat caricature: the rough-riding China-
town gangster.18
“Learn Chinese” was first released in the spring of 2004, and in between
then and the eventual release of The Rest Is History in October of the same
year, a deluge of press heralded Jin’s debut. The quantity and quality of
press Jin received was unusual for a new rapper. Hip-hop publications like
XXL published features on Jin,19 and so did many newspapers and even
high-profile mainstream media outlets like the New York Times Maga-
zine,20 National Public Radio,21 and Newsweek.22
In these features, Jin was well aware of the issues of race and authentic-
ity surrounding him. In London’s Guardian newspaper, Jin told reporter
Dorian Lynskey, “Let’s be honest, if I wasn’t Chinese, the New York Times
wouldn’t have wanted to write about me. So I take it for what it is.”23 The
observation was astute, as Jin recognized why the New York Times—or any
of the other dozens of publications that ran stories on him—took notice:
a story about “an Asian American rapper” laid out an instant and easy-to-
understand narrative, that of the “outsider” (Jin) trying to make his way
into the “inside” culture of Black hip-hop. Practically every story on Jin
relied on this basic narrative, and while it netted him considerable press,
These Are the Breaks 153

race has been a double-edged sword because it is the one topic that Jin can
never escape. As he himself noted, “It’s a lose-lose situation. I talk about
being Asian, they say I’m exploiting my history to get attention. If I don’t
talk about it, they say, ‘He thinks he’s black.’ ”24 In other words, Jin’s two
choices are either to be a self-exploiting gimmick or a trespassing poseur,
and for reasons that should be obvious, neither is desirable.25
With all of Jin’s visibility, a backlash began to brew. Envy runs high in
an industry as competitive as hip-hop, especially for new artists trying to
distinguish themselves against one another. With Jin, however, the racial
element created another, deeper layer of controversy and concern. Writer
Kevin Kim summed up the core issue in his profile of Jin for Colorlines

Instead of trimming the tale’s excesses or tracing the racism constraining

Jin’s every move, most observers turned to street-wise model minority
myth. The protagonist was still stereotypically Asian, but this time the cul-
ture penetrated decidedly black. Asians were set against blacks (“Chinese in
a black world,” one suburban headline blared).26

The “Asian vs. Black” narrative that Kim observed formed the focus, for
example, of the Guardian’s profile. Its subhead was telling: “Jin could be
hip-hop’s first Asian-American star—racism doesn’t stop him.”27 Author
Lynskey referred primarily to racism within the hip-hop community to-
ward Asians, drawing on three examples: (1) Ice Cube’s controversial 1991
song, “Black Korea,”28 that referenced the Black/Korean tensions in Los
Angeles prior to the L.A. rebellion of 1992; (2) the 2005 “Tsunami Song”
recorded by New York urban radio station Hot 97, which mocked the
Asian victims of the December 2004 Indian Ocean disaster using racially
derisive language;29 and (3) Jin’s experience facing racist comments during
MC battles such as the ones I detailed at the essay’s beginning.
Lynskey puts the onus of intolerance onto other hip-hop performers,
or, in the case of the Hot 97 incident, media gatekeepers. However, in fo-
cusing on Hot 97 or Ice Cube, Lynskey neglects to consider that Jin’s most
powerful antagonists are neither other rappers nor morning radio show
hosts but hip-hop consumers and the record executives who base their de-
cisions on what they think they see in the market. Jin—or any other non-
Black rapper—has to convince both white and black hip-hop consumers
that they are “authentic,” despite their racial difference. Most record labels
would hesitate to sign an artist unless they were reasonably assured of that
154 o l i v e r w a n g

acceptance as well. This creates a classic paradox: consumers cannot deter-

mine whether they will support an artist until there is music for them to
listen to and weigh in on. And although artists usually have to rely on a
record label to distribute the music to begin with, executives are wary of
signing unknown acts until they have a sense of what the public thinks.
That contradiction is sufficient to maintain a status quo that effectively
keeps many non-Black rap artists from entering the market.
This is precisely why Jin’s story earned so much coverage in the press—
even mainstream publications that do not specialize in hip-hop coverage
understood that Jin was an unusual artist. However, as Lynskey’s article
insinuated—and as Kim’s essay observed—Jin’s story became framed as
a conflict between Asian and Black, and, not surprisingly, other pundits
picked up on this thread and soundly critiqued it.
In the wake of Jin’s press deluge, two essays were circulated on the In-
ternet by December of 2004. The first to appear was “The Hype about
Asian Rappers Reveals Low Standards for Asian Americans in Race Poli-
tics,” by Tamara Kil Ja Kim Nopper, a self-described “writer, researcher,
educator, and activist living in Philadelphia.” A few weeks later, an essay by
New York activist Kenyon Farrow was also circulated via email and then
later posted on the online journal, Chickenbones: “We Real Cool?: On Hip-
Hop, Asian-Americans, Black Folks, and Appropriation.” Both essays use
Jin’s popularity as a jumping-off point to challenge assumptions made
around Asian American participation in hip-hop.
Nopper targets the idea that Asian American rappers and spoken word
artists “are politically more subversive than those who act like ‘model mi-
norities.’”30 Although she believes that Asian American adoptions of Black
cultural practices are read as inherently “political” acts since they go
against the grain of assimilation paths into Whiteness, Nopper counters
that often what is being espoused in the rhetoric of these rappers and
poets hardly contradicts a status quo that upholds capitalist exploitation,
misogyny, or anti-Black racism. In specific reference to Jin, she notes that
some of his rhymes use sexist language and asks, “Are people supposed to
embrace Jin as proof of Asian American cultural pride and ‘subversiveness’
because he battles other male rappers with words that are fucked up
towards women?”31
Farrow has similar points to make in his essay, arguing that participa-
tion in hip-hop is not necessarily a road to racial solidarity. In accusing
Asian Americans of appropriating hip-hop, Farrow suggests that they may
be little different from nineteenth-century White minstrels who aped ele-
These Are the Breaks 155

ments of Black style and culture as a way to affirm White supremacy and
denigrate Blackness. He asks:

If first-generation white European immigrants like Al Jolson could use min-

strelsy (wearing blackface, singing black popular music and mimicking their
idea of Black people) to not only ensure their status as white people, but
also to distance themselves from Black people, can Asian Americans use
hip-hop (the music, clothing, language and gestures, sans charcoal make-
up), and everything it signifies to also assert their dominance over Black
bodies, rather than their allegiance to Black liberation?32

Farrow is arguing against the assumption that hip-hop’s multiracial fol-

lowing is a sign of solidarity between other people of color (who par-
ticipate in or appropriate hip-hop) and the interests of Black Liberation.
Instead, Farrow urges people to “un-assume that because we’re all up in
hip-hop that we’re all on the same page. Let’s un-assume that because you
might try to look like me or sound like me (or how you think I do both),
that we are working towards the same goal, or that we even have the same
Clearly, Farrow is interested in issues beyond just the realm of hip-hop.
For him, hip-hop is a focal point, a battle site if you will, where larger ten-
sions and conflicts manifest on a smaller scale. Like Nopper, he is arguing
against the belief that cultural crossings are inherently positive or progres-
sive acts, but they need to be critically interrogated before such claims can
be made. Nopper’s concerns echo Farrow’s when she writes, “Asian Ameri-
cans getting involved in Black cultural domains like spoken word and hip
hop doesn’t translate into Asian Americans actually having a radical pol-
itic,” by which she means a politic that seeks to undermine or critique
“social mobility, assimilation, capitalism and anti-Black racism.”34
There are some looming concerns with both Farrow’s and Nopper’s
essays. While accepting that they were publicly circulated personal essays
rather than scholarly articles, both make serious claims without offering
much supportive evidence. For example, Nopper asserts, “Are we supposed
to embrace Asian Americans who use spoken word and hip hop to depict
Black people as politically selfish, jealous, divisive, and uncultured, which
are all statements and gestures that support white hostility towards Blacks
and related claims of ‘reverse racism’?”35 Some level of example—even
anecdotally—would have bolstered her argument, especially since there is
considerable evidence that stands contrary to her claim.36
156 o l i v e r w a n g

Likewise, Farrow’s comparison of Asian American hip-hoppers with

White minstrels fails to offer enough concrete examples to warrant such
an analogy, save for Farrow’s observation that, at the Philadelphia panel,
there were “Asian youth with [dread]locks and hair teased out (and often
chemically treated) to look like afros!”37 Certainly, the aping of Black hair-
styles can serve as an apt example for uncritical adoptions of ethnic cul-
ture, but that is far from making a case that Asian Americans are just
latter-day minstrels. Given the complex history of minstrelsy in America,
especially in relation to Black/White relations,38 invoking the term begs for
a more nuanced argument to prove its point.
This said, both essays insightfully warn against conflating cultural par-
ticipation in, or appropriation of, Black culture with either a critical ap-
preciation of Black experiences or lived, social interaction with Black com-
munities and individuals. I would further extend this critique to say that
hip-hop is hardly alone in the situation; popular culture can too easily
serve as a proxy for actual human interaction and contact, leading to the
kind of politically problematic relationship that Lipsitz has described as
“escapes into postmodern multi-culturalism.”39
On these specific issues, Nopper and Farrow are speaking to difficult
truths that need to be understood and appreciated. Questions of cultural
exploitation and appropriation become all the more relevant in an era
where, within a global marketplace, cultural forms are easily transformed
into commodities that can be produced, sold, and consumed at the speed
of media. In particular, Nopper points out that “in this stage of capitalism,
ethnicity is a hot commodity,”40 drawing attention to both how malleable
ethnic identity has become in contemporary culture, as well as the reality
that “ethnicity” itself has become less tied to generational practices and tra-
ditions and more associated with symbolic markers (for example, henna
tattoos) and gestures (for example, mimicking Black slang) that can be eas-
ily consumed or copied. While, on the surface, these casual adoptions of
culture may seem harmless, they can easily lead to a state of dangerous
unconsciousness that Lipsitz warns against: “To think of identities as in-
terchangeable or infinitely open does violence to the historical and social
constrains imposed on us by structures of exploitation and privilege.”41
This is precisely the flashpoint that concerns Nopper, Farrow, and oth-
ers who are cautious about assigning the cross-cultural participation of
Asian Americans in hip-hop as an inherently libratory action. In those
cases—such as the AZNs—where those crossings lack critical awareness
These Are the Breaks 157

of larger racial issues, they only serve to highlight both historical and con-
temporary inequalities between communities. It is no revelation to note
that there have been immense conflicts and tensions between African
American and Asian American communities, many of them arising out of
the ways in which the two groups have been played off one another to
advance the cause of White supremacy and sustain patterns of systemic
social inequality. Though Farrow does not go far enough in proving the
case that Asian American rappers are equivalent to White minstrels in
either material or even symbolic ways, he is more accurate in arguing that
Asian Americans have often benefited—intentionally or not—from the
legacy of discrimination against African Americans that stems back to
colonial slavery and beyond. As Susan Koshy cogently argues in her essay,
“Morphing Race into Ethnicity: Asian Americans and Critical Transfor-
mation of Whiteness,” there are key historical moments where Asian
Americans—when given the option—have tried to position themselves
closer to White privilege and away from solidarity with Black communi-
ties.42 Hers is a sobering study of how the hegemony of racial inequality is
perpetuated through the active participation of marginalized groups and
not just the will of the oppressor.
However, it is important to resist the temptation to perceive AfroAsian
cultural crossings as worst-case scenarios, where Asian Americans are pre-
sumed to be consuming Black culture and style in one breath, while exhal-
ing invectives and criticisms of African Americans in the next. Few things
in culture are rarely so (if you pardon the cliché) black and white. Under-
standing the nuances is not simply for the sake of accuracy, but it can also
open up the space of political possibilities rather than a series of fatalistic
dead-ends.43 For example, I argue that the concern about AfroAsian cul-
tural relations is not that Asian American rap artists or fans hold viciously
derogatory views of African Americans but, rather, the reverse: that some
Asian Americans romanticize the African American experience and be-
lieve that their participation in hip-hop brings them closer in solidarity
with African Americans.
Jin himself attempted this in his song “Same Cry” from The Rest Is His-
tory, suggesting that African Americans and Asian Americans have more in
common than they think, specifically through the struggles and tragedies
they have faced. For example, he rhymes about the Tiananmen massacre
and the SARS epidemic, but his third set of verses most specifically at-
tempt to forge cross-cultural understanding:
158 o l i v e r w a n g

Stuck between a rock and a hard place,

Thinkin ’bout the refugees that went to see Gods face.
Sixteen thousand miles across the ocean tides,
Some died, some got lucky and survived.
I wouldn’t call it luck, they reached their destination
Modern-day slavery without the plantation.
Them sneakers on ya feet cost a hundred a pop,
My people’s making 15 cents a day at sweatshops,
To make them kicks so you can look good
Think we open restaurants ’cause we cook good?44

To be sure, “Same Cry” has its share of problems, especially in compar-

ing refugee experiences to American slavery. Though refugees fled to the
United States under the most adverse of conditions, Africans were forcibly
removed and brought to America as slaves. Though both are reflective of
dire circumstances, the conditions of migration, especially in relation to
power and privilege, are vastly different between the two.
However, “Same Cry” is clearly meant to be a bridge between commu-
nities, flimsy as the construction may be. I am not suggesting that good
intentions equal good politics. However, in addressing Lipsitz’s question
about discerning between cultural crossings that “advance emancipatory
ends” versus reinforcing “existing structures of power and domination,”
the desire of these artists to work and speak cross-culturally is entirely rel-
evant, and the desire for Asian American hip-hop fans to think of rap
music as a way to bridge experiences between themselves and other com-
munities—especially Black—cannot be easily dismissed, either.
After all, one reason Asian Americans (among many other communi-
ties of youth around the world) have taken so strongly to hip-hop (besides
for its pleasures as a cultural form) is because it has come to represent a
form of alterity that marginalized groups identify with. This holds as true
for Algerian youth in Paris as it does for Korean youth in Tokyo as it does
for Maori youth in Auckland. That desire to identify with hip-hop’s out-
spoken politics of identity can provide the basis for the beginning of a
potential dialogue between different groups. It has the potential of bridg-
ing the gulf created by historical structures of inequality or interpersonal
conflicts. Obviously, these dialogues are not guaranteed to achieve “eman-
cipatory ends” simply on the basis of intent, but they are an attempt to
bridge commonalities between communities that share long histories of
disenfranchisement and marginalization.
These Are the Breaks 159

Postscript: May 20, 2005, New York

Jin tells AllHipHop.Com, “No more studio for me,” and records a song “I
Quit” that announces his retirement.45 He does not elaborate on his rea-
sons, though he asserts that it was not for poor record sales (his album,
The Rest Is History, sold modestly at around 100,000 units—not a disaster,
but far from being a success). On one of his personal websites, he closes
his retirement announcement with, “Just remember: I wasn’t the first. And
I certainly will not be the last.”46
It was ironic to receive word of Jin’s retirement while I was completing
this essay. After all, it was Jin’s unique rise into prominence that catalyzed
many of the issues discussed above. With his departure, it is once again the
case that no Asian American rappers are signed to a major label. This is
not an inherently “bad thing”—one would be hard pressed to argue that
there needs to be an Asian American rapper situated in the industry. How-
ever, it does serve as a reminder that the Asian American presence in hip-
hop is tenuous at best, especially at the level of the recording industry
where Asian Americans are anything but entrenched, either symbolically
or structurally.
If the history of Asian American rappers suggests anything, it is that
race still matters in hip-hop. Fears around its wholesale deracialization,
while understandable given how other Black music has been appropriated
throughout the twentieth century, are yet to be realized in hip-hop. For
the foreseeable future, the relationship between hip-hop and Blackness
will still remain normative, though there are provocative shifts happening
on a smaller level within newly budding hip-hop subcommunities.47 Fur-
thermore, as Jin’s experience shows us, if and when Asian Americans begin
to take a more public role in shaping and representing hip-hop, this will
likely invite challenges and questions about what their involvement means
for hip-hop and for the larger backdrop in AfroAsian cultural connections
and relations.
It must be said that hip-hop, despite its long-standing cross-cultural
appeal, is not an ideal space in which AfroAsian relations should be forged
and developed. As an expressive form that has flourished in an era of elec-
tronic media, hip-hop has become easily consumable from the comfort of
one’s private home. Enjoying hip-hop may be a commonality that people
share with others, but as I have stressed throughout, it does not inher-
ently compel human interaction simply through the act of consumption.
Obviously, the same can be said of most cultural forms that have been
160 o l i v e r w a n g

commodified, but the political traditions of hip-hop have created false

expectations for its worth as a tool for social organizing and cross-cultural
coalition building. Hip-hop can serve that function in the hands of astute
and forward-thinking social activists,48 but it cannot be assumed that it
always will.
In short, hip-hop is no panacea to solving tension and conflicts be-
tween African Americans and Asian Americans. Where I do see some
potential, though, is the way in which hip-hop has and will define the cul-
tural experiences of several generations of young people in America. It
has been the dominant cultural force of the last twenty years, and as its
popularity continues to grow, it forms a cultural foundation that, ideally,
individuals from different communities can relate to and share. Again—
shared cultural habits do not erase historical enmities, and they cannot
resolve larger structural inequalities. They are merely a starting point—an
opportunity for conversation or even confrontation. What is important
here is the opening of communication, without which the possibility for
change and transformation cannot exist.
The last thing I want to stress is the need for more research on Asian
Americans in hip-hop from the perspective of the audience. My essay,
as well as those by Nopper, Farrow, and others, tends to focus on Asian
American artists, and while the perspectives of cultural producers are cer-
tainly important, they cannot be presumed to have the same views or val-
ues as consuming audiences. This shortcoming in existing scholarship
reflects the ways in which much hip-hop research is based around meth-
odologies of lyrical or other textual analysis; but what is needed is more
ethnographic and similarly qualitative data that examines what hip-hop
means to the youth who actively consume it. If hip-hop can offer the
potential for communities to forge meaningful contact and dialogue, it
would behoove future scholars to find ways to gather the opinions and tes-
timonials of different youth groups to determine what hip-hop means to
them and their aspirations for (or against) cross-cultural connections.

The development of this essay and its arguments owes much to conversations I
have had in the last year with several colleagues and peers, especially Jeff Chang,
Tamara Nopper, Jared Sexton, and Ronnie Brown.
1. Oliver Wang, “He’s Your Chinaman,” Pop Life, 22 November 2004, available
These Are the Breaks 161

.html (retrieved 27 July 2005).
2. Kenyon Farrow, “We Real Cool? On Hip-Hop, Asian-Americans, Black
Folks, and Appropriation,” ChickenBones, November 2004, available at http://www (retrieved 27 July 2005) .
3. Cecil Brown, Phone-in comment, “The History and Future of Hip Hop”
Forum with Michael Krazny, KQED 88.5FM, San Francisco, 15 March 2005, avail-
able at (retrieved 27 July 2005). Note
how Brown conflates—at the very least, confuses—Chang as a “white journalist.”
4. As opposed to released on a small, independent label.
5. George Lipsitz, Dangerous Crossroads: Popular Music, Postmodernism and the
Politics of Place (New York: Verso, 1997), 56.
6. See Jeff Chang, Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation
(New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005). Chang’s discussion of hip-hop’s origins in the
South Bronx is one of the most comprehensive histories compiled to date.
7. See Tricia Rose, Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary
America (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 2004), chapter 2. Also see
Imani Perry, Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop (Durham: Duke
University Press, 2005), chapter 1. Both Rose and Perry discuss, at length, the
indelible relationship between hip-hop and African American/Afro-diasporic cul-
tural traditions.
8. Blackness and Whiteness may exist as concepts for racial identities, but
there is no equivalent “Asianness.” The pan-ethnic ties that bond Asian Americans
to one another is based on a shared, conscious political will but not necessarily
common cultural or historical similarities. As such, Asian American political soli-
darity—to say nothing of a unified cultural identity—is fractured at best, making
it difficult to accurately speak about an “Asian American community” that is truly
inclusive of that group’s internal diversity and differences. See Yen Le Espiritu,
Asian American Panethnicity (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992).
9. See Perry, Prophets of the Hood, chapter 1, for an extended discussion about
reconciling hip-hop’s hybrid roots with its connection to Blackness.
10. This section is largely adapted from my essay: Oliver Wang, “Asiatic Static:
Race, Authenticity and the Asian American Essay,” in Alien Encounters: Popular
Culture in Asian America, ed. Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu and Mimi Nguyen (Durham:
Duke University Press, 2006). In that essay, I expand in far more historical detail
on the adaptive strategies that different Asian American rappers have taken in
negotiating their racial identities when faced with hip-hop’s racial authenticity.
11. Differences between African American and Asian American men, in partic-
ular, manifest in striking ways in the realm of the symbolic. If contemporary Black
masculinity is associated with stereotypes of hypermasculinity and hypersexual-
ity, physical aggression, and the underclass, these stand in almost diametric oppo-
sition to so-called model minority stereotypes of Asian masculinity: effete or
162 o l i v e r w a n g

asexual, passive, middle class. In other words, one could argue that what largely
defines Asian masculinity is the absence of traits associated with Black masculin-
ity. See Kobena Mercer, “Black Masculinity and the Sexual Politics of Race,” Wel-
come to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies (New York: Routledge,
1994), 131 – 170; Yen Le Espiritu, “Ideological Racism and Cultural Resistance,”
Asian American Women and Men (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1997), 86 – 107.
(Thanks to Shannon Steen for reminding me of this obvious dichotomy.)
12. Fists of Fury, “After School,” unreleased demo, 1993.
13. There were exceptions to this, notably Key Kool’s single about the World
War II incarceration of Japanese Americans called “Reconcentrated.”
14. The Mountain Brothers eventually released their debut album, Self, Vol. 1,
through their own independent label in 1998, though they were able to get their
video, “Galaxies,” onto MTV—one the first Asian American rap artists able to
do so.
15. The “AZN” name was one of several kinds of cultural markers that these
youth deployed. Another popular convention was spelling sentences using ran-
dom uppercase and lowercase lettering, such aS ThiS pHRaSe heRe.
16. It is unclear if “AZN Pride” is the name of a group because the term
became an all-purpose, generic name given to many different songs recorded in a
similar style as “Got Rice?” For example, an online search for songs by “AZN
Pride” would call up dozens of different songs that were clearly recorded by differ-
ent artists. For the song’s lyrics, refer to
17. AZN Pride, “Got Rice?,” 2000.
18. However limited Jin’s politics may be in “Learn Chinese,” he is most cer-
tainly conscious of the circulation of racialized stereotypes about Asianness and
Asian malehood in particular, and “Learn Chinese,” in its own bombastic way,
goes about trying to offer a shotgun spray’s worth of correctives. This includes
everything from a critique of the mainstream American media apparatus (“this
ain’t Bruce Lee/ ya’ll watch too much TV”) to single-serving size tidbits of Asian
American history (“we should ride the trains for free/ we built the railroads”) to
the reclamation of racial epithets as an act of pride (“stop/ the chinks took over
the game”). The video for the song, which appeared on all the major rap video
outlets, mirrored many of the same ideas in its imagery, with the camera following
Jin into a Chinese restaurant kitchen, posh gangster den, and street block filled
with Asian-influenced racing cars. The street scenes are interesting, too, because
elsewhere in the video most of the people we see are Asian, but on the street Jin is
surrounded by a conspicuously multiracial crowd, in particular, the Fugees’ Wyclef
Jean—the song’s producer—who stands next to Jin in these shots, making explicit
the idea that Jin is able to move freely through these different cultural spaces with-
out contradiction.
19. Mr. Parker, “Golden Child,” XXL (September 2002): 158–162.
These Are the Breaks 163

20. Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Just Another Quick-Witted, Egg-Roll-Joke-Making,

Insult-Hurling Chinese-American Rapper,” New York Times Magazine, 21 Novem-
ber 2002, 55.
21. Derek John, “Asian-American Rapper Jin Makes Hip-Hop History,” Day to
Day. NPR, 26 October 2004, available at
.php?storyId=4126877 (retrieved 27 July 2005).
22. Lorraine Ali, “A Whole New Rap,” Newsweek, 8 November 2004, 56.
23. Dorian Lynskey, “Straight outta Chinatown,” Guardian, 3 March 2005, 15.
24. Jim Farber, “Jin’s a Tonic,” New York Daily News, 17 October 2004, 20.
25. These poles reflect competing logics around cultural crossings within hip-
hop: people either desire full and open access to hip-hop (the logic of the market
system) or take up defensive stands around it (the logic of cultural parochialism).
Finding a middle ground between the two extremes is difficult since advocacy for
one often has the effect of only emboldening the other to strike back defensively.
26. Kevin Kim, “Rapping Chinatown,” Colorlines Magazine 7.4, Winter 2004,
available at (retrieved 27
July 2005).
27. Lynskey, “Straight outta Chinatown,” 15.
28. Richard Harrington, “Billboard’s Hot Refrain: Editorial Decries Ice Cube’s
‘Racism,’ ” Washington Post, 20 November 1991, D7.
29. David Hinckley, “ ‘Tsunami Song’ Fallout: 3 Suspended, 2 Fired,” New York
Daily News, 2 February 2005, 80.
30. Tamara Nopper, “The Hype about Asian Rappers Reveals Low Standards for
Asian Americans in Race Politics,” Azine, 3 December 2004, available at http://www 1.html (retrieved 14 March 2006).
31. Ibid.
32. Farrow, “We Real Cool?”
33. Ibid.
34. Nopper, “Hype about Asian Rappers.”
35. Ibid.
36. For example, prominent Asian American spoken word artists such as Chi-
cago’s now-defunct I Was Born with Two Tongues and Minneapolis’ Bao Phi have
explicitly talked about their commitment to social justice causes in partnership
with other communities of color, especially African Americans. Likewise, in over
thirteen years of researching and writing on Asian American rap artists, I have
never conducted or read a single interview where Asian American rappers have
“depicted Black people as politically selfish, jealous, divisive, and uncultured, ” as
Nopper asserts in “Hype about Asian Rappers.” While this may be how certain
media outlets have chosen to frame narratives around Asian American rappers
(such as Lanskey’s profile on Jin for the Guardian), in my experience, it has never
been the case where the artists themselves have expressed such views.
37. Farrow, “We Real Cool?”
164 o l i v e r w a n g

38. See Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Work-
ing Class (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).
39. Lipsitz, Dangerous Crossroads, 63.
40. Nopper, “Hype about Asian Rappers.”
41. Lipsitz, Dangerous Crossroads, 62.
42. Susan Koshy, “Morphing Race into Ethnicity: Asian Americans and Critical
Transformation of Whiteness,” Boundary 2.28 (2001): 153–194.
43. Sylvia W. Chan, “From Coolies to Courvoisier: Asian Americans and the
Failure of Orientalism” (currently being prepared for publication), does an exem-
plary job of discussing the crucial differences between Orientalism within a white,
colonial context and Orientalist gestures performed by African Americans within
contemporary hip-hop and R@B songs and videos. Chan argues that treating all
Orientalisms as the same threatens to flatten an understanding of power and in-
equality that could effectively “prevent the possibilities of unities-in-difference—
the alliances and coalitions needed to work towards a liberatory politics.”
44. Jin Auyeung, “Same Cry,” The Rest Is History, Compact Disc, Virgin Rec-
ords, 2005.
45. Strong Nolan, “Jin Says Rap Career Is Over, Records ‘I Quit,’”,
20 May 2005, available at (retrieved 27
July 2005).
46. Auyeung, “Same Cry.”
47. See Jon Caramanica, “Emo Rap: Up from the Underground,” Spin, 12 Feb-
ruary 2004, available at
rap_up_from_underground/ (retrieved 27 July 2005). In this intriguing article,
Caramanica chronicles the rise of mostly white hip-hop audiences oriented
around specific rappers such as New York’s Aesop Rock and Minnesota’s Slug. See
also Bakari Kitwana, “The Cotton Club: Black-Conscious Hip-Hop Deals with an
Overwhelmingly White Live Audience,” Village Voice, 24 June 2005, available at,kitwana,65332,22.html (retrieved 27 July
2005). Kitwana also discusses the rise of predominant white rap audiences and
weighs in on the implication of what this means for hip-hop’s identity politics.
48. See Kate Bowman, “Turning Rhymes into Votes: Political Power and the
Hip-Hop Generation,” Sojourners, June 2004, available at
index.cfm?action=magazine.article&issue=soj0406&article=040638 (retrieved 27
July 2005).
Part III

Performing AfroAsian Identities

Chapter 9

Racing American Modernity

Black Atlantic Negotiations of Asia and the
“Swing” Mikados

Shannon Steen

It is here in the Pacific that the future drama of our

expanding commerce will be enacted. The play of rival
forces now finds the Pacific for its stage.
—San Francisco Chronicle, 31 August 1925, on the
occasion of the first nonstop flight between
California and Hawaii


In the spring of 1939, in a New York humbled by the economic losses of

the Depression, and confronted by the specter of German fascism, Japan-
ese imperial expansion, domestic isolationist pressures, and the racial in-
equities of Jim Crow, Broadway producer Michael Todd staged a hit show,
The Hot Mikado (Figure 1). A spin-off of the enormously successful Swing
Mikado (1938) staged by the Federal Theater Project (FTP) with a black
cast the previous year (Figure 2), Todd’s “hot” version brought the house
down every night with a startling joke: as the African American actor Ed-
die Green opened a telegram announcing the impending arrival of the
Japanese emperor, he exclaimed in consternation, “It’s in Japanese!” and
then remembered in delight, “Oh! We’re Japanese!”
What was the cultural resonance of a black actor’s claim to be Japanese?
Green’s punch line illuminates how American modernity was precariously
forged on a continent uncomfortably situated between two differently
racialized, cross-oceanic cultures—the Atlantic and the Pacific. The joke

168 s h a n n o n s t e e n

Fig. 1. (top) Act II finale, The Hot Mikado. Billy Rose Theatre Collection, The New
York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.
Fig. 2. (bottom) Katisha and the Mikado cakewalk, Act II, The Swing Mikado.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Federal Theatre Project Collection.

imagined America’s future through its relationship to Asia, while carrying

its black Atlantic present into that negotiation. The creation of a swing
adaptation of The Mikado seems at first glance a perfect example of Joseph
Roach’s circum-Atlantic performance—one that contributes to an “oce-
anic interculture” founded on the “diasporic and genocidal histories of Af-
Racing American Modernity 169

rica and the Americas.”1 Indeed, the swing Mikados Americanized a quint-
essentially British cultural product through white fantasies of African
American expressive forms. But these fantasies did not just reinforce the
circum-Atlantic basis of U.S. national identity. The disparate visions in the
swing Mikados of an implied black Pacific culture were used to perform
the permeability of what David Palumbo-Liu has called the “racial fron-
tier” constituted by America’s westernmost border.2 In other words, Asia
was figured in the productions as the site through which the United States
would create a modern status distinct from that of Europe, and blackness
was used as the vehicle through which Asia could be Americanized.
In response to the heavy reliance on the racial binary that has effaced
the influence of Asian American presence on U.S. racial structures, Claire
Jean Kim has offered instead a racial “triangulation”—a system in which
Asians are positioned “between” black and white Americans with respect
to qualities of virtue, intellect, and enterprise but positioned entirely re-
motely from black or white Americans by virtue of their seeming “foreign-
ness.”3 How might our models of race, modernity, and nationalism in
America change if we adopted alternative racial geometries like Kim’s? I’d
like to use the swing adaptations of The Mikado to suggest here my own
alternative model. These shows demonstrate how distinct racial categories
were deployed against one another within white fantasies of difference in
an attempt to shore up the racial and geopolitical boundaries of the Amer-
ican nation-state in the late 1930s, a time in which the United States tried
aggressively to consolidate its own status as a power in the modern world.
Specifically, they challenge us to scrutinize the effect America’s relation-
ship to Asia had on the creation and implementation of racial categories.
In these performances, one racialized geopolitical entity—an already in-
ternalized black Atlantic culture—intersected and buttressed national and
racial identities challenged by another, newly emergent but equally racial-
ized geopolitical entity, the Asian/Pacific.4
As David Palumbo-Liu and others have noted, the United States of the
early twentieth century viewed East Asia as an arena through which it
could compete against the European colonialist powers in order to be-
come one of the elite global powers. As the United States attempted to
extend its cultural, economic, and military influence in East Asia, white
America mobilized, and in some cases altered, images of African Ameri-
cans in order to manage anxieties raised by Asia and Asian American im-
migration. Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1885 original had satirized contemporary
English attitudes toward sexuality and capital punishment by projecting
170 s h a n n o n s t e e n

those tensions onto Japan, a projection itself enabled by the forcible open-
ing of Japanese trade to the West in 1853 that produced an England awash
in Japanese trinkets. The swing adaptations of the 1930s used a set of
primitivist cultural references to re-project the Orientalist parody of Gil-
bert and Sullivan’s original onto the American cultural scene through the
associations of swing with blackness. While the Victorian British fascina-
tion with Japan had similarities to that of swing-era America (indeed,
these similarities allowed for the musical to “play” to both audiences), it
contained significantly less anxiety, as Japan had not yet become a poten-
tial naval and imperial power in 1885 when the original show premiered.
While they similarly intended to parody Japan, the 1930s productions did
so at the expense of African Americans. The new adaptations did not sim-
ply use black actors to translate The Mikado to an American context, how-
ever, but staged a chain of incomplete racial displacements to perform a
national racial context that was at once black, white, and Asian.
Intended as novel and comic relief, the chaotic, competing fantasies of
race and nation in the two swing Mikados drove one of the most fascinat-
ing theatrical rivalries of the late 1930s. Once both shows opened in New
York in the spring of 1939, playing in theaters located across the street
from one another, they became the talk of the town and the hits of the
season, and their competition even forced a scrutiny of government inter-
vention in commercial trade that prompted some critics to call for the
closure of the FTP itself.5 Trumpeted in print everywhere from the New
Yorker to Time magazine, the “Battle of the Black Mikados,”6 as it came to
be known, performed a densely concatenated series of American racial an-
xieties and pleasures and invented a spectacular way of thinking through
various challenges to domestic and foreign racial and national stability.
Using the black cultural associations of the swing era, the shows staged a
series of fantasy journeys across the Pacific, which beckoned to an Amer-
ica attempting to invent its modernity by shrugging off its associations
with Europe. The FTP’s Swing Mikado, for example, staged an Edenic
island paradise associated with anthropologically inspired fantasies, in
which the romantic heroine Yum Yum was transformed into the Black
Narcissus prominently displayed in the pages of National Geographic, in
which Gilbert’s bumbling tailor Ko Ko was recreated in the stinging words
of one reviewer as a “Japanese Stepin Fetchit,” and in which the maniacal
Mikado was ridiculously recostumed in the perceived sumptuary excesses
of Polynesian aristocracy. The commercial Hot Mikado, in contrast, de-
picted a swinging Japan colonized by African Americans and overrun by
Racing American Modernity 171

Cotton Club aesthetics. Featuring a striped Mt. Fuji, streetlamps hung

with enormous dice, costumes that parodied the 1930s’ couture craze for
japonaiserie, and governed by Bill “Bojangles” Robinson as a tap-dancing
Mikado, the designs of the commercial Broadway show crossed racialized
aesthetics such that Gilbert and Sullivan’s Titipu was populated by “Japan-
ese Jitterbugs.” In both cases, the crossing of Orientalist with primitivist
tropes manifested the hyperbolic fear of the global displacement of whites
by Asians in the face of Asian immigration and Japanese imperial power—
a fear partially discharged by the presence of black actors, who served as a
wily, genuine “American” self that could resist the tide of the Yellow Peril.


In the late 1930s, the United States faced an Asian/Pacific that it contem-
plated through disparate and sometimes competing fantasies. As a result,
the Pacific constituted the most malleable and unstable border that con-
fronted the United States, racially and physically. The Pacific Islands, in
particular, constituted a space of chaotic racial semiotics; anthropological
ideologies and immigration policies, for example, produced indeterminate
notions of whether or not Pacific Island inhabitants were Asian Orientals
or primitive savages. The swing Mikados were staged on the heels of a
range of American policies: the National Origins Act of 1924 that had
halted Asian immigration to the United States altogether, and which also
created the racial category “Asian” by conflating Japanese, Chinese, and
Korean nationals and barring them from legal integration into the Ameri-
can economy; the Tydings-McDuffie Act of 1935, which made the Philip-
pines an independent state, thereby subjecting its citizens to the immigra-
tion controls of the National Origins Act from which they had previously
been exempt; the rapid acceleration of American foreign investment in
China by 600 percent from the mid-1910s to the mid-1930s; and perhaps
most important for the Mikado productions, the apprehensive attempt to
control Japan’s imperial expansion, which the latter justified specifically
on the grounds of intervening in Western incursions into China.7
By 1939, the year the two swing Mikados opened in New York, Japan
had already invaded Taiwan, Korea, Mongolia, and Manchuria and was
feared to intervene in America’s economic agenda in China. In response,
U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull renounced the 1911 Treaty of Com-
merce with Japan in retaliation for its colonization of China, paving the
172 s h a n n o n s t e e n

way for the later trade embargoes that would prompt the 1941 bombing of
Pearl Harbor.8 As the popular and critical acclaim of the swing Mikados
grew, reports of Japan’s activities in the Pacific crept ever closer to the
front page. When the Mikado strode onstage in 1939, then, to declare,
“From every kind of man obedience I expect,” the joke was considerably
more unnerving than in its first utterance in 1885. Until, that is, those
words were put into the mouth of a black actor. That crucial locution un-
consciously returned the specter of Japanese imperialist ambition safely to
the edges of consciousness by ridiculing it through primitivist and min-
strelsy tropes.
White racial anxieties regarding Asians by no means exceeded those
toward African Americans during the Depression. The severe economic
crises during the 1930s renewed fears of black radicalism as African Amer-
icans suffered more extreme effects of the economic downturn than did
their white counterparts.9 The effect of the Depression on African Ameri-
cans was so palpably worse than on white Americans that the latter feared
that “Harlem would go radical” and turn to open rebellion to alleviate the
economic disparity for which the attempt at middle-class private enter-
prise had failed. In fact, 1930s Harlem was ripe for civil unrest. The eco-
nomic discrepancies of the Depression intensified the problems of segre-
gation and political disenfranchisement, and the routine, dehumanizing
practices of police brutality, withholding of health and social services, and
punitive and discriminatory housing practices finally erupted in a riot in
The overwhelming popularity of the Mikado adaptations was eventu-
ally exploited by protest groups over the exclusion of black Americans
from symbolic and economic integration into the American mainstream.
The leftist revue Pins and Needles capitalized on the shows’ notoriety to
demonstrate against the refusal by the Daughters of the American Revo-
lution (D.A.R.) to rent Constitution Hall in Washington D.C. to Marian
Anderson for a recital (the first African American woman to attempt to
perform in that hallowed space). In Pins and Needles’ “Red Mikado,” the
Three Little Maids from School carried fans conspicuously marked “Made
in China” while they sang “Three little D.A.R.s are we / Filled to the brim
with bigotry,” and spurted blue blood when pricked by Ko Ko’s sword.11
Playing on the racist implications of the swing Mikado adaptations, the
revue used the spectacle of happy black Asians to protest the fact that the
D.A.R. had no problems with consuming the products of racial others,
while continuing to exclude them from white public space.
Racing American Modernity 173

Born of the mutual influence and cooperation of black and white musi-
cians in the spirit of New Deal pluralist optimism, swing was positioned
in the shows to maintain the cultural integrity of the United States and,
moreover, to act as a cultural export that could aid the American penetra-
tion of the Pacific. As David Stowe has noted, swing had been perceived
since the 1920s not merely as an authentic American cultural product but
as its preeminent form. The most popular musical and cultural form of
the late 1930s, it produced a range of responses to American black/white
internal racial relations, as it was alternately relished and feared as sweep-
ing aside notions of racial separation and the last vestiges of sexual propri-
ety that remained in the wake of the Roaring Twenties and flapper culture.
Projecting Gilbert and Sullivan’s Orientalist parody onto America, the
new adaptations not only engaged swing to ridicule old-fashioned sexual
mores but also titillated audiences with the specter of miscegenation
raised by swing culture itself. Swing constituted one of the first instances
of desegregation, and in doing so paradoxically maintained racial and
other divisions:

In its simultaneous challenge and acceptance of dominant racial, sexual,

and cultural hierarchies and of large-scale industrial consolidation, swing
acted out larger cultural impulses at the same time that it modified them.
Swing was widely perceived, and understood itself, as both Other and Self—
at once marginal and similar to an “ideal picture of America,” the defining
of which was a central cultural achievement in the years in which swing

Although swing was notable for its collaborations between black and
white bandleaders, composers, and musicians, some of its practitioners
nevertheless saw it as a form devised by white musicians trying to legiti-
mate jazz from its associations with the perceived lewd sexuality of the
Cotton Club and the illegality of the Prohibition speakeasy. While interra-
cial couples might dance together at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, the
world outside the swing clubs continued to reinforce segregation. Swing,
as Stowe points out, instantiated a central American racial paradox: the
interpenetration of racial groups on the one hand that enabled the fantasy
of pluralism and constituted one of the primary national myths of early-
twentieth-century America, and the rigid maintenance of racial bound-
aries that belied that myth on the other.
The foundation for the black Pacific crossing of the swing Mikados had
174 s h a n n o n s t e e n

already been laid within the FTP by other swing revues. In 1936, the
vaudeville unit of San Francisco (a racially desegregated company) pro-
duced Swing Parade, a globe-trotting spectacle set in exotic locales like the
Hawaiian islands and an African jungle (the design for all of which was
inspired by issues of National Geographic), and which culminated in a
meal in Chinatown that led to the display of the recently completed
Golden Gate Bridge, itself a portal to the Pacific funded through the fed-
eral auspices of the Works Progress Administration (WPA).13 The FTP had
mounted several “straight” productions of The Mikado over the course of
the 1930s, and the production teams that designed Gilbert and Sullivan’s
Orientalist spectacle often also created other exotic extravaganzas. The de-
sign team Maxine Borowski and Alexander Jones, for example, created a
Mikado for the FTP in New York in 1936 and later went on to design the
1938 Negro unit revue Swing It. Both Swing It and Swing Parade contained
Chinese characters—the latter in scenes set in Chinatown, in which white
actors played Chinese characters in yellowface; the former in the black
vaudevillian actor Al Young, who perpetuated the vaudeville tradition of
black actors playing Chinese characters. When drafting his production
team for the commercial Hot Mikado, producer Michael Todd poached the
FTP talent pool and recruited Nat Karson—whose last major success had
been the “Voodoo” Macbeth staged for the FTP by Orson Welles and John
Houseman in 1936—to design the sets and costumes. In other words, by
the time the swing Mikados were staged in 1939, the foundation had been
laid within theatrical production systems for the crossing of Orientalist
and primitivist tropes on the level of both content and design, and the cre-
ative teams responsible for staging the shows were already well versed in
both forms of exoticism.
Exactly how The Mikado came to swing is a bit of a mystery. Although a
black minstrelsy troupe had performed The Black Mikado, or the Town of
Kan-Ka-Kee in Boston in 1886,14 and a jazz adaptation of Gilbert and Sulli-
van’s classic had been staged in Berlin in the early 1930s, these productions
appear not to have influenced the American swing versions of 1938–1939.
Harry Minturn, the Chicago director of the FTP, needed a show for his
Negro-unit actors and capitalized on the current swing rage. Minturn pro-
duced the FTP’s Swing Mikado in Chicago in the fall of 1938, where it went
on to provide the biggest box office hit the midwestern unit of the FTP
ever saw. At some time that fall, the FTP considered selling the rights for
the show to a private concern, at which point New York producer Michael
Todd, who already had a straight Mikado to his credit, became interested
Racing American Modernity 175

in acquiring it. But the FTP was reluctant to give up one of its hits and
abandon its actors, who would no longer be assured of work once the
show went into commercial production.
The FTP’s adaptation wasn’t a complete rewriting of Gilbert and Sulli-
van’s original. Although the stage design reproduced the “coral island” of
the South Seas made popular by Margaret Mead in the 1920s, the show
relied musically on the complete original score and lyrics. While it is diffi-
cult to discern from the sheet music exactly how “hard” Arthur Sullivan’s
music was swung in practice (swing being, like jazz, a largely improvisa-
tional form whose textual notation only suggests its rhythmic and melodic
parameters), for the most part adapters Gentry Warden and Charles Levy
retained his chord progressions and only slightly changed the underlying
rhythms of his orchestrations. These encores of Gilbert and Sullivan’s
most famous tunes were performed in swing and maintained the min-
strelsy show practices that were beginning to die out in live performance
(although their cinematic counterparts were to prove to have greater
longevity),15 as did the choreographic elements of the production. Nanki-
Poo’s claim of “patriotic sentiment” in “A Wandering Minstrel” was ac-
companied by a tap-dancing chorus, and the Mikado’s entrance in act two
during “Let the Punishment Fit the Crime” featured him and Katisha
cakewalking in front of a swaying chorus.16
While the actors were black and the music and staging derived from
African American cultural forms, the swing productions still maintained
the Orientalist framework of Gilbert and Sullivan’s original. By designa-
tion of music, lyrics, and staging, these black actors were Japanese. Both
adaptations maintained the paradoxical disavowal of the Japanese status
of its characters located in Gilbert’s original libretto. In the swing versions,
as in the original, the performers persistently reiterated that they both
were and were not Japanese. One of Yum Yum’s friends laments at the
seemingly immanent execution of Nanki Poo that “I would sigh into my
pocket handkerchief, if only the Japanese used pocket handkerchieves!”
Like Eddie Green’s delighted discovery that, “Oh, we’re Japanese!” in The
Hot Mikado, this simultaneous statement and disavowal of Japanese iden-
tity to some extent simply points to the pleasurable blurring between
actor and character that constitutes theatricality itself—that the actor
both is and is not the character she performs. But the racialized nature of
this disavowal in the swing adaptations, in which black actors alternately
claimed and denied their Japanese identities, performed particular cul-
tural work with respect to retaining racial boundaries.
176 s h a n n o n s t e e n

Musically, both shows maintained the aural framing device “Miya

Sama,” Sullivan’s Orientalist leitmotif for the show that opens both the
overture to The Mikado and the second act. Originally sung by the Toka-
gawan army attempting to hold on to the last vestiges of feudal, Shoganate
rule in the late 1860s, “Miya Sama” was introduced to Sullivan by Algernon
Mitford, a member of the British diplomatic corps in Japan in the opening
years of the Meiji period.17 As Michael Beckerman has observed, Sullivan
altered this melody, characterized by the pentatonic ritsu scale that has
become one of the primary markers (if not, indeed, the predominant
aural stereotype) of the Far East, in fragmented, inverted, or otherwise
altered form throughout the score. To this day, the song’s open-fifth inter-
vals are used in Western representations to signify Asia musically (for
example, “Bali Ha’i” from South Pacific, “A Hundred Million Miracles”
from The Flower Drum Song, the Buddhist prayer from The King and I,
and the wedding ceremony from Miss Saigon). This Orientalist leitmotif
weaves throughout the show, creating a framework on which the other
forms that Sullivan exploited to great effect—the madrigal, the patriotic
march—could hang.18 In creating the overture to the show, Sullivan care-
fully highlighted the numbers that featured open-fifth intervals and cre-
ated in effect what Beckerman refers to as “an aural, pseudo-Japanese
scrim” through which the rest of the show is heard. This scrim was used,
he writes, as a “primal defense” against the alien, fascinating presence of
the Japanese in the midst of Victorian England.19 Variously understood to
denote meaningless nonsense, military fervor, or “the foulest song ever
sung in the tea-houses of Japan,”20 “Miya Sama” induced the projection of
classic Orientalist tropes: inscrutability (through its Japanese lyrics), belli-
cose pride (through its associations with the Tokagawan rebellion), and
the lust for flesh and blood that underwrote both throughout the operetta.
These Orientalist tropes structure not only the quality of the music in
the operetta but the text of the show as well. Beckerman points out that
The Mikado contains a striking number of violent images and references
—more than any other in the Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire.21 Ko Ko
temporarily convinces Yum Yum to delay her wedding when he announces
an ancient law that demands the wife of an executed man be buried alive.
The Mikado later pleasurably describes Ko Ko’s fate for killing the heir
to the throne as “something humorous, but lingering, with either boiling
oil or melted lead.”22 When he describes his trumped-up execution of
Nanki Poo, Ko Ko paints a particularly gruesome portrait for the Mikado’s
Racing American Modernity 177

Now you’d have said the head was dead

(For its owner dead was he).
It stood on its neck, with a smile well-bred,
And bowed three times to me!23

Ko Ko’s fantasy unites the trope of bloodthirsty Oriental to the stereotype

of obsequious, ever-smiling Asian servility embodied by Ko Ko himself:

Though trunkless, yet

It couldn’t forget
The deference due to me.”24

If Ko Ko’s execution story unites the tropes of bloodlust and servility,

Yum Yum’s lovely aria of the second act, “The Sun, Whose Rays Are All
Ablaze,” reveals the manner in which sexual desire was constructed to
underwrite imperialist ambition within Orientalism. The charming song
cloaks the threat of incipient Japanese imperialism behind the surface of
the Lotus Blossom façade, especially in the choruses:

First Chorus:
I mean to rule the earth, as he the sky;
We really know our worth, the sun and I!

Second Chorus:
Ah, pray make no mistake, we are not shy;
We’re very wide awake, the moon and I!25

The anxieties here of a threat by the Land of the Rising Sun to the Empire
on Which the Sun Would Never Set were offset by Sullivan’s lovely, haunt-
ing melody and softly pulsating orchestration on the one hand, and by
Gilbert’s dialogue that ushers in the song on the other. Just before she
sings the aria, Yum Yum casually remarks, “I am indeed beautiful. Some-
times I sit and wonder, in my artless Japanese way, why it is that I am so
much more attractive than anybody else in the whole world. Can this be
vanity? No! Nature is lovely and rejoices in her loveliness. I am a child of
Nature, and take after my mother.”26 Japan is rendered “artless” by virtue
of Yum Yum’s narcissism, absurdly defended as it is through a Romantic
pastoral rhetoric that Gilbert simultaneously parodies.27 Through Yum
Yum, Gilbert depicts a Japan obsessed with physical beauty (“I am so
178 s h a n n o n s t e e n

much more attractive than anybody else in the whole world”), with effete,
nostalgic Romanticism (“I am a child of Nature”), with social standing
and imperial ambition (“I mean to rule the earth as he the sky”), and
finally with an indirect, coy revelation of its sexuality (“make no mistake,
we are not shy”). The Lotus Blossom, though vain and ambitious, was pas-
torally unthreatening when sexually fulfilled.
The Orientalist connotations of the music and lyrics were crossed with
primitivist conventions in the staging of both productions: in the FTP ver-
sion, the traditional mincing steps of the Three Little Maids from School
broke down into trucking when the actresses performed the swing rendi-
tion of Sullivan’s famous tune as an encore. The combination of Oriental-
ist and primitivist tropes induced some tripping over racialized termi-
nology for reviewers. Alternately delighted and confused by the kind of
racial crossing inaugurated by the interpolation of primitivist staging con-
ventions into the Orientalist sensibilities of The Mikado, reviewers un-
wittingly echoed the doubled racial signification of the term “Savoyard.”
Originally denoting the Savoy Theatre opened by Richard D’Oyly Carte
(the producer behind Gilbert and Sullivan’s shows) in 1881, Savoyard came
to stand for quintessential Gilbert and Sullivan: the style of music, the
crisp performances of the singers, Gilbert’s precise staging, and the sense
of Englishness that encompassed the whole endeavor. The term later came
to include Gilbert and Sullivan groupies who vigilantly watched for and
hotly contested any production unfaithful to Gilbert’s exact stage business
in the absence of international copyright protection that would have en-
sured delivery of the genuine Savoyard experience.
The earnings of the Savoy Theatre, which housed Gilbert and Sulli-
van’s premieres after 1881, enabled D’Oyly Carte to open the Savoy Hotel
in 1889, which, with its technological wonders like telephones, in-room
plumbing, and elevators, quickly became a landmark symbol of elite,
modern elegance and cosmopolitan sophistication. This latter sensibility
was “swung”—and blackened—with the 1926 creation of the Savoy Ball-
room in Harlem. Originally a black enclave, the ballroom quickly became
known for the racial mixing that characterized both its Lindy-Hopping
clientele and the orchestras that played there, memorialized in Benny
Goodman and Chick Webb’s 1934 hit “Stomping at the Savoy.”28 Michael
Todd, who was consciously aware of the Savoy connection, physically
manifested this black Atlantic transformation of the term when he drafted
“Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers” (Figure 3), a group of elite dancers from the
club vetted by one of its bouncers, to perform a special number in front
Racing American Modernity 179

Fig. 3. Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, The Hot Mikado. Billy Rose Theatre Collection,
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Astor, Lenox and Tilden

of the pagoda gates of the palace in the first act of the Hot Mikado that
reviewers dubbed the “Japanese Jitterbug.” Significantly, the dancers were
billed in the program as Whitey’s Jitterbugs, using the “white” slang for
swing dance rather than the preferred black term “Lindy Hop.” The phrase
“Japanese Jitterbug” then, denoted the Asian/Pacific context for a white
renaming of a black dance form, for a set of dancers known for the perfor-
mance in a black nightclub whose own name had been appropriated from
the D’Oyly Carte Savoy, and who now danced in front of a fantastic Cot-
ton Club pagoda.
In this way, Savoyard in the swing Mikados confused reviewers and
demonstrated the permeability of racial boundaries between black, white,
and Asian. This tripartite understanding of race, connected through the
term “Savoyard,” underwrote the reception of the pieces, both positive and
negative. For the FTP Swing Mikado in Chicago, reviewers consistently
180 s h a n n o n s t e e n

blurred the origins as to which Savoy—London theatre and hotel, or Har-

lem ballroom—the shows primarily referred. Some reviewers were frus-
trated by the interpolation of swing Savoy into the Orientalist tropes such
as those exemplified by Yum Yum and Ko Ko, which they considered the
apex of traditional (i.e., white) Savoyard standards. Some, like Gail Bor-
den, were furious that Gilbert and Sullivan’s original Orientalist intentions
were supplanted by the new primitivist adaptation, a criticism she leveled
particularly at the actor Herman Greene who played Ko Ko in the FTP
Swing Mikado. Borden argued that the mixed conventions obscured the
original Orientalist references and that the primitivist staging interfered
with the “genuine” Savoyard experience that relied on Orientalist depic-
tions of Japan; Greene’s portrayal of Ko Ko was seen to be especially guilty
of such a failure. Borden argued that while he managed to be a “likable
and genial gent” despite his “vaudeville impression” of Ko Ko, Greene
failed in the role precisely because he was forced into a character conven-
tion that Borden read as incommensurate with Ko Ko’s properly Oriental-
ist qualities: “[He] is amusing in the manner of a Japanese Stepin Fetchit,
but is, thanks to the direction, far from the character of the cringing little
tailor that was Gilbert’s Lord High Executioner.”29
Borden attempted through her objection to maintain a rigid separation
of racial groups, but director John McGee’s instincts were right on the
nose with respect to conflating the “cringing” qualities of the Orientalized
Ko Ko with the Stepin Fetchit convention. The “cringing little tailor”
Ko Ko is elevated by the people of Titipu into a social role that he cannot
perform effectively and from whose social lapses much of the humor of
the operetta ensues: his bumbling impersonation of aristocratic behavior
serves only to emphasize his humble origins and ensures the delivery of
his beloved Yum Yum into the arms of Nanki Poo (his narrative opposite:
the real prince slumming as a wandering minstrel). The interpolation of
Stepin Fetchit—of racist projections of black servility—into this already
classist parody of social elevation, of “putting on airs,” was actually quite
a close fit.30 The original parody of classist English social etiquette relied
on the Orientalist stereotype of an obsession with social rank and the
Western fascination with what was seen to be the Japanese terror of “loss
of face.”31
The use of black actors in The Mikado literalized the thinly veiled sub-
text of the class issues and the appetites for sex and violence that buttress
its plot. The Japanese were perfect targets for a parody of sexual mores—
Racing American Modernity 181

for example, the façade of modesty used to stereotype Japan could only
cloak a rampant desire lurking barely beneath. This putative desire was
manifested through the use of swing music with its associations with
moral depravity and black actors who were coded as sexually lascivious
from before they even took to the stage. Orientalism and primitivism were
deployed as polar discourses to highlight the sense of hypocrisy surround-
ing sexual mores. Orientalist appetites for sex were seen to be determined
by rigid social conventions, as opposed to primitivist appetites that were
perceived to issue forth directly from the body without regard for social
restraint. Whereas the primitive’s relationship to the body is wholly with-
out social order, the Oriental’s corporeal response is rigidly determined
by it.
The shifting racial identities staged in both swing Mikados performed a
function similar to that which Eric Lott ascribes to blackface minstrelsy:
mediating heavily policed racial boundaries by staging an aversion to
black and Asian Americans along with the “love and theft,” in his tren-
chant phrase, of their cultural forms. But where antebellum blackface
minstrelsy involved white men actually “blacking up”—physically inhabit-
ing a racist fantasy of black psychic, social, and physical life—the swing
Mikados enacted a somewhat different phenomenon. Remaking what is in
effect a yellowface performance—Gilbert and Sullivan’s original Mikado
—the swing adaptations staged white audiences watching black perform-
ers enact a combination of blackface and yellowface conventions.
The mapping of primitivist tropes onto Orientalist ones that the swing
Mikados enacted demonstrates the crossing of racial boundaries that Lott
has argued are crucial to their separation. The historical fact, he contends,
“of white men literally assuming a black self continues to occur when the
lines of race appear both intractable and obstructive, when there emerges
a collective desire (conscious or not) to bridge a gulf that is, however, per-
ceived to separate the races absolutely.”32 The form of racial impersonation
of the swing Mikados, in which blackness was deployed to stand in for
American international influence in the Asian/Pacific, eased the sense of
racial instability enacted through the kind of bridging Lott describes. The
black/Asian inhabitation enacted two racialized, colonialist fantasies that
were played off against one another to create a pleasurable, impossible
tension that produced the “joke” of the shows: imagining African Ameri-
cans that could happily, unproblematically, be Japanese and at the same
time staging a Japan that could relax and enjoy its newly black American
182 s h a n n o n s t e e n

culture. Retrospectively, the performances’ own hyperbolic excesses can be

seen to empty out categories of race. But the black/Asian doubling that
buttressed the punch line of the performances—that the only thing more
ridiculous than the Mikado is a black Mikado—underscored, policed, and
reinvested the separation of those categories, even while offering the im-
possibility of ontological claims about them. The fluidity of racial cross-
ings in these performances, of course, also points to the seemingly infinite
adaptability of dominant racial strategies—strategies that are shaped and
molded to confront nearly any perceived threat to racial stability and na-
tional cohesion and might.


The swing Mikados demonstrate not only how racial identities are histori-
cally located and underpinned by attempts at national self-conception but
also that conceptions of “race” are formulated within the relationship
between domestic and international racial mappings. As James Clifford
argues in Routes, “The currency of culture and identity as performative
acts can be traced to their articulation of homelands, safe spaces where the
traffic across borders can be controlled. Such acts of control, maintaining
coherent insides and outsides, are always tactical.”33 The tactical articula-
tions of home in The Swing Mikado and The Hot Mikado used African
American cultural forms to epitomize Americanness in the face of the ra-
cial presence of Asia that loomed off its western shores, and which seemed
to offer both a threat to national coherence and the opportunity for inter-
national preeminence.
The Mikado adaptations of the 1930s accomplished exactly what the
New Deal leaders hoped the FTP would: they brought about the ameliora-
tion of the plight of joblessness by bringing work to those without it and
also were beacons of better times, by staging the fantasy of America’s fu-
ture across its western ocean, through their mixing of black, white, and
Asian cultural forms. This optimism was manifested most clearly in the
outrageous gold trousers embroidered with Chinese dragons that Nat Kar-
son designed for Bill Robinson as the titular monarch (Figure 4). New York
Times critic Brooks Atkinson (one of the most influential theater critics
of the twentieth century) went so far as to suggest that Robinson’s Mikado
should be erected as the privileged American icon for the 1939 World’s
Fair. Atkinson argued that “probably it would be a good thing to raise a
Racing American Modernity 183

Fig. 4. Bill Robinson as the Mikado. The Hot Mikado. Billy Rose
Theatre Collection, The New York Public Library for the Performing
Arts, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

statue of Bill Robinson on top the Hall of Music like the rugged worker
who bestrides the Soviet Pavilion. . . . Bill’s eyes are as magnetic as his feet,
and his pants are a dream of better times.”34
That Robinson as the Mikado should be seen by one of the most prom-
inent theater critics of the day as the preeminent American national sym-
bol staged internal racial difference as an attempt to master international
racial difference. The joke encoded in his performance as the black Mi-
kado engaged a kind of reciprocal racial mapping and domination. It
184 s h a n n o n s t e e n

domesticated Japanese imperial menace by projecting it onto the spectacle

of happy black Americans and simultaneously Americanized Japan by
projecting the physical exhilaration of swing culture onto it. This crossing
of black Atlantic and Asian/Pacific racial connotations confronted Amer-
ica’s neocolonialist present, a crucial moment in the negotiation of shift-
ing geopolitical power, of old versus new colonialism. The spectacle of a
swinging Japan manifested the nineteenth-century European scramble for
African land and transformed it into the American commercial penetra-
tion of Asia. The swing Mikados, personified by Bill Robinson’s magnetic
feet and dreamy trousers, his tap-dancing and Orientalist costume, em-
bodied American tenacity in the face of overwhelming bad fortune—the
economic failures of the Depression, internal racial struggle, Japanese im-
perial menace—while simultaneously discharging these problems through
the cheerful, determined march into the future, into the Asian/Pacific.This
forceful, vivid, spectacular manifestation of America’s black Atlantic pre-
sent challenged its Asian/Pacific future head on.

For my reconstruction of The Hot Mikado, I have relied largely on newspaper
accounts from the scrapbook and clippings files on the show in the Billy Rose
Theatre Collection at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts (here-
after “NYPL”), container MWEZ x n.c. 15,554 and“ The Hot Mikado ‘Clippings’
File.” For the Federal Theater Project’s Swing Mikado, I used the Production Bul-
letin file for the show located in the Federal Theater Project Archive at the Library
of Congress (LCFTP).
1. Joseph Roach, Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance (New York:
Columbia University Press, 1996), 4.
2. David Palumbo-Liu, Asian/American: Historical Crossings of a Racial Fron-
tier (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000).
3. Claire Jean Kim, “The Racial Triangulation of Asian Americans,” in Asian
Americans and Politics: Perspectives, Experiences, Prospects, ed. Gordon H. Chang
(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001).
4. The term “Asian/Pacific” here denotes the simultaneous presence of both
Asian and Pacific Islander cultures, often conflated within generalized racial ac-
5. The first and only attempt to create an American national theater, the Fed-
eral Theater Project (FTP) was beset by controversy from its inception. A branch
of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the FTP was designed to ameliorate
the plight of unemployed professional theater artists across the country. Signifi-
Racing American Modernity 185

cantly, the FTP was divided into “leagues” organized by region and by ethnic
grouping. Consequently, the FTP produced “Negro” plays (of which The Swing
Mikado was one effort), Yiddish plays, plays in the American Southwest, and oth-
ers. As with the WPA generally, the FTP came under national scrutiny and was
eventually dismembered for its supposed “interference” in the operation of fair
marketplace competition. For more information on the FTP, see Hallie Flanagan,
Arena: The History of the Federal Theatre (New York: Arno Press, 1980); Barry
Witham, The Federal Theatre Project: A Case Study (New York: Cambridge Univer-
sity Press, 2003); Glenda Gill, White Greasepaint on Black Performers: A Study of
the Federal Theatre, 1935–1939 (New York: Peter Lang, 1988); Rena Fraden, Blue-
prints for a Black Federal Theatre, 1935–1939 (New York: Cambridge University
Press, 1994).
6. For the following account of the “Battle of the Black Mikados,” I am in-
debted to a series of newspaper articles on the matter in the NYPL. See also Ste-
phen M. Vallillo, “The Battle of the Black Mikados,” Black American Literature
Forum 16.4 (Winter 1982): 153–157.
7. For accounts of shifting U.S. immigration policies toward its Pacific Island
territories, see David Palumbo-Liu, “Pacific America,” in Palumbo-Liu, Asian/
American: Historical Crossings of a Racial Frontier (Stanford: Stanford University
Press, 2000), 17–42; Lisa Lowe, Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Poli-
tics (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996), 1–36; for policies regarding Hawaiian
residents, see Ronald Takaki, “Raising Cane,” Strangers from a Different Shore: A
History of Asian Americans (Boston: Little, Brown, 1989), 132–178.
8. See Jonathan G. Utley, Going to War with Japan, 1937–1941 (Knoxville: Uni-
versity of Tennessee, 1985); Akria Iriye, The Origins of the Second World War in Asia
and the Pacific (New York: Longman, 1987).
9. E. Franklin Frazier, “Some Effects of the Depression on the Negro in North-
ern Cities,” in Black Communities and Urban Development in America 1720–1990,
Vol. 6: Depression, War, and the New Migration, 1930–1960, ed. Kenneth L. Kusmer
(New York: Garland, 1991), 17–28.
10. See The Complete Report of Mayor LaGuardia’s Commission on the Harlem
Riot of March 19, 1935 (New York: Arno Press, 1963).
11. Frederick S. Roffman, “D’Oyly Carte Tradition vs. ‘The Hot Mikado,’ ” New
York Times, 2 May 1976, D15.
12. David W. Stowe, Swing Changes: Big-Band Jazz in New Deal America (Cam-
bridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), 2–3.
13. LCFTP, Production Bulletin: Swing It.
14. Rena Fraden, Blueprints for a Black Federal Theatre, 1935–1939 (New York:
Cambridge University Press, 1994), 188.
15. Eric Lott reports in Love and Theft that souvenir programs from the min-
strelsy shows frequently exhorted patrons to “refrain from requesting encores,” a
practice generally encouraged at the FTP performances. See Eric Lott, Love and
186 s h a n n o n s t e e n

Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1993).
16. The Hot Mikado altered the original more substantially. While none of the
chord progressions were changed, Sullivan’s entire score was put into swing time,
and some of the major songs had entirely new lyrics, topically adapted for the Hot
Mikado by Dave Greggory and William Tracy. For the most part, while altered
lyrics included predictable references to current politics and celebrities (as in the
revamped “Let the Punishment Fit the Crime” in which Bill Robinson sang, “Joe
Louis is gotta/ Be Vice Mikado/ If I go for a third term”), the new words also
attacked the class-conscious, the vain, and the snobbish. See NYPL, Souvenir Pro-
gram: Hot Mikado, “Topical Lyrics,” and LCFTP, W. S. Gilbert, script for The Mi-
17. Paul Seeley, “The Japanese March in ‘The Mikado,’ ” Musical Times (August
1985): 465.
18. Musicologist Michael Beckerman has argued that even Yum Yum’s “The
Sun, Whose Rays” (often considered the apex of English loveliness) contains ele-
ments of the Miya Sama riff in the oboe line. See Michael Beckerman, “The Sword
on the Wall: Japanese Elements and Their Significance in The Mikado,” Musical
Quarterly 3 (1989): 303–319.
19. Ibid., 318–319.
20. Seeley, “Japanese March,” 455.
21. See Beckerman, “Sword on the Wall,” 315–316. I am indebted to his work in
cataloguing the violence in The Mikado.
22. Gilbert and Sullivan, The Mikado, 78.
23. Ibid., 74.
24. Ibid.
25. Ibid., 53–54.
26. Ibid., 52–53.
27. See Beckerman, “Sword on the Wall,” 305, for a similar suggestion that “the
general fascination for the Oriental which prevailed during the nineteenth cen-
tury . . . remains a lively but largely underexplored facet of the Romantic Move-
28. For a more detailed analysis of the Savoy Ballroom as a site at which black
and white racial tensions were mediated, see Brenda Dixon Gottschild, Waltzing
in the Dark: African American Vaudeville and Race Politics in the Swing Era (New
York: St. Martin’s, 2000), 71–75.
29. LCFTP, Gail Borden, “Negro Unit Jazzes up Opera ‘Mikado.’ ”
30. See Eric Lott, “Stepin Fetchit,” in The Oxford Companion to African-Ameri-
can Literature, ed. William L. Andrews et al. (New York: Oxford University Press,
1997), 697.
31. Dorinne Kondo has noted the idea of “face” as “the stereotypic ‘Oriental’
trope, signifying a presumed Asian preoccupation with social reputation.” See
Racing American Modernity 187

Dorinne Kondo, About Face: Performing Race in Fashion and Theater (New York:
Routledge, 1997), 24–26.
32. Eric Lott, “White Like Me: Racial Cross-Dressing and the Construction of
American Whiteness,” in Cultures of United States Imperialism, ed. Amy Kaplan
and Donald Pease (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), 475.
33. James Clifford, Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 7.
34. Brooks Atkinson, “The Play: Bojangles Robinson and ‘The Hot Mikado’
Take a Trip to the World’s Fair,” New York Times, 23 June 1939, 26; emphasis mine.
Chapter 10

Black Bodies/Yellow Masks

The Orientalist Aesthetic in Hip-Hop and
Black Visual Culture

Deborah Elizabeth Whaley

I remember my brother and his friends, after seeing the

movie Revenge of the Dragon, sport “num-chucks.” It be-
came popular to be around Asians. Bruce Lee repre-
sented the underdog in his films. He was the David fight-
ing against the white male Goliath who had privilege
and position. My brother and his friends attached them-
selves to the idea of Bruce Lee and what he represented.
—Black American artist Deborah Grant, 2004

We had no role models for finding identity. We followed

what the blacks did. Within the whole Asian American
identity, part of the black identity came with it. Usually
when you say Asian American, you are going to have
some aspect of the Black experience, too.
—Japanese American activist Rie Aoyama, 1995

In the fall of 2004, a subsidiary of Music Television (MTV), Video Hits

One (VH1), aired a special on the top new trends in music video. Among
the program’s top one hundred, one could watch the reoccurring use of
Asian culture among hip-hop musicians in their videos. While commenta-
tors cited signs of Asian ethnicity as now “hot” in the twenty-first century
for rap and R&B artists alike, there was an acknowledgement of its use in
early music video as well, such as in 1980’s punk rock musicians The Va-
pors’ “Turning Japanese” video.1 The Vapors’ video is visually and linguis-

Black Bodies/Yellow Masks 189

tically startling. While swaggering a sword in front of women dressed as

Japanese geishas, the group members sing: “I think I’m turning ‘Jap-a-
nese-a,’ I think I’m turning ‘Jap-a-nese-a,’ I really think so . . . no sex, no
drugs, no wine, no women . . . everyone around me is a total stranger,
everyone around me looks like a cyclone ranger, everyone.” There was also
mention in the VH1 special of Madonna’s video for the song “Nothing
Matters,” where she performs in the wardrobe of a Japanese geisha, and R.
Kelly’s video for “Thoia Thoing,” where he performs as a Japanese warrior.
Most of the commentary on the VH1 special remained in the realm
of tongue and cheek comedy concerning pop and hip-hop artists’ appro-
priation or sampling of Asian and Middle Eastern music. However, one
commentator went from jest to racial stereotype when he looked into the
camera while making suggestive phallic movements and said, “I think it’s
odd that Black guys are trying to make themselves Asian in music video
because you know the thing about Black guys. And, you know the thing
about Asian guys. All I can say is they’ve lost their minds.” Here, the white
commentator’s phallic fantasy serves as an example of the sexual views
of Black and Asian men in popular imagination. Through the Occiden-
tal gaze, both groups are objects of racial and sexual misrepresentation in
various forms of minstrelsy for the masturbatory consumption of the
dominant culture. Yet, it seems that while blackface minstrelsy is largely
a part of popular culture’s shameful past, or is at least seen as unaccept-
able, playing Asian, also known as “yellowface,” is gaining enormous mo-
mentum in popular music, especially in hip-hop music and Black visual
This essay explores the tactical performance and representation of the
imagined “Oriental” in hip-hop and Black visual culture. I am especially
concerned with the epistemological and material consequences of Orien-
talism in the realm of ideas (theory) and Black American and Asian Amer-
ican social relations. The music video, art, and film examples explore how
and why facets of what cultural critic Edward Said theorizes as Orien-
talism is a reoccurring trope in contemporary Black visual culture.2 For
Said, Orientalism constitutes the projection of white European ideologies
onto people of Middle Eastern and Asian descent. Orientalism in practice
attaches itself to binaries of the Western hemisphere as civilized, pure,
chaste, and democratic versus the Eastern hemisphere as uncivilized, ex-
otic, hypersexual, and authoritarian in order to rationalize the subjugation
of an imagined Orient. I thus examine how and why claimed knowledge
of “Asianness” constructed as Other and aesthetic constructions of things
190 d e b o r a h e l i z a b e t h w h a l e y

perceived as Asian in the Black, popular imaginary, may or may not result
in a different power effect as compared with its typical use and deploy-
ment in mass culture by the dominant U.S. culture.3 The tactical perfor-
mance of the “Oriental” not only poses a representational dilemma replete
with contradictory racial, ethnic, and national signifiers but also opens up
questions about the multiple meanings of its precarious usage by Black
Americans who perform these images.
Dimensions of AfroAsian cultural productions are a growing area of
popular culture studies, Asian American studies, and Africana studies.
However, the majority of this work focuses on facets of shared cultural
production, such as hybridity and multiplicity, or the Asian appropriation
and rearticulation of hip-hop culture. Conversely, while there is an im-
mense amount of scholarly work on the performance of blackface min-
strelsy and facets of Orientalism by the dominant culture, the performa-
tive characterization of Asian racial and ethnic groups by Black Americans
remains underexamined in the literature. Textual examples of Orientalism
in hip-hop and Black visual culture provide speculative answers to the
following questions. If the tactical use of Orientalism reifies white identity
in its European/Anglo deployment and renders Asian and Asian Ameri-
can subjects fetishized and marginalized in representation, what is one to
make of this representational projection by the Black subject? Given the
subjugation of Black Americans within hegemonic power relations and
the assumption of our identity as always-already stable and fixed, what
does it mean when Black hip-hop musicians seek to obscure their Black
skin with yellow masks? If the presentation of Orientalism in Black visual
culture mirrors misrepresentations by the dominant culture, is their per-
formance only a matter of representational racism? Does the construction
of the “Oriental” in Black visual culture obstruct or help to facilitate soli-
darity and cultural crossroads between people of Asian and African de-
scent in the United States?
To begin, I explore the phenomenon of Black bodies wearing yellow
masks in contemporary music video as a process of racial skinning.4 The
performance of racial skinning in Black music videos appears to work as a
venture in repairing a fragmented identity that allows Black bodies to cre-
ate and consume Eastern exotica free from the perceived confines of ra-
cialized Blackness. While a significant number of popular Black musicians
construct and project Orientalism in hip-hop music video via yellowface,
Asian American and Black American artists in the 2004 exhibition Black
Belt seek to rearticulate and fracture such Orientalist iconography, thereby
Black Bodies/Yellow Masks 191

creating oppositional viewpoints and subjects. In the final example I con-

sider the narrative of the film Romeo Must Die (2000), which grapples
with the problems that arise when Black Americans, Chinese, and Chinese
Americans seek to transgress racial-ethnic barriers in alliance. Romeo Must
Die presses beyond the polemic and transformative art showcased in Black
Belt, as it illustrates how Orientalism and pathological ideologies of Black-
ness obscure racial and ethnic understanding and continuously rupture
the potential for sustained alliances between people of the Asian and
African diaspora. The goal of this essay is therefore textual and mate-
rial, insofar as I extract representations from three forms of visual culture
—music representation, material culture, and film—to articulate Black
American and Asian American cultural, political, and social crossroads.
An exploration of these various cultural forms allows for an interrogation
of how people of African descent via mass-produced production invoke
Asia as a signifier to fulfill Occidental desires. More than an unmasking of
such forms of representation, the intent of this interrogation is also to re-
veal how the very same forms of cultural production—that is, visual and
hip-hop culture—can exist as a formable site of transformation within the
realm of representation and in social relations.

I. Racial Skinning and the Performance of Orientalism in

Hip-Hop Music Videos

In the “Oriental Mirage,” Roger Benjamin argues that Orientalists or those

who use claimed knowledge of the East to construct visual representations
of the imaginary Orient, usually end up producing an illusory image of
their created, exotic Other.5 Throughout history and in art, performance,
and the cinema, the employment of yellowface and an Orientalist aes-
thetic conjures gender-specific caricatures of Asia embedded within the
popular imagination.6 As cultural critic Lisa Lowe writes, the ramifica-
tions of such presentations may shape public policy and fuel a sentiment
of Asian Americans as foreign Others.7 The calculated Orientalist aesthetic
in recent Black music videos draws on four primary strands of representa-
tion akin to the Orientalist aesthetic and Oriental mirage: (1) the sexual-
ized, yet virginal Japanese geisha; (2) the South Asian Indo-chic;8 (3) the
Chinese kung fu warrior; and (4) the use of Asian languages as an icono-
graphic fashion statement detached from specificity of meaning and ety-
mological usage.
192 d e b o r a h e l i z a b e t h w h a l e y

Depictions of these representations are abundant in hip-hop. For ex-

ample, in the music video “Girls, Girls, Girls,” rapper Jay Z serenades
a group of women inside the hallway of a squalid, urban hotel. In the
video, Jay Z stands next to a woman of Asian descent who wears a red silk
dress with a dragon appliqué on the side, while he raps the following
lyrics: “I had this Chinese chick, but I had to leave her quick, because
she kept bootlegging my shit.” Rapper Busta Rhymes’ and singer Mariah
Carey’s “All that I Want” video takes the viewer inside what appears to be a
brothel, where Rhymes receives an erotic massage by several scantily clad
women who are physically marked as Asian. In Mya’s “Me and You,” Mon-
ica’s “Just Another Girl,” and RES’s “Vision,” the three R&B performers
dress as Japanese geishas while performing seductively on stage. Mya,
Monica, and RES wear kimonos, chopsticks in their hair, and exaggerated
eyeliner to emphasize an almond eye shape, and they mimic rhythmic
movements associated with geisha performance. Hip-hop’s Truth Hurts’s
“Contagious” and the queen of hip-hop Mary J. Blige’s “You Are My
Everything” invoke trendy Indo-chic by mixing Middle Eastern and South
Asian iconography as the setting for their videos and as their choice of
wardrobe. Blige wears a jewel on her forehead, henna tattoos, and a sari,
while Hurts belly dances, wearing a bedleh9 alongside a group of similarly
dressed women in a harem. The hip-hop and R&B group TLC wear yel-
lowface in their music video “Girls Are Talking,” where singers T-Boz and
Chili mask as “Asian” women as they travel through the settings of several
Third World countries.
Female rapper Missy Misdemeanor Elliott’s video “I’m Really Hot” uses
the setting of a mythical Chinatown as a dangerous excursion to violence,
fantasy, and sexuality. For Elliott’s video, two groups of androgynously
styled women of African and Asian descent have white painted makeup
on their faces, wear black and red tuxedos, and engage in a karate duel.
Elliott’s video is more complicated and contradictory than the ones of her
hip-hop peers, insofar as the visual signifiers she uses blur racial and gen-
der identities. Her video re-creation of the kung fu film genre also places
women, as opposed to men, at the center of its narrative, which creates a
departure from the ways the genre has historically displaced female sub-
jects. Despite the transgressive and reconstructive gender and racial signs
in Elliott’s video, Orientalism still wreaks havoc via a visual iconography
of sporadic signs of Asian language characters and the use of Chinatown
as an ethnic and geographic periphery.
One might deconstruct these music videos in terms of their multiple
Black Bodies/Yellow Masks 193

meanings and various audience receptions and come to less strident con-
clusions. However, given that these and many other hip-hop artists mimic
people and cultures of the Asian diaspora via Black yellowface exclusively,
without any representations of other ethnic groups in these popular Black
music videos, their performances lean strongly toward calculated Orien-
talism. In all of these instances, the performers do not work through Black
identity, as Fanon observed about Black identity fragmentation and for-
mation, via a white mask but, rather, via a yellow mask.10 So, what are we
to make of this mask? As many scholars in cultural studies and studies of
consumption have shown, the dominant culture consumes Black culture
in excess, while at the same time actively denying that Black Americans
have a distinct culture. Theorist Melville Herskovitz explains this as the
“myth of Negro past,” where the dominant culture renders African-de-
rived and Black cultural forms invisible in order to promote the cultural
hegemony of the white power structure.11 Cultural critics Vijay Prashad
and Robert G. Lee argue separately in their texts on Asian American cul-
tural production and popular representation that although history con-
strues Black Americans as having no culture or as having lost their culture
with the slave trade, in contrast, history depicts Asian Americans, espe-
cially Chinese Americans, as inhabiting an abundance of culture.12 Black
Americans and Chinese Americans share a history of being the objects of
racial and ethnic parody in the nineteenth century through the minstrel
performances of Euro-ethnics. Yet, for Black hip-hop musicians in the
twenty-first century, Black-yellowface works as a conduit through which
Asian ethnic representations—however distorted—stand in for a naïve
sense of a romanticized culture positioned outside of the Otherness of
The cultural skinning and masking as seen in these music videos serve
two primary purposes. For male music artists such as Busta Rhymes and
Jay Z, Orientalism’s Passive Doll and Dragon Lady obviously provide the
fulfillment of sexual fantasy. Black women musicians like Mary J. Blige,
Truth Hurts, and TLC, however, appear to use yellowface as a timeless
racialized mask to travel through other worlds—whether geographically
or sexually—as an imagined, hyperfeminine, and sexual Other. Con-
versely, for artists such as Mya, Monica, and RES, the Japanese geisha per-
formance provides a sexualized space never afforded to Black women in
popular representation: that is, as simultaneously a sexual object and as
chaste. While popular culture depicts Black women as Jezebels, Sapphires,
and Mammies, rarely has the popular imaginary shown them as at once
194 d e b o r a h e l i z a b e t h w h a l e y

virginal and as an object of sexual desire. This representation of the Japan-

ese geisha has salience in Black music video because the other stagnate
representations of Asian American women are too parallel to those of
Black women. In the popular imagination, hypersexual Jezebel parallels
Suzy Wong; Sapphire is just as bitchy, evil, and conniving as Dragon Lady;
and Mammy is as sacrificing, passive, and asexual as the Asian American
female servant.13 Perhaps not transparent in the multiple meanings be-
hind Black male and female musicians’ performance of the Orientalist aes-
thetic in music video is what is at stake concerning this form of racial,
ethnic, and gender parody.
Although problematic, I am less concerned with these artists’ propaga-
tion of stereotypes than I am interested in the purpose these representa-
tions serve for hip-hop musicians and audiences. To typify a group based
on exaggerated, distorted, and stagnant characteristics is certainly trou-
bling. Yet, what concerns me here is how these specific representations of
Orientalism collide with ideas of Blackness in the popular imagination,
and how they shape the construction of Black popular identity in visual
culture and in social relations. Although it may not appear on the surface
that these forms of parody are intended for racist consumption like white
Americans’ blackface and yellowface minstrelsy, these representations, like
other forms of Orientalism, fantasize, project, and marginalize vis-à-vis
parochial signs of the East, regardless of the actual diversity and hetero-
geneity of Asian and Asian American people.14 In their racialized perfor-
mance of ethnic caricatures, Black yellowface in music videos does not
provide new ways of seeing and enacting social relations between people
of the Asian and African diaspora. Their use does not contribute to, con-
nect to, or even pretend to unite with the existing struggles of people of
Asian descent or to understand the culture that is the object of the parody
and consumption. Rather, Black musicians’ yellowface provides the dream
of culture without a perceived consequence—one naively construed as
untouched by whiteness and imperialism through a distorted Black popu-
lar imaginary.
It is probable that many overlook these tropes of Orientalism because
the musicians’ Blackness appears to provide a free cultural pass into the
East in a way that makes such traveling appear as a benign form of cul-
tural borrowing of one marginalized group from another marginalized
group. Black musicians’ yellowface indirectly contributes to the power re-
lations that seek to relegate Asians and Asian Americans as perpetual for-
eigners. Further, their bodies repeatedly act as instruments to perform
Black Bodies/Yellow Masks 195

typical forms of Orientalism that the dominant culture has propagated as

natural and audiences view as pleasurable. As cultural critic George Lipsitz
argues, “Nonwhite people can become active agents of white supremacy as
well as passive participants to its hierarchies and rewards. One way of be-
coming an insider is by participating in the exclusion of other outsiders.”15
In view of this, the means by which people of the Asian and African dias-
pora invoke counternarratives to Orientalism’s popular mischief becomes
increasingly vital to examine.

II. Whose Ice Is Colder?: AfroAsian Corridors and Contestation

In juxtaposition to the general deployment of Orientalism in hip-hop

music video, the Studio Museum of Harlem’s (SMH) exhibition Black Belt
provides shifting and contradictory racial and ethnic signifiers that con-
vene to render race unintelligible, the Black and Asian American subject
unmarked through hybrid masquerade, and Western imperialism unsta-
ble. SMH’s curator Christine Kim explains that the exhibition places Black
American fascination with kung fu, Asian American fascination with hip-
hop, and the cross-pollination of cultural moves across and between the
Black and Asian diaspora at its center.16 The installations work singularly
and as a whole to suggest cultural mixing and borrowing as a means by
which complicated and new understandings of identity replace the Orien-
talist’s colonialist fantasies.
Black Belt displays the work of artist Iona Rozeal Brown, for example,
who pictures defiant subjects in brownface. The brown mask only par-
tially covers the subjects’ faces, revealing prototypical markers of Oriental-
ism—for example, the Japanese geisha as seen through Western eyes—
mixed with hip-hop iconography and insurgent Black youth oppositional
stances. In Brown’s painting “Blackface #0.50” (2001), a geisha in brown-
face looks matter of factly at the spectator and raises her middle finger,
while another woman shyly hides behind her with the same dress and
style. Another geisha figure in “Blackface #3” (2002) dons an afro with two
protruding afro combs emerging from each side of the woman’s head to
suggest urban, Black, and Asian cultural crossroads. “Down-Ass Emperor
Qianlong” (2003) presents a young male wearing a combination of em-
peror and hip-hop clothing, such as a gold embroidered and richly red
satin cape, box hat, Fubu t-shirt, braided hair, baggy jeans, sneakers, and a
silver chain with a Korean character charm, while he slumps in an ornate
196 d e b o r a h e l i z a b e t h w h a l e y

chair that rests on an “Oriental” rug. The subject’s gestures and his body
language are obviously aggressive; his facial expression disrupts any plea-
sure a spectator might take in the typical fantasy gaze at Orientalism.
Brown’s images use racial markers, but neither of these subjects bears
markings of one stagnant racial interpretation. Instead, Brown’s paintings
use and mix stereotypes, Asian ethnic signs, and hip-hop culture to re-
mark on the complex histories of imperialism and cultural appropriation
within Black and Asian cultural configurations. In so doing, Brown creates
interethnic corridors into the diverse and global subculture of hip-hop.
Since there is a blurring of the ethnic configuration of the subjects via
brownface in the artist’s work, the mixture of ethnic markers, such as
Asian and Black, and the mixture of cultural forms, such as hip-hop and
Asian ethnicities, create new, rather than timeless, subjects for spectators.
In his installation “The Art of the Battle” (2003), artist Rico Gaston uses
photographic frames of Bruce Lee, Mohammed Ali, rappers Nas and LL
Cool J, burning crosses, Black stereotypes, and snapshots of children with
boxing gloves to fuse various forms of Asian and Black political struggle.
In the photos, red is the background color, which intimates an opposi-
tional stance of anger. Gaston’s collage of digital photos, according to the
artist, creates an unapologetic political challenge to other forms of politi-
cal art by using images of stereotypes and resistance as “sonic cadences.”17
David Chung’s “Study for Bruce” (2003), David Dao’s “Twin Dragons”
(2000), and Patty Chang’s “Death of the Game” (2000) use different medi-
ums—watercolor, sketch art, and digital media—to claim Bruce Lee as an
iconic figure of double consciousness and kung fu as a site of Black and
Asian political contestation. The three pieces illustrate how kung fu films
can at once unite people across the Asian/African diaspora, while at the
same time presenting how, in many of these films, the two groups were in
competition with each other and became pawns of white colonialist ma-
nipulation. The latter artists’ resurrection of actor and martial arts artist
Bruce Lee recognizes Asian American masculinity in comparative opposi-
tion to Dr. Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan caricatures. The three art pieces
refigure Lee in terms of a strategic gender identity that negotiates hege-
monic masculinity, engages in the politics of ethnic affirmation, and defies
the asexual or sexualized gaze projected on Bruce Lee throughout his
career.18 In Black Belt, Bruce Lee is often the iconic subject repositioned as
a political sign that struggles to divorce itself from Western imperialism
and colonialist notions of Asia, Asian Americans, and their subsequent
subjugation in the United States.
Black Bodies/Yellow Masks 197

In Glenn Kaino’s painting “Bruce Leroy’s Kung Fu Theater” (2000), Afro-

Asian corridors and contestation are productively reconstituted through
the cultural politics of articulation.19 In his piece, Kaino uses the name of a
character from the 1985 Black/Asian kung fu film The Last Dragon, Bruce
Leroy, in a strategic manner. While the name suggests ethnic and mascu-
line fusing, Kaino’s use of the name in his piece, which rests on a mar-
quee with bright lights along a square parameter, implies performative
questions: Are Black and Asian identities a theatrical spectacle on display
for the dominant U.S. culture? Are kung fu films the stage where Blacks
and Asians resist or acquiesce to the dominant culture? In a roundtable
conversation with SMH artists, Kaino reflects about his participation in the
Black Belt exhibition and answers the question that “Bruce Leroy’s Kung
Fu Theater” indirectly poses when he confesses: “I’ve been considering, in
my artwork, how, within this postmodern culture of recycling, referencing,
and sampling, we can actually be progressive.” Kaino then remarks how
exhibitions such as Black Belt walk a thin line between contestation and
nostalgic voyeurism by asking, “How can we create new ideas and mean-
ings in a way that doesn’t fall back to an old cycle, where we repeat our past
mistakes at the price of giving old, bankrupt ideas a second run?”20 For
Kaino, then, the recycling of kung fu icons and characters provides a win-
dow into how this genre created connections between Black Americans
and Asian Americans. At the same time, Kaino is self-reflexive about the
potential lack of change in their discursive deployment; therefore, he asks
artists and spectators to acknowledge the unpredictable effects of these
images’ circulation.
Taken as a whole, Black Belt reframes Orientalism and repositions Black
and Asian subjects as participants in a complex popular history rather
than as blank canvases waiting for Western Orientalism to inscribe its
masturbatory fantasies of the East onto its surface. Indeed, the visualiza-
tion of Black Belt’s cultural work is artfully present in David Hammons’s
installation “Whose Ice Is Colder?” (1991). In this installation, Hammons
juxtaposes a simile of an American flag painted in red, black, and green
with the Korean flag. The flags hang above blocks of dry ice, and their par-
allel positioning resurrects signs of Black and Korean nationalism. Ham-
mons’s installation questions the utility of weighing oppression and coun-
terproductive competition between Black Americans and Korean Amer-
icans—henceforth the title “Whose Ice Is Colder?” The experiences of
Black and Korean Americans, Hammons’s installation suggests, cannot
move toward the politics of liberation represented in the imagery of the
198 d e b o r a h e l i z a b e t h w h a l e y

flags if they continue to exhibit an identity politics of resentment and

rivalry. The ice blocks underneath the two flags are equal in size and tem-
perature. It is up to the people who comprise the social relations behind
the imagery to shift away from the type of racial skinning seen in hip-
hop music videos and pass the strife acted out between the two groups in
urban locations. The cultural work of Black Belt thus emanates from all of
the artists’ ability to redistribute signs of Orientalism and combine Asian
and Black cultural forms to point to the possibilities of those signs to also
create an emancipatory cultural politics of race, ethnicity, sexuality, class,
and nation.

III. Lessons from a Second Daughter and First Son:

Afro-Orientalism in the Wake of Kung-Fusion

I conclude with a brief analysis of the film Romeo Must Die, which is a film
that visualizes the work necessary for the political articulation in social
relations that Black Belt presents to spectators through art and that elides
the makers of, and performers in, hip-hop music videos. Ron Silver, the
producer of the Matrix series, masterminded Romeo Must Die. In an inter-
view, Ron Silver shares that the film is a modern-day, hip-hop Romeo and
Juliet story that matches the action scenes of the Matrix and reveals what
happens when two cultures, in this case the East and the West, meet.21 Sig-
nificant about this statement is that for Silver, Black Americans and hip-
hop culture signify the West, and Chinese Americans in the United States
signify the East. This suggests that, despite citizenship and generational
status, the popular imagination creates ways of seeing people of the Asian
diaspora as perpetual foreigners, even in the minds of those with the best
of intentions to produce a counternarrative. Further, Silver’s reference to
hip-hop as a signifier for Western hemispheric culture reveals his percep-
tion of the subculture as an assimilative commodity detached from its
African and Latino diasporic center. Still, Romeo Must Die shows how, in
the midst of kung-fusion, collisions between Black Americans, Chinese,
and Chinese Americans do not easily translate into political allies, but how
under the right circumstance—as the word “articulation” suggests—they
could form meaningful alliances.22
The film’s narrative concerns the economic and territorial competition
between a wealthy Black American family, the O’Days, and a wealthy Chi-
nese family, the Sings, in Oakland, California. Both families own equal
Black Bodies/Yellow Masks 199

parts of waterfront property in downtown Oakland until a white business

conglomerate approaches the two families to sell their property for $360
million in order to build an NFL football field stadium and sports center.
To make this happen, both sides must also convince the surrounding Chi-
nese American and Black American businesses to sell their property. The
two families thus set about the work of destroying their own communities
and the livelihood of their people in order to vie for the monetary payoff
promised by the white conglomerate. In the midst of their dealings, sons
of both families—Po Sing (Jon Kit Lee) and Collin O’Day (D. B. Wood-
side)—end up dead, and it appears on the surface that each group is re-
sponsible for the other’s loss. Soon after, the first son of Mr. Choy (Henry
O), Han (Jet Li), and the second daughter of Mr. O’Day (Delroy Lindo),
Trish (late hip-hop singer Aaliyah), begin a friendship in the name of find-
ing out who is responsible for each of the families’ losses. Their tenuous
relationship deteriorates with the demise of Po and Collin, which incites
paranoia and distrust in the minds of both camps, thus resulting in an
all-out war between them and a consecrated effort to keep Trish and Han
apart. As the film ends, the spectator learns that, fueled by jealousy and
insecurity, Mr. O’Day’s right-hand man Mack (Isaiah Washington) killed
Collin, and Mr. Sing’s right-hand man Kai (Russell Wong) killed Po. Mack
had viewed Collin as an obstacle to his promotion within the O’Day fam-
ily, and Kai had felt that Po would be unable to take on the responsibilities
of the Sing family business.
Romeo Must Die is a throwback to the kung fu films of yesteryear made
modern by glossy cinematography, computer-enhanced action scenes, and
a slick hip-hop soundtrack. The story between the Sings and the O’Days
is not a new one; the power structure manipulates the two groups, and
members within their own camp are able to deceive them for reasons en-
couraged by envy and an insatiable thirst for power. Mack and Kai are able
to deceive those in their community because the two families fail to realize
that they are likely more productive as partners in struggle than as ene-
mies in competition for the scraps of modern capitalism offered by the
dominant white power structure. To their detriment, the O’Days and Sings
only work together to the extent where they would benefit and not chal-
lenge each other to give up or share power and resources. There is no re-
spect between the two cultures, and there is no attempt to mend the cir-
cumstances that keep their people in a subjugated position. The camps do
exactly what modern capitalism and its proponents wish for them to do:
to destroy each other, thus making it impossible to work side by side in
200 d e b o r a h e l i z a b e t h w h a l e y

struggle, and to deny each other’s humanity, thus remaining embittered

and embattled economic and social enemies.
Black Belt exhibition contributor Latasha Nevada Diggs bemoaned the
anticlimatic love story between Trish and Han, and film and cultural critic
Cynthia Fuchs’s review of the film interprets the economic rivalry be-
tween the two families as implausible. Comparatively, cultural critic James
Kim explains Romeo Must Die’s polarization of Black American, Chinese,
and Chinese American men by arguing that the film displays the former
through the lens of distorted hypermasculinity, while the latter succumbs
to symbolic castration that presents itself in the form of Asian/Asian
American male helplessness.23 The film is not without problematic gender
representations and narrative liberties, although in many instances, Romeo
Must Die transgresses as much as it contains. On the one hand, women are
scantily clad sexual objects in nightclubs; on the other hand, they are inde-
pendent subjects who collaborate with men on both ends of the social
justice crusade. Asian characters remain within the parameters of stagnant
tradition (Mr. Sing), are ill prepared in the throes of modernism (Han),
or are often punished for crossing racial and sexual borders (Po). Many
of the Black American male characters are excessively violent (Mack), yet
others are multidimensional (Mr. O’Day and Collin).
Despite Romeo Must Die’s murky forms of representation, a metacri-
tique of social relations depicted in the film—however imperfect in terms
of its narrative structure—is fruitful. As cultural critic Herman Gray ar-
gues, analyses of popular culture must press beyond issues of inclusion,
representation, and identity to grasp “how culture matters politically and
how politics matter culturally.”24 As Mack tells Han in a physical alterca-
tion, “Listen, Romeo, it’s been fun and all, but now, you gotta die.” In other
words, through a postmodern prism, the answer to their predicament
does not exist within a romance, positive representations of Black Ameri-
cans, Chinese, and Chinese Americans or romantic notions of unity be-
tween Black Americans and Asian Americans. Romeo Must Die illustrates
that AfroAsian alliances must be more than strategic; they must exist as
defiant to the power structure and maneuver strategically.
If, as Stuart Hall writes, “hegemonizing is hard work,” then the counter-
hegemonic implications of an AfroAsian bloc similarly requires constant
hard work, reiteration, and affirmation.25 The result of this would dis-
rupt current forms of Black American Orientalism and begin the work
of producing its revolutionary counterpart: an Afro-Orientalism. Such a
formation would draw and learn from our shared and divergent histories,
Black Bodies/Yellow Masks 201

political cleavages and political alliances, and cultural exchanges and cul-
tural standoffs to make the world anew for historically marginalized peo-
ples.26 Unlike Orientalism, Afro-Orientalism uses a part of the trouble-
some namesake (i.e., Orientalism) as a signifying practice to infer a critical
mode of thought and action in defiance to Western Occidentalism. Cul-
tural critic Bill Mullen describes Afro-Orientalism as constituting new and
transformative social relations between people of the Asian and African
diasporas to the ends of long-term social change. In the wake of kung-
fusion, a move toward Afro-Orientalism would demand a fundamental
movement away from the Black bodies and yellow masks of music video,
would press beyond the hybrid representations of AfroAsian popular cul-
ture seen in Black Belt, and would intervene in the toxic social relations
that the film Romeo Must Die reveals as our downfall.

1. Several other examples of Orientalism in music video include the punk rock
group Red Rockers’ video for their song “China,” rock musician David Bowie’s
“China Girl,” and Sting’s recent collaboration with Algerian singer Cheb Mami in
the video for the song “Dessert Rose,” where visual and audible signs of Asia serve
as ethnic spice.
2. Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon, 1978).
3. Black popular culture consists of cultural products made, produced, and
disseminated by Black people or products with largely, although not exclusively, a
Black and/or urban audience in mind. On definitions of Black popular culture, see
Stuart Hall, “What Is This ‘Black’ in Black Popular Culture?,” in Black Popular Cul-
ture, ed. Gina Dent (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994); Gena Caponi, Signifying, Sancti-
fying, and Slam Dunking: A Reader in African American Expressive Culture (Am-
herst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999).
4. I use the term “skinning” to define a process of appropriating cultural forms
in isolation of their relevant cultural, social, and political meanings and contexts.
Skinning, therefore, represents the separation of a cultural form from its cultural
5. Roger Benjamin, Orientalism: Delacroix to Klee (Auckland City: Art Gallery
of New South Wales, 1997), 7.
6. See Jachinson Chan, Chinese American Masculinities: From Fu Manchu to
Bruce Lee (New York: Routledge 1999); Sonia Shah et al., Dragon Ladies: Asian
American Feminists Breathe Fire (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999); Robert G. Lee, Ori-
entals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press,
202 d e b o r a h e l i z a b e t h w h a l e y

7. See Lisa Lowe, Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Production

(Durham: Duke University Press, 1996).
8. On the commodification of South Asian music and ethnicity, see Sunaina
Maira, “Henna and Hip Hop: The Politics of Cultural Production and the Work of
Cultural Studies,” Journal of Asian American Studies 3.3 (2000): 329–369. See also
an essay by Kevin Miller, “Bollyhood Remix,” which is available on the Institute for
Studies in American Popular Music website,
isam/S04Newshtml/Bollyhood/Bollyhood.htm (retrieved 20 February 2004).
9. A bedleh is the traditional clothing worn by belly dancers. In Arabic, the
word bedleh means suit. This style of dress generally consists of a beaded bra, belt,
and long, flaired, chiffon skirt.
10. Frantz Fanon, Black Skins/White Masks (New York: Grove Press, 1991).
11. Melville Herskovitz, Myth of the Negro Past (Boston: Beacon Press, 1958).
12. Vijay Prashad, Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and
the Myth of Cultural Purity (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001); see also Lee, Orientals.
13. On these representations, see Shah, Dragon Ladies; see also Mary E. Young,
Mules and Dragons (New York: Greenwood Press, 1993).
14. On blackface minstrelsy, see Eric Lott, Love and Theft (Oxford: Oxford Uni-
versity Press, 1995); David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making
of the American Working Class (New York: Verso, 1999). On yellowface minstrelsy,
especially minstrelsy directed at Chinese American men, see John Kuo Wei Tchen,
“Believing Is Seeing: Transforming Orientalisms and the Occidental Gaze,” in
Asian/America: Identities in Contemporary Asian American Art, ed. Margo Machida,
Vioshakha desai, and John Tchen (New York: Asia Society Galleries, 1994), 12–25.
15. George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness (Philadelphia: Tem-
ple University Press, 1998), viii.
16. Christine Y. Kim, “Afro as I Am,” in Black Belt, ed. Christine Kim (New
York: Studio Museum in Harlem, 2004), 27.
17. Rico Gaston, “The Art of the Battle,” in Black Belt, ed. Christine Kim (New
York: Studio Museum in Harlem, 2004), 42.
18. On Chinese American masculinity, stereotypes, and the cultural and mas-
culine signs of Bruce Lee, see Chan, Chinese American Masculinities, 73–95.
19. “Articulation” describes the process of two different entities, which, at spe-
cific historical moments, may converge to create a new social process that has the
possibility to provide divergent or new meanings. On the theory of articulation,
see Jennifer Slack, “The Theory and Method of Articulation in Cultural Studies,”
in Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, ed. David Morley and Kuan-
Hsing Chen (New York: Routledge, 1996).
20. Glenn Kaino, “Roundtable Conversation,” in Black Belt, ed. Christine Kim
(New York: Studio Museum in Harlem, 2004), 17.
21. Silver makes this statement in the special edition DVD set interview:
Romeo Must Die, dir. Andrzej Bartkowiak (Warner Home Video, 2000).
Black Bodies/Yellow Masks 203

22. I borrow the term “kung-fusion” from Prashad, Everybody Was Kung Fu
23. James Kim, “The Legend of the White-and-Yellow Black Man: Global Con-
tainment and Triangulated Racial Desire in Romeo Must Die,” Camera Obscura
19.1 (Fall 2001): 152.
24. Herman Gray, Cultural Moves: African Americans and the Politics of Repre-
sentation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 3.
25. Stuart Hall, “For Allon White: Metaphors of Transformation,” in Stuart
Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, ed. David Morley and Kuan-Hsing
Chen (New York: Routledge, 1996).
26. On the meaning of Afro-Orientalism, see Bill Mullen, Afro-Orientalism
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), xv–xvi. Mullen theorizes
Afro-Orientalism as an ideological intervention and as a practice of shared politi-
cal action in the name of cultural and social transformation.
Chapter 11

The Rush Hour of Black/Asian Coalitions?

Jackie Chan and Blackface Minstrelsy

Mita Banerjee

Hollywood has always had a vexed relationship to the history of ethnic

communities in the United States. There is a strange ambivalence in Hol-
lywood classics introducing—and hence mainstreaming—ethnic pres-
ences on what might well be defined as a white screen. The appearance in
the 1930s of Charlie Chan, the “Oriental” detective, signaled at once Holly-
wood’s recognition of an Asian presence in the United States and its con-
tainment of this presence in terms of ethnic stereotype. Jessica Hagedorn
describes this stereotypical figure of Charlie Chan as the “inscrutable, wily
Chinese detective with his taped eyelids and wispy mustache. . . . The
sexless, hairless Asian male. . . . Yellow peril. Fortune Cookie Psychic. . . .
Invisible. Mute.”1 In the character of Charlie Chan, the dominant culture’s
dismissal of Asian men’s “effeminacy” converged with the beginnings of
the idea of the model minority even though this term—historically—
would not emerge in U.S. political rhetoric until three decades later. Hol-
lywood may thus well be considered a litmus test of immigrant presences
registering in popular culture. It is the ambivalence between presence and
containment, between real immigrant and Hollywood simulacrum, with
which this essay is concerned. Given this tension between the material and
the celluloid image of ethnicity, I propose that films such as Rush Hour
(1998) can be deconstructed by reading them through alternative dis-
courses such as mural art, an art in which interethnic coalitions are politi-
cized and not only, as in Rush Hour’s narrative, commodified.
Rush Hour revolves around the uneasy coalition between Carter, an
African American policeman who is not taken seriously even by his own
colleagues, and Lee, a Chinese cop who has been sent to the United States
to rescue Hong Kong Consul Han’s daughter, who has been kidnapped by

The Rush Hour of Black/Asian Coalitions? 205

an Asian gang. The film’s humor is drawn from the fact that Carter and
Lee are being forced by police and government officials to team up against
their own will and better judgment. The film pivots on their ability to turn
this necessity into a virtue of black/Asian coalitions.
Incidentally, even Charlie Chan had a sidekick, and it is by no means
a coincidence that this sidekick was a black imbecile. From the very be-
ginning, then, Hollywood has “simulated” Asian characters, as well as the
possibility of their coalitions with other ethnic groups, especially African
Americans. Even in Charlie Chan, the Oriental model minority (avant la
lettre) takes shape against an idiotic blackface. It is this differentiation in
presence—and in the degree of mainstreaming—that in turn marks the
screen as white. The referent of this coalition continues to be the domi-
nant community, which remains unseen—a community whose crimes are
solved by an Asian detective whose condescension toward his black side-
kick mirrors the dominant culture’s own.
Both Chan’s and his black sidekick’s registering on the American
screen, I argue, must be seen in terms of the filmic narrative’s indebted-
ness to a fundamental—and fundamentally racist—theatrical form: the
performance of minstrelsy. What is crucial here is that films such as Char-
lie Chan and the Jade Mask indicate the simultaneity of blackface and yel-
lowface minstrelsy. What is even more crucial, however, is that the Asian
character’s straining of the confines of the minstrel form is enabled by the
black character’s adhesion to and his entrapment in minstrelsy in its most
traditional form. It is hence interesting to explore the tension between
blackface and yellowface minstrelsy. Historically, because minstrely was a
reaction to ethnic presences in the United States, yellowface emerged only
in the second half of the nineteenth century, when an increase in espe-
cially Chinese immigration triggered anti-Asian sentiment. Rush Hour,
however, suggests that the relationship of yellowface to blackface is not
merely one of mere mirroring or of temporal sequence. Rather, the film
implies that the “copy” (yellowface minstrelsy) is in fact more dynamic
than the “original” (blackface minstrelsy). Whereas blackface performance
remains static, a mere springboard for yellowface to signify upon, yellow-
face minstrely emerges as more complex and ambivalent. My concern
in this essay is twofold: I draw attention to Hollywood’s simulacrum of
black/Asian coalitions, a simulacrum that is, I propose, fundamentally
ahistorical; and I read the filmic narrative against the grain to emphasize
the historicity and the historical coalition that the narrative denies.
If, as Vijay Prashad has argued, the spirit of a people-of-color coalition,
206 m i t a b a n e r j e e

especially an alliance between blacks and Asians, is that “everybody is kung

fu fighting,” the 1998 blockbuster film Rush Hour signals the failure of
what Prashad has called “kung-fusion”—the search for a “new skin” that
would counter strategic essentialism through a productive confusion of
racial markers and allegations.2 But this new skin remains absent from
Rush Hour, a film that leaves the opposition between “the model” and “the
undesirable” intact. The search for a new skin is crucial for an envisioning
of AfroAsian coalitions for a number of reasons. First, a new skin would
upset the distinction between desirable Asian immigrant and unwanted
blackness. Second, the idea of a “skin” being simultaneously black and
Asian would highlight the depthlessness of any racial markers. If the prac-
tice of minstrely reduces race to mask, the new skin reverses this process
and retranslates the mask into lived experience. Crucially, the idea of a
new skin would suggest that blackface and yellowface are no longer two
separate minstrel masks imposed on blacks and Asians by a white main-
stream. Rather, in an appropriation of such imposition, the ethnic subject
performs a simultaneity of allegiance: wearing both blackface and yellow-
face and performing both as presences, not mere caricatures, the ethnic
subject is black and Asian at the same time, desirable and undesirable.
If Prashad argues that the very practice of cultural fusion, of interethnic
coalition building, alters the identities of those who engage in them, how-
ever, Rush Hour gives us the coalition with the ethnic ingredients intact:
it reinscribes stereotypical identities under the guise of coalition building.
Rush Hour is thus what I would call a mock black/Asian coalition—a co-
alition that serves the purpose of a whiteness which remains unseen.
To illustrate the racial politics of a positive “kung-fusion”—the possi-
bility of ethnic coalition building not based on identity politics and racial
purity—Prashad focuses on the person of Bruce Lee. Prashad thus em-
phasizes the necessity to look at the politics off screen, not the filmic nar-
ratives in which Lee was featured. I would argue, however, that to separate
the filmic from the material might ultimately leave the films themselves
unchallenged. Rather than separate the actor from the film, then, I seek to
draw attention to the ways in which films like Rush Hour can be decon-
structed through the material setting (such as the city of Los Angeles)
which they evoke.
Where Bruce Lee, off screen, can be seen as an exponent of an alterna-
tive politics of antiracist resistance, a resistance not based on identity poli-
tics but on cross-race solidarity, he was nevertheless required to adopt the
mask of yellowface minstrelsy in his films. According to Prashad, “when
The Rush Hour of Black/Asian Coalitions? 207

Bruce’s bravado took him to Hollywood in 1966 to play Kato in The Green
Hornet, his role did nothing to challenge the stereotypes of the alien ‘Hea-
then Chinee’ within America. As Kato, Bruce was welcome to be the mys-
terious clown, and sidekick.”3 There is thus a tension between the actor
and the filmic narrative. Even as this tension is, to some extent, also pres-
ent in the career of Lee’s successor in Hollywood, Jackie Chan, Chan has
been mainstreamed to a degree that was denied to Lee. Crucially, while
Bruce Lee, as Prashad emphasizes, went to Hong Kong due to his frus-
tration of being assigned only the role of the yellowface minstrel, Jackie
Chan’s direction has been the opposite. The requirement of mainstream-
ing—of entering the American cultural imaginary—was that Lee, against
the grain of his own extrafilmic politics, enter the codified visual hierarchy
of American film, a hierarchy which, in keeping with its stage legacy, rele-
gated ethnic characters to the form of minstrelsy.
Where Lee returned to Hong Kong, Chan engineered his own main-
streaming in terms of American popular culture—terms, however, which
he, unlike Lee, was able to manipulate rather than succumb to. Chan’s
move from Hong Kong to Hollywood culminated in his inclusion in Hol-
lywood’s Walk of Stars. Ironically, this move into mainstream began with
Chan’s inability to live up to the man whose successor he was to become:
Bruce Lee himself. Not fitting into the mold of the heroic kung fu fighter,
Chan created his own fusion of comedy and martial arts—a style, even
more important, that was modeled on none other than Buster Keaton.
Chan’s entry into the American mainstream begins with a cultural fusion:
the fusion of the Hong Kong kung fu tradition with American comedy.
If I have argued above that every instance of an ethnic character’s
achieving of cultural dynamism, of representational complexity, will have
to be negotiated against the haunting of the American screen by the the-
atrical form of minstrelsy, Jackie Chan’s filmic performance is a counter-
representation not only of Bruce Lee but also of Charlie Chan himself.
It could be argued that Chan’s acting style and the choreography of his
martial arts sabotage the filmic scripts into which they are inserted: the
minstrel’s acting, so to speak, is indicative of the absence of minstrelsy, of
the artist’s own literacy in American popular culture and his ability to
manipulate this culture for his own purposes. Yet, it may be argued that, in
keeping with Prashad’s analysis of Bruce Lee, this cultural fusion of mar-
tial arts and Buster Keaton remains invisible to anyone not familiar with
Chan’s biography or attuned to the art of Buster Keaton echoed in Chan’s
acting. Even so, Chan’s parodic acting style as sabotage of minstrelsy
208 m i t a b a n e r j e e

upsets the dichotomy between actor and filmic narrative on which Pra-
shad’s reading of Bruce Lee, for reasons having to do with Lee’s own biog-
raphy, has to be predicated. Chan’s choreography is a detail that enables
us to deconstruct the filmic script by contextualizing it. Yet, what about
the filmic narrative itself? Chan may deconstruct the script of minstrelsy
through his acting style, but the script remains. What, moreover, is the role
of interethnic alliances for this script?
It is significant that the filmic narrative appropriates the idea of Afro-
Asian coalition building but does so in highly reactionary terms. Rush
Hour introduces a fake black/Asian politics, which, unlike that of Bruce
Lee, is decidedly not antiracist: it is a black/Asian coalition premised on
racialist structures of thought. Real-life coalition building can hence not
only be contrasted to but also signify on Hollywood’s simulacrum of eth-
nicity—a simulacrum on which I will dwell more closely than Prashad
does in his account of Bruce Lee’s presence on the American screen. I am
interested in the insight this simulacrum may reveal into the unconscious
of the dominant culture itself. As Eric Lott has argued in his groundbreak-
ing study on minstrelsy and the American working class, minstrelsy was
long understood as a self-evidently racist form. Lott proposes that an in-
quiry into the performance itself can yield conclusions not just about the
black community that minstrely disenfranchises, but on the very main-
stream who is anxious to perpetuate this disenfranchisement. As Lott

The culture that embraced [minstrelsy], we assume, was either wholly en-
chanted by racial travesty or so benighted, like Melville’s Captain Delano,
that it took such distortions as authentic. I want to suggest, however . . . that
there was a range of responses to the minstrel show which points to an in-
stability or contradiction in the form itself.4

Similarly, Rush Hour may yield conclusions about Hollywood’s own polit-
ical “instability.” If minstrelsy is a containment of the dominant culture’s
racial anxieties, the film suggests that the possibility of black/Asian coali-
tions must be stemmed off through caricature. If the continued presence
of minstrelsy on Hollywood’s screen implies that racial anxiety has not
waned, this anxiety, as Rush Hour indicates, may have taken a new turn: it
is no longer a suspicion merely of black or Asian presences but a fear of
these presences entering into a coalition with each other.
Hence Jackie Chan’s mainstreaming may be symptomatic of a particu-
The Rush Hour of Black/Asian Coalitions? 209

lar historical moment, a moment in which Asian capital may be more de-
sirable than a familiar black presence. By mainstreaming a man who has
long been a star of Hong Kong’s own highly profitable movie industry—
an industry, it must be remembered, with a global dissemination—Holly-
wood can in fact be seen to have its cake and eat it, too. By including
Jackie Chan, Hollywood has also entered a valuable coalition with film
industries outside the United States. Chan, within the filmic narrative and
outside it, embodies the desirability of Asianness for U.S. investment. It
is small wonder, then, that the terms spelled out by Hollywood for such
an inclusion are rather favorable. In Rush Hour, Hollywood offers inclu-
sion to Jackie Chan by ameliorating the racialist politics of yellowface.
Where Bruce Lee was confined to a script of minstrely that could have
not been more depthless, Chan’s yellowface can be said to parody itself in
Rush Hour. Although the film allows the performance of the “Asian cop
as yellowface minstrely” to deconstruct itself, this deconstruction can be
achieved only through maintaining the tradition of blackface minstrelsy as
both depthless beyond repair and idiotic. This is the transition from Bruce
Lee’s Enter the Dragon to Jackie Chan’s Rush Hour: the Chinese character
may still be a minstrel, but his minstrelsy, ironically, is superior to that of
his black sidekick.
These parameters notwithstanding, both blackface and yellowface min-
strelsy are masterminded by whiteness. It is this vexed relationship be-
tween mainstreaming and minstrelsy that also needs to be investigated.
Yet, who is being mainstreamed in Rush Hour? Even as Jackie Chan’s role
exceeds that of the minstrel, his mainstreaming takes place, as it were, “on
the back of blacks.” It could thus be argued that Chan mirrors the role of
Jewish American minstrels at the beginning of the twentieth century. As
Michael Rogin has argued, minstrel performers such as Al Jolson in the
1927 legendary film The Jazz Singer entered the American mainstream by
participating in a racist social imaginary: the very imaginary that min-
strelsy was predicated on. The Jew became American by becoming racist
in American terms, and he became a white American by donning black-
face. As Rogin writes, “Blackface as American national culture American-
ized the son of the immigrant Jew.”5 It is significant for the purpose of
my argument that, prior to Michael Rogin’s discussion (to which I re-
turn below), minstrelsy has always been investigated as solely a black-and-
white phenomenon. Rogin introduces into this equation—or, rather, the
opposition between dominant culture and subordinate nonculture—a
third ethnicity whose relationship to the mainstream is determined by the
210 m i t a b a n e r j e e

practice of minstrelsy. Rush Hour can be seen as adhering to the same

triad of mainstreaming—the Jew becomes white through blackface—by
substituting Asianness for Jewishness. What if not Jewish immigrants but
Asian immigrants and nonimmigrants are being mainstreamed through
minstrelsy? At the same time, given the racial classification of Asians in
the United States, this mainstreaming of Asianness does not quite result
in whiteness. If in The Jazz Singer the Jew becomes white by donning
blackface, in Rush Hour the yellowface minstrel is able to deconstruct the
depthlessness of his own minstrel mask by establishing a contrast to the
continued depthlessness of blackface. At the end of Rush Hour, the Asian
has not (like the Jew) become white through the practice of minstrelsy,
but he has at least become a desirable immigrant presence which can po-
tentially be Americanized.
Like The Jazz Singer, Rush Hour is predicated on the mainstreaming of
immigrant cultures and races accomplished through minstrelsy. Chan’s
identity in its complexity and its hybridity takes shape against the back-
ground, through, a black minstrel. Where the black minstrel played by a
black man remains static, the Asian’s multifacetedness takes shape against
this lack of movement. Minstrelsy’s premise of the threat of black mas-
culinity is still at the core of Rush Hour, even as this threat has now been
rendered even more ridiculous. For example, Carter, the African American
policeman played by Chris Tucker, insists on taking every comment of his
white female partner, Officer Johnson, as a sexual advance: “Johnson, if
you want to go on a date with me, you don’t have to wait on a list like
every other woman.”
Where the black Other remains a stock character, the Chinese subject
moves into the American mainstream. Chan’s is a mainstreaming that,
ironically, does not lead to an unqualified (and hence, ultimately, to white)
Americanness. Lee is being mainstreamed, a process that reinforces the
static quality of Tucker’s blackface minstrel mask. This mainstreaming
stops short of the Asian’s complete Americanization. Even more ironically,
as the film closes, the mainstream is a Chinese one: Tucker and Lee are
on a plane to Hong Kong. It is here that the genres in which Rush Hour
participates may be well worth considering. In the genre of the kung fu
movie, especially in its Jackie Chan brand, the norm is Hong Kong. Even if
Chan’s presence verges on Americanness at the end of Rush Hour, this
Americanness is by no means synonymous with white Americanness, and
Chan goes back to China at the narrative’s end. Rush Hour’s is a main-
streaming, then, in which Chan, the Asian visitor, becomes the equiva-
The Rush Hour of Black/Asian Coalitions? 211

lent of Asian investment in the United States: both are highly welcome.
The Asian is desirable because he has been Americanized to a degree (an
Americanization achieved through blackface minstrelsy), and he can now
go home again. Thus Rush Hour indicates that we may have to speak of
degrees of mainstreaming and that mainstreaming is not always synony-
mous with the acquisition of whiteness or white privilege.
But how is this Americanization achieved? In Rogin’s analysis of The
Jazz Singer as much as in Rush Hour, Americanization is inextricable from
the Other’s initiation into American popular culture. Rush Hour inscribes
the process of Americanization through the ubiquity of American popular
Yet, there is an interesting tension in the narrative between American-
ization and African Americanization in Rush Hour. Through Carter, Lee is
being initiated not just into American culture but into African American

Lee [Turns on the radio, smiles]: Beach Boys.

Carter: Oh hell no. You didn’t just touch my goddamn radio.
Lee: The Beach Boys are great American music.
Carter: The Beach Boys’ll get you a great ass-whoopin’. Don’t ever touch a
black man’s radio, boy. You can do that in China but here you’ll get your
ass killed down here, man. Let me show you real music. [Changes the
station to rap music; starts moving] Now, can you do that to the beach
boys? Hell no!

It is at this point that, even though at first glance Rush Hour and The Jazz
Singer seem to differ tremendously, there is a striking similarity in them:
in both instances, Americanization is synonymous with African Ameri-
canization. The Jewish immigrant, as Rogin argues, becomes American by
performing jazz. Even if in Rush Hour African American culture is epito-
mized by rap, not jazz, the structure of Americanization or African Amer-
icanization remains. It is thus small wonder that Lee should be taught to
perform American culture in an African American voice:

Lee [Sings]: War. What is it good for, absolutely nothing. Sing it again, you all.
Carter: It ain’t you all, it’s y’all.
Lee [Tries]: Y’all.
Carter: Man, you sound like a karate movie. Y’all!
[Lee is making an effort]
212 m i t a b a n e r j e e

Carter [Pointing to his stomach]: Say it from right here with some soul.

Ironically, there is a sense here in which the minstrel performer is being

taught African American authenticity by the black man himself. Seen in
this light, Lee’s would thus be a minstrel performance. Once again, even as
both the Asian and the black characters of Rush Hour are ultimately min-
strels of white cultural imagination, Lee’s role is a dynamic one whereas
Carter’s is not. Lee is a minstrel performer, where Carter is only a minstrel.
Rush Hour’s narrative can thus be seen as an ironic replay of the history
of black/Asian relations in the United States. Carter’s attitude to his Asian
“partner,” Lee, moves from open antagonism to a grudging acknowledg-
ment. The film signifies on a history of black/Asian relations in the United
States even as it distorts these relations, and it dismisses the role of white-
ness in bringing about the increasing tension between black and Asian
communities that the film seeks to transcend through humor. The idea
that black/Asian alliances are being portrayed by the filmic narrative as
being imposed from above (the white police captain orders Tucker to team
up with Lee) and as being imposed by whiteness is in fact a blatant denial
of historical reality. Historically, the white mainstream has brought about
not the coalition between blacks and Asians but their antagonism. The en-
mity between black and Asian communities was the outcome of a main-
stream politics of divide and rule, which pitted an allegedly “dysfunc-
tional” black community against an Asian model minority. This historical
genealogy is completely absent from the film, which portrays black/Asian
antagonism as an outcome of these communities’ own racial myopia.
Ironically, Rush Hour can be read as the mainstream’s attempt to make up
for its own historical failures: it reconciles the very communities for whose
mutual suspicion this mainstream is responsible in the first place. Race
relations are thus played out in popular culture.
It is crucial to read Rush Hour against the background of the history of
black/Asian relations in the United States. Significantly, these relations
came to a head in the very city in which the film is set: Los Angeles. How,
then, does Rush Hour signify on the L.A. urban uprising? How do the
parameters of this historical event modify the message of the film? Cru-
cially, the race relations described in Rush Hour mirror black/Asian antag-
onism and its eruption into violence, as well as the role of whiteness in
this antagonism. The L.A. urban uprising seems inseparable from this
practice of the dominant culture of pitting the dysfunctional black subject
The Rush Hour of Black/Asian Coalitions? 213

against the Asian model minority. In Rush Hour, black dysfunctionality is

still in place, as is the script of minstrelsy. In fact, the presence of Carter as
the black cop can be seen as metonymical of popular culture’s inclusion of
ethnic minorities only in nominal terms. The inclusion of blackness is
ridiculed by the filmic narrative; the black man is included as a minstrel
character who plays a police officer. Carter is a minstrel at the white police
chief ’s disposal, blissfully unaware of the fact that he is being functional-
ized by whiteness. While the filmic narrative suggests that this functional-
izing of blackness indexes only Carter’s having to “baby-sit” his Chinese
colleague so the latter does not interfere with the FBI operation of getting
Consul Han’s daughter back, I am interested in a more abstract politics of
racial containment that Rush Hour can be said to inscribe. The founda-
tional premise of minstrelsy is that minstrelsy constitutes the performance
of “nonsense” by a black character, and a performance that is being mas-
terminded by white imagination:

Chief [On the phone to the FBI]: Even if I had an extra man, who would
want such a bullshit assignment? It’s a disgrace to me. It’s a disgrace to
my department. It’s a disgrace. . . . [Carter is seen walking past] Dan? I’m
sending someone right over.

Carter is thus a token presence, a presence that leaves the assumption of

black dysfunctionality untouched and leaves unthreatened the assertion
that blacks cannot be integrated into the structures of law and order be-
cause they cannot tell its basic parameters apart. As Carter proclaims,
“We’re L.A.P.D.—we’re the most hated cops in the whole world. My own
mama she ashamed of me. She telling everybody I’m a drug dealer.” What
this assertion of hatred alludes to and leaves out at the same time is the
precedence of racial hatred in the Rodney King assault. Crucially, this
precedent is doubly disavowed in Rush Hour because it is being referred to
by a black character, and because it is decontextualized, dehistoricized.
Even more strikingly, the violence perpetrated by the L.A.P.D. is attributed
by the filmic narrative to a black policeman. The cause of the world’s
hatred of the L.A. police, Rush Hour asserts, is a black man’s actions:

Chief: Two officers were shot [in your operation], one man lost a pinkie.
Carter: Didn’t nobody die.
Chief: You destroyed half a block.
Carter: That block was already messed up.
214 m i t a b a n e r j e e

The violence of the L.A.P.D. has thus been turned by Hollywood into a
topos of popular culture, but into a topos which is profoundly ahistorical
and which distorts the historical precedent itself.
If the L.A. uprising was predicated on an opposition between black and
Asian communities, between an allegedly dysfunctional minority group
and an Asian minority that was perceived as a stand-in for whiteness, Rush
Hour leaves this very opposition untouched. This opposition between
Asian model minority and dysfunctional blackness is enacted in Rush
Hour without its violent effects: Rush Hour is the reconciliation of Asian
and black communities in mainstream popular culture.
It is thus impossible to read Rush Hour without taking into account the
L.A. riots: impossible because, as a host of critics have argued, the L.A.
urban uprising was the eruption of an antagonism that had been building
for years. It is no coincidence that Rush Hour should be set in Los Angeles
and that it should dehistoricize the city by failing to allude to its civil un-
rest. Crucially, Rush Hour can be read as a sequel of this unrest: white soci-
ety, ironically, could be said to make up for its own responsibility in the
tensions leading up to the social unrest by reconciling blacks and Asians.
Even more significant, however, is that this reconciliation is strongly at
odds with the fact that the filmic narrative upholds the very binary that
led to the antagonism in the first place: the Asian is still the model minor-
ity, and blackness is still dysfunctional.
The scenario of L.A. civic unrest, I argue, was itself predicated on a pol-
itics of ethnic surrogation. This surrogation, in Rush Hour, is all the more
powerful because the filmic narrative suggests that there is no white main-
stream. Against such an assertion, however, I want to trace a disembodied
white voice—a voice that emanates, alternately, from a black and a yellow
body. This disembodiment of voice, in fact, is in keeping with the tradi-
tional framework of minstrelsy: the whiteness of the voice is disavowed
through blackface, the act of a white subject speaking as an ethnic one. In
Rush Hour, what Prashad has called the “kung-fusion” of the senses results
from the disembodiment of whiteness: we never know whether the ethnic
subject speaks as itself or as a surrogate for whiteness. Rush Hour works
precisely through the effect of this undecidability. It is significant that in
Rush Hour, a white mainstream could be said to play out its own en-
counter with ethnicity through surrogate ethnic bodies. The bearer of this
white gaze, the temporary “stand in” for whiteness, however, shifts from
Asian to black body and back again. Ironically, while the white characters
in the filmic narrative seem to be sympathetic, or at least indifferent, to
The Rush Hour of Black/Asian Coalitions? 215

the Chinese trespasser, Carter’s is a racist response. As Carter tells Lee,

who has just stepped off the plane in Los Angeles:

Carter: I’m detective Carter. Do you speak any English? [Lee looks at him]
Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth? [Points
to his mouth] [Lee smiles] I can’t believe this shit. First, I get a bullshit
assignment, now Mr. Rice-a-Roni doesn’t even speak American.

Through the politics of surrogation, a white mainstream can have its cake
and eat it, too: it can pose as racially progressive or at least benevolent and
nevertheless live out its racism through the surrogate of a black body. It
is in this white mimicry of “Chineseness” performed by a black subject
that historical ignorance converges with racist attitude. Hong Kong, as the
film’s opening makes clear, was a British colony; Carter’s assumption that
Lee does not speak English is hence also a symptom of his own historical
Ironically, the filmic narrative thus suggests that there is no white gaze
on Chan’s yellow body; the white detectives have no interest in him. I ar-
gue in contrast that this gaze has only been disembodied: it is Carter who
looks at Lee, as it were, through white eyes, or, conversely, the dominant
culture looks at an Asian Other through blackface. The form of blackface,
however, remains the same: Otherness is being stared at not from behind
blackface but nevertheless through black eyes. The structure of minstrelsy
remains, yet it is being used to different ends: minstrelsy helps a main-
stream norm cope with the multicultural reality surrounding it, as well as
with the multiethnic dystopia of Los Angeles. The traffic chaos of L.A.’s
streets becomes a metaphor for its multiethnic dysfunctionality—a dys-
functionality from which whiteness is curiously absent. As Lee tells his
kung fu student Soo-Yung, before she leaves with her diplomat father for
the United States:

Lee [Subtitled in English translation]: Don’t worry, America is a friendly

place. [Cut to L.A. traffic]
Driver no. 1: Get the hell of my way.
Driver no. 2: You moron.

In Rush Hour, the politics of ethnic surrogation cut both ways: the
dominant culture looks through black eyes at a yellow body, and an Asian
model minority protects the mainstream from African American dysfunc-
216 m i t a b a n e r j e e

tionality. In this instance, too, Hollywood could be said to be haunted by

history, a history that Rush Hour sets out to deny. David Palumbo-Liu’s
account of the L.A. civic unrest showed that media coverage of the event
focused on Asian bodies protecting white property. Time Magazine fea-
tured the picture of a Korean American wearing a Malcolm X T-shirt with
the caption “By any means necessary” and fending off a blackness that was
wreaking havoc on public space and private property. Crucially for my
purposes here, the wearing of a Malcolm X T-shirt by a Korean American
was interpreted by Time Magazine not as the sign of a coalition between
blacks and Asians—a coalition that might lead to a healing of the rift ex-
pressed in the L.A. riots—but resulted instead in a de-racing of Malcolm
X’s slogan. Not only is the phrase “By any means necessary” divorced from
the movement for African American liberation, but also Malcolm X’s
words are used against the black community that Time Magazine con-
ceives of as dysfunctional. And, what is even more crucial, the use of Mal-
colm X against African Americans is achieved through the surrogate body
of a Korean American. As Palumbo-Liu points out, “An icon of Black
Power has been uprooted from its historical specificity and appropriated
now seeming to sanction and even prescribe counterviolence against
blacks and others who might threaten the dominant ideology. That is how
the words of Malcolm X have . . . come to legitimize protecting property
from blacks?”6 In the complex image of an Asian man protecting Asian
(and white) property from a violent black community, there is hence a
complex history of race relations in the United States. In this instance, as
in the filmic narrative of Rush Hour, whiteness manages to remain unseen
because of a politics of ethnic surrogation. Palumbo-Liu writes:

An Asian body occupies the foreground in this narrative; blacks are present
as second-level images (Malcolm X on the T-shirt). Whites, however, are
invisible, somehow not part of “this” America. Thus what is missing in the
narrative implicated by this photo/text is any inquiry into the structure of
an economic system that historically has placed Asians against blacks and

Time uses an Asian body as a stand-in for whiteness (an Asian protect-
ing white property), even as this politics of surrogation is disavowed
through the Asian wearing a Malcolm X T-shirt: in a sad irony, whites
defend their own property through a Korean who has been made to don
blackface through wearing a Malcolm X T-shirt. Both Rush Hour and Time
The Rush Hour of Black/Asian Coalitions? 217

Magazine dehistoricize the possibility of black/Asian coalitions. Both pit

the Asian against the black, even as one reinscribes the opposition between
the two and the other centers on the forced coalition between a black
cop and a policeman from Hong Kong. Like the media’s Asians protecting
white property from blacks running amok, Jackie Chan (with or without a
Malcolm X T-shirt) enforces law and order on American soil, whereas his
black minstrel partner destroys half a city block. Chan ultimately protects
white property from a blackness that is out of control. Both Asian men are
surrogates for a white mainstream that remains unseen.
If Rush Hour signifies on the L.A. urban uprising without acknowledg-
ing this historical precedent of its own evocation of black/Asian antago-
nism, it may be useful to contrast the film with an art form that openly
engages the history of the city itself. In a very immediate way, mural art
signifies on the very buildings it is inscribed upon, and hence also on the
material geography of the city itself. Murals supply the context and reality
of black/Asian coalitions that Rush Hour refuses to provide. L.A. murals
can thus be seen as an alternative text to Rush Hour.
How might the interaction between filmic narrative and its social and
urban geographical setting shed light on the film itself? There is a tension,
I believe, between the reactionary multiethnicity of the filmic narrative
and the multiethnicity of Los Angeles itself, a multiethnicity that mural
art represents. The film can be said to participate, as the opening shot of
L.A. traffic indicates, in the genre of dystopic narratives associating L.A.’s
multiethnicity with social dystopia and dysfunctionality. To resist this cod-
ing of multiethnicity as dystopic, Rush Hour needs to be inserted into a
wider continuum of ethnic artistic production, a production centering on
the urban space and social topography of Los Angeles itself.
Incidentally, one scene of Rush Hour takes place against the background
of a mural painting, “Hollywood Jazz 1945–1972” (1990) by Richard Wyatt.
Where Rush Hour contains and neutralizes the spirit of a people of color
coalition by framing the black/Asian encounter through the form of min-
strelsy, California mural art is exemplary of an alternative multiethnic
coalition. Mural art, in the very spirit of Prashad’s definition of a progres-
sive kung-fusion of identity politics, defies cultural purism even as it por-
trays ethnic faces on L.A.’s city walls. Mural artist Keith Sklar has described
his own painting, “Mitzvah: The Jewish Cultural Experience”:

People in the mural are local Bay Area people, such as Harvey Milk, Ger-
trude Stein and Rabbi Heschel—he was a local activist rabbi who for years
218 m i t a b a n e r j e e

marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. Then there are local Jews who are
Asian, Black, and Chicano in the mural. So it breaks apart a stereotype of
what it looks like to be Jewish. These are not converted people. These are
people who grew up that way.8

Just as Sklar fuses black and Jewish faces, Rush Hour could have fused
black and Asian faces in a positive way but fails to do so. Where the filmic
narrative sets out to authenticate the black/Asian cop alliance through the
mural against whose background the scene is shot, I argue that the mural
in fact disauthenticates the reactionary politics of Rush Hour.
At first glance, there seems to be congruence between the mural’s mes-
sage of multiethnicity, of ethnic reconciliation, and the filmic narrative’s
dialogue. Lee’s message, in any case, seems to be a call for cultural enlight-
enment. This plea for enlightenment, however, is directed not at the main-
stream—a mainstream that, as I argue throughout this essay, remains
absent from the film—but the black minstrel:

Lee: Not being able to speak is not the same as not speaking. You seem as if
you like to talk. I like to let people talk who like to talk. It makes it easier
to find out how full of shit they are. [Smiles] [After a pause] We’re both
full of shit.

This dialogue of reconciliation is pronounced against the background of

mural art. Mural art seems to index within the logic of the narrative only
the topos of L.A.’s multiethnicity, not the much more profound message
of interethnic coalition building which this essay is about.
Wyatt’s L.A. mural shows us a multiethnic reality that the film capital-
izes on, but whose political edge it ultimately denies. Where the filmic nar-
rative of Rush Hour includes mural art only as local color, and a local color
characterized by the token presence of ethnicity, I am interested in mural
art’s comment on Rush Hour as a Hollywood cultural production. If the
film includes the mural as backdrop, I propose that through this back-
drop, the filmic narrative itself might be deconstructed. As Wyatt has de-
scribed his mural: “Hollywood has a huge, legendary history of jazz. There
have been a lot of jazz clubs. I couldn’t show all the artists who performed
during that period (1945–72). Instead, in the background, I created the il-
lusion of etched names for some of the others, so everyone got some
recognition.”9 At this point, we have come full circle back to Rogin’s analy-
sis of The Jazz Singer. The form of jazz, like the form of mural art, is pred-
The Rush Hour of Black/Asian Coalitions? 219

icated on an interethnic dialogue. Muralizing the history of jazz, Wyatt at

the same time implicitly addresses the issue of interethnic encounters.
What is the relationship, however, between Wyatt’s take on such encoun-
ters and that of Rush Hour? The echo that the filmic narrative creates
between the mural and the film itself is a false one. The mural suggests
that ethnic artists can reverse Hollywood’s appropriation—and commer-
cialization—of ethnicity: Wyatt retranslates Hollywood’s containment of
a music that had originally been African American back into noncommer-
cial mural art, an art that restores to jazz the idea not only of historicity
but also of cultural complexity—a cultural complexity which, I have ar-
gued throughout this essay, is entirely absent from Rush Hour. If we de-
construct the filmic narrative through the mural, both Chan’s and Tucker’s
presences may in time be reappropriated by mural artists as part of a
genealogy of black and Asian presences and of black/Asian coalitions.
Mural art may redeem what Hollywood set out to appropriate.
Where Wyatt’s mural restores, against the grain of the filmic narrative,
the historicity of ethnic communities and the genealogy of interethnic co-
alition building, Rush Hour goes on to deny this very historicity. What is
surprising, and surprisingly reactionary, about Rush Hour is that there is
no sense of a Chinese American community. Lee is being initiated, as the
film opens, by being taken to Mann’s Chinese Theater, not Chinatown. As
Carter tells him, “I wanna show you something first. Look familiar? Just
like home. I ain’t never been to China, but it probably look like this.” Even
as Chinatown is of course ambivalent as the site of both tourist exoticism
and the lived complexity of the Chinese American community, Chan’s
entering into the United States is blocked, as it were, by being led into a
maze of mainstream simulations of Chineseness.
Where Chinatown does surface in the film, it is contained as exterior to
the U.S. nation space. It is through its association with gang culture that
Chinatown is inscribed, not as an American space10 but as a polluting link
to overseas Chinese warlords. The violence of gang culture is shown to be
random, disinterested. It is as Asian as it is systemic, and it is embodied by
Juntao, the stereotypical Asian criminal:

Chauffeur: Is there a problem, officer?

Juntao: No problem. [Shoots him] Just rush hour.

The film evokes a transnational alliance of crime, and its face is Asian.
Robert Lee suggests that the “contemporary yellow peril [is] the invasion
220 m i t a b a n e r j e e

of new Chinese immigrants and their gangs.”11 Even as this matching of

illegality and race is seemingly neutralized by the film’s protagonist, a Chi-
nese cop, the exteriority of the Asian remains. As Robert Lee has argued,
yellow peril and model minority are sides of the same coin: “The model
minority has two faces. The myth presents Asian Americans as silent and
disciplined; this is their secret to success. At the same time, this silence and
discipline is used in constructing the Asian American as a new yellow
peril.”12 If Juntao is a bad Asian and Lee is a good one, they are both exte-
rior to the nation. The Asian cop helps the CIA solve its problem with
Asian ethnicity and then goes back to China. In the end, moreover, it mat-
ters little that Juntao was not the mastermind of his own crimes and that
the crimes were instigated by the British ambassador to Hong Kong, a
white man. What remains is the script of Oriental delinquency perpetu-
ated by the filmic narratives. In the case of both Juntao and Lee, the filmic
script thus ultimately denies Asian originality: both the Oriental’s com-
mitting the crime and his fellow Asian’s solving it have to be master-
minded by whiteness.
Now, after a discussion of the tension between actor and filmic script,
where I zoom in on the filmic narrative itself, I end this essay by zooming
out from that narrative. Even if Rush Hour can be deconstructed through
the contexts provided by the L.A. urban uprising and mural art, respec-
tively, its politics are still based on minstrelsy. Minstrelsy can be upset
through these alternative discourses, but, from the perspective of a main-
stream audience, its script in Rush Hour may still remain in place. I believe
that is only in his own film, Shanghai Noon, a film which he himself di-
rected, that Jackie Chan is able to combine the “Asian (American) fusion”
of his martial arts choreography and an acting style that is indebted to
American mainstream comedy with a filmic script that is not predicted on
blackface or yellowface minstrelsy. In Shanghai Noon, the Asian enters as
cowboy, the most striking embodiment of white American masculinity.
Shanghai Noon restores the element of originality that is missing in Rush
Hour, and it renders visible in the obviousness of the title’s allusion the
cultural fusion on which the film is predicated. Chan has given Gary
Cooper an Asian face. Where the indebtedness of his acting style in Rush
Hour to Buster Keaton’s comedy remains unseen to any but Jackie Chan
aficionados, the title of Shanghai Noon in its pun emphasizes the director’s
and lead actor’s own cultural literacy in American popular culture—a
popular culture which, Chan implies, by far exceeds the form of min-
The Rush Hour of Black/Asian Coalitions? 221

In the filmic narrative that parodies American racial scenarios—scenar-

ios determining the minstrelsy of Rush Hour—the Asian Other reappears
not only as native but also as Native American, a Native American who
goes on to don a cowboy disguise. This postethnic and/or multiethnic sce-
nario truly lives up to Prashad’s definition of “kung-fusion.” In Shanghai
Noon, unlike in Rush Hour, filmic narrative and off-screen coalition build-
ing converge. Yet, it is significant that Chan’s is a multiethnic tricksterism,
not a multiethnic utopia based on interethnic coalitions. Moreover, black-
ness remains curiously absent from the American West. Can the new skin
of Prashad’s kung-fusion never be put on celluloid, then? We may perhaps
dwell on the act of Chan’s multiethnic tricksterism in Shanghai Noon. If
in the form of minstrelsy, the putting on of ethnic masks was the preroga-
tive of the white performer, this prerogative has now been appropriated by
an “Asian” actor whose very performance demonstrates his cultural liter-
acy and hence makes him American. Such multiethnic masking proves
that mainstreaming can be achieved by practices other than minstrelsy.
The cowboy has reentered the American scene, and his face is rainbow-

1. Jessica Hagedorn, Charlie Chan Is Dead: An Anthology of Contemporary
Asian American Fiction (New York: Penguin, 1993), xxii.
2. Vijay Prashad, Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and
the Myth of Cultural Purity (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001), x.
3. Ibid., 128.
4. Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working
Class (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 15.
5. Michael Rogin, Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood
Melting Pot (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 6.
6. David Palumbo-Liu, Asian/American: Historical Crossings of a Racial Fron-
tier (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), 184.
7. Ibid., 185–186.
8. Robin Dunitz and James Prigoff, Painting the Towns: Murals of California
(Los Angeles: RJD Enterprises, 1997), 102.
9. Quoted in ibid., 206.
10. As Nayan Shah has suggested in his study of perceptions of San Francisco
Chinatown at the turn of the twentieth century, “The vivid and visceral narration
of the midnight journey through Chinatown became one of the standard forms of
knowledge used in both medical and popular accounts to establish the truth of
222 m i t a b a n e r j e e

Chinatown as the preeminent site of vice, immorality, degradation, crime, and

disease.” Nayan Shah, Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s
Chinatown (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 29.
11. Robert Lee, Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture (Philadelphia:
Temple University Press, 1999), 197.
12. Ibid., 190.
Chapter 12

Performing Postmodernist Passing

Nikki S. Lee, Tuff, and Ghost Dog in Yellowface/Blackface

Cathy Covell Waegner

Nikki S. Lee, the Korean American photographer, darkens her face to

plunge into the African American hip-hop scene in the Bronx; the artistic
result is snapshots of herself cheerfully embracing her role as a “homegirl,”
literally being embraced by “rap gangstas.” Paul Beatty’s outrageous, po-
litically incorrect African American hero in the novel Tuff (2000) plays
that he is “starring in one of those Chinese gangster movies”1 when he
grotesquely executes a dog. In Oriental masquerade, R. Kelly and a large
troupe of African American back-up singers dance with Asianized hip-
hop movements in his fleshly MTV video Thoia Thoing. The short film
Tokyo Breakfast, which pretends to be the pilot of a Japanese sitcom, de-
picts an entire Japanese family, including the grandfather, as hip-hoppers,
gleefully rappin’ through their daily life, affectionately calling each other
“nigga.” And Ghost Dog, an abused African American ghetto youth, be-
comes an unlikely and dedicated samurai in the satirized Mafia milieu of
modern-day Jersey City in Jim Jarmusch’s stunning 1999 film Ghost Dog.
These disparate case studies in different genres, linked in a variety of
ways to pop culture, reflect a growing trend in yellowface/blackface im-
personation which I would like to call “playful postmodernist passing.”
After looking at these case studies more closely, I distinguish this playful
postmodernist passing from the generally black-to-white phenomenon
more conventionally associated with the term “passing” in which discovery
could have dire social and legal consquences, as well as show how it moves
beyond a version of minstrelsy in which blackface is used as a hegemonic
device to amuse by denigrating the Other.2 I then draw some working
conclusions about the contemporary trope of passing in light of some
current theory on “polyculture” and “performative acts,” suggesting that

224 c a t h y c o v e l l w a e g n e r

the trope offers a certain amount of personal empowerment for the cul-
tural self and provides the impulse for new polycultural art forms in the
twenty-first century.

Joyful Trespassing

Born in 1970 in Kye-Chang, South Korea, Nikki S. Lee immigrated to the

United States in 1994, receiving an M.A. in photography in 1999. As an im-
migrant newcomer to the New York art scene, she was quickly able to give
herself profile in a series of what she calls “projects,” disguising her ethnic-
ity, profession, and gender as, for example, a Puerto Rican, strip dancer,
and drag queen. Her blend of photojournalism, self-portraiture, and per-
formance art produces the vivid snapshots of the “Hip-Hop Project,”
which form an outstanding part of the One Planet under a Groove: Hip-
Hop and Contemporary Art exhibition which displays the hybridity of the
hip-hop world in its ingesting and even shaping of international culture.
The exhibition began at the Bronx Museum of the Arts (2001), moved to
Minneapolis (2002), and crossed the Atlantic to Munich, Germany (2003–
2004). The Hip-Hop Project photograph featured most frequently in the
exhibition critiques3 depicts Lee in elegant “blackface” as one of five young
African Americans on the back seat of a car, all wearing du rags, bling
bling, or designer sunglasses, making hip-hop “yo” gestures with tattooed
hands on their way to a block party. Lee is obviously physically well inte-
grated into the group—more specifically, into the arms of a handsome
male hip-hopper.
Exhibition viewers quickly find themselves puzzling over several ques-
tions: Do the hip-hoppers know that Lee is in disguise? Do they realize
that they are taking part in an art project? With a glance into the hip-hop
milieu in which Lee is so snugly ensconced, viewers perceive the passing
on one level as “authentic” but nonetheless suspect that the photos are
largely staged. Indeed, the fellow hip-hoppers are in complicity with Lee’s
immersion, giving their consent beforehand to being part of her project.4
This manipulated reality, which fits in with the current trend for reality
television, offers what could be called postmodernist “willed authenticity”
—a voyeuristic glimpse into lived experience, the artificiality of its media
staging remaining nonetheless undisguised. Surely, this is exactly the hy-
brid effect that Lee is aiming to achieve. The viewer plays along with Lee’s
game and is rewarded for this: as Lee interweaves the improvised with the
Performing Postmodernist Passing 225

planned or rehearsed in her performance, the slightly ironic slippage be-

tween them can, as Elin Diamond suggests in a performance theory con-
text, beneficially reveal “concealed or dissimulated conventions.”5
Viewers also find themselves asking how these photographs can possi-
bly be attributed to Lee, who serves as a sujet in the pictures. How can she
be both experiencing the hip-hop milieu and recording it?6 Are the snap-
shots taken by random bystanders? If not, is the actual photographer also
dressed as a hip-hopper to blend into the scenario? In fact, some of the
photographs were taken by bystanders, but most by undisguised friends
of Lee who are not professional photographers. The snapshot character is
deliberately preserved by use of an inexpensive automatic focus camera.7
Unlike most photographic self-portraits, these pictures reveal little about
the artist. Instead, the stereotypes used to determine socioethnic groups
are encoded and foregrounded. Lee’s performed immersion into the large-
ly African American hip-hop world of the Bronx parallels her placing her-
self informally on the “other” side of the camera; both movements suggest
that ethnicity, role, (self-) identification and “authenticity” are negotiable.
Lee’s switch from agent (photographer) to subject, like her transformation
from Asian to African American, appears fluid and easy.
Hip-hop with its “cross-cultural portability”8 lends itself particularly
well to Lee’s performance of Asian to African American passing. Indeed,
the origins of hip-hop, commonly perceived as African American, lie in
a fusion of African American, Caribbean, and Asian strands. The African
American fascination with the Asian in the 1970s, exemplified in the Bruce
Lee and martial arts cult, deeply affected the hip-hop movement. This in-
fluence is also reflected in the One Planet under a Groove exhibition, which
features ethnically hybrid installations such as breakdancing on a kalideo-
scopic mandala background, breakdance as somo wrestling, “Kanji Wild-
style” hip-hop grafitti in Oriental script, and the rapper’s hood remi-
niscent of the hijab (headscarf) in Islamic culture. One installation links
Tupac and the packaging artist Christo with a visualization of the pun
“(w)rap.” The pun could be applied to Nikki Lee’s disguised play of identi-
ties, which a German reviewer sees as subversive, as “cheekily undermin-
ing” the supposed African American monopoly on hip-hop.9 But Lee is
finally neither a mere recorder nor a guerrilla; as a proclaimed player, she
enjoys poetic license, as it were, to move freely between the ethnicities and
social groups, her allegiances as temporary as her makeup.
What about the “air of condescension” that some reviewers have seen
being involved in Lee’s shape-shifting feats, despite her dedicated, “vivid
226 c a t h y c o v e l l w a e g n e r

theatricality”? These reviewers are uncomfortable with the possible arro-

gance and lack of essence in her pranksterism: “Looking at the snapshots
that document her masquerade, one can’t help but experience a little fris-
son, wondering what, in fact, is left after all the studied camouflage is
stripped away.”10 The evocation of this “frisson,” I claim, is a deliberate
part of Lee’s multifunctional, intentionally naughty, but never disrespect-
ful, postmodernist act. A more disturbing criticism of Lee’s undertaking
lies in the sociopolitical implications of her cross-cultural trespasses; the
artifice and playfulness of her mimicry can be seen as part and parcel of
her privilege as an artist: “It is clear, Lee is not the person against whom
the Fifth Avenue boutiques barricade their windows with thick sheets of
plywood. . . . She can hang, braided and disenchanted, with the hip-hop
heads, but at the end of the day she leaves them behind and goes back to
being a popular artist whose photos hang in major museums.”11 This crit-
ical approach, however, serves to polarize “art” and “reality,” a distinction
that runs counter to the postmodernist thrust of crossing and breaking
down borders in all spheres as a liberating, on the whole socially healthy,

Tuff ’s Politically Incorrect Yellowface

A mirror image of Lee’s joyful and sly but respectful blackface masquerade
is embodied in Tuff, the ethnically blasphemous black protagonist of Paul
Beatty’s novel of the same name set in thoroughly intercultural Spanish
Harlem. Beatty, whom reviewers have dubbed “the poet laureate of the
hip-hop generation” and Rachel C. Lee calls a “postmodern ethnic,”12 laces
his novel with snapshots of Tuff ’s AfroAsian passing. With ghetto ventril-
oquism, nineteen-year-old Tuff imitates a cinematic Cantonese accent
when he impersonates a Chinese film villain; he chuckles in his “Ming the
Merciless laugh”13 as he releases a piranha into his fishbowl. Tuff ’s key
leisure-time activity is watching classic Asian films, often reacting with
comically maudlin empathy, as when he realizes he would have to elimi-
nate his wife before he could slip into the protagonist’s role in the 1942
Ozu film There Was a Father: “If you think about it, Landa, all I have to do
is kill you and this movie be just like me and Jordy’s life. Father and son
against the world.”14
The protagonist’s often sadistic, occasionally sentimental appropriation
of Asian film stereotypes is accompanied by a not entirely ironic influence
Performing Postmodernist Passing 227

of the samurai culture. His quoting from Yoshikawa’s famous samurai epic
Musashi is one of the scarce but significant “straight” moments of Beatty’s
satirical novel: “Extend the circle, its edges go to the ends of the universe.
. . . Shrink the circle, it becomes the size of your soul.”15 The image of the
circle becomes a leitmotif, as when Tuff creates harmony in jail by being
the midpoint of a “disjointed circle” of gang members, imagining the
ghost of Musashi Miyamoto “filling in its gaps” by beautifully wielding his
samurai stick.16
His thoroughly politically incorrect friends (and enemies) usually de-
flate his moments of relatively earnest passing: when Tuff ’s voice “tak[es]
on a clichéd Chinese lilt” as he proclaims, “It’s like a finger pointing away
to the moon: don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heav-
enly glory,” his buddy gruffly cuts him off with “Enough with Enter the
Dragon bullshit.”17 And their offensive anti-Asian comments such as “so
the largest black company is owned by a Chink?” and “let him go, you
slant-eyed bitch!” are part of the novel’s discourse.18
In addition to performing Asian movie and epic stereotypes, Tuff also
immerses himself in Japanese video games, acting out real-life quarrels
through the mediation of virtual highjinks. Fittingly named “Rotundo” in
a bloody ninja game with elaborate swordplay, the overweight protagonist
is coolly conquered by Kashmira, an assassin played by Tuff ’s wife Yo-
landa, who is furious with him for having sought arrest: “Before he could
assume a defensive crouch Kashmira decapitated him.” Bruce Lee’s elegant
leaps and swift jabs of the 1970s movies and magazines, which Tuff has
always consumed avidly, have been transformed into the game figures’
grotesque “flurry of secret moves” and the players’ hyperkinetics of “intri-
cate joystick-button combinations.”19
The climax of Tuff ’s yellowface performance is reached when he van-
quishes a formidable professional wrestler in a sumo-wrestling event that
the narrative voice calls a “Japanese minstrel show.” Dressed in the tradi-
tional costume of satin belts which necessarily leave his huge buttocks
exposed and “hoist . . . his paunch almost to his nipples,” the obese Tuff
enters the arena, fascinated with being “in the presence of so many men
his size.” The ghetto youth is in the midst of campaigning for city council
and could have used this public event as mere promotional grist for his
campaign mill, but instead he takes the bout surprisingly seriously, using a
combination of Harlem street moves and strategies gleaned from kung fu
movies to win. Given the appropriate name of Kuroyama or “Black Moun-
tain,” he feels as if he has stepped out of the screen of an Asian film as “the
228 c a t h y c o v e l l w a e g n e r

unassuming hero in a martial-arts movie: trained by wind, trees, and the

monkeys, the country bumpkin makes a name for himself ”20 and even
considers undergoing professional initiation into the sumo troupe as he
studies his Science of Sumo book.
Movies, video games, magazines, and handbooks are not the only
source of Tuff ’s knowledge of Asian culture; the woman who raised him
and is sponsoring his political campaign is a Japanese American, Inez No-
mura, born in a World War II internment camp, who became a Malcolm X
groupie and a Marxist Harlem activist. As an optically striking participant
in the front row of Malcolm X’s weekly rallies, she proved her ethnic alle-
giance by mouthing his chant “I’m a field Negro.”21 Now her Orientalism
is asked for: in order for Tuff to prove Japanese heritage to become a sumo
wrestler, she would have to, as the coach tells Tuff, “sign an affidavit swear-
ing she was your mother.”22 This would mean an official and legal ethnic
passing that goes a step too far for Tuff, just as he refuses to “pass” into the
political establishment when he is wined and dined by third parties want-
ing to instrumentalize him as “their” candidate.
As Tuff moves through the derelict housing projects of Spanish Har-
lem, interacting with and defending the junkies, dropouts, and felons,
often of mixed ethnicity and sexual persuasion, the reader realizes that
the unlikely candidate indeed has a charismatic populist touch that justi-
fies his reputation as a rising folk-hero samurai. He even begins to adopt
a modern samurai strategy of negotiation rather than violence when he
helps his friends talk their way out of a bank robbery arrest. On election
day, however, he commits political hari-kari by failing to vote for himself,
then gleefully voting for “the surnames he thought sounded Jewish” for
the judgeships,23 and finally letting his little son Jordy flip the rest of the
polling booth switches according to the toddler’s whims. Tuff spends the
last of his campaign money, $2,000, to become a patron of the alterna-
tive Theater for Classic Cinema with an engraved plaque on the back of
a seat. He opts for keeping his passing within the realm of the vicarious
world of the cinema rather than in his foster mother’s polycultural polit-
ical arena.

Staged Passing and Parodic Strategies

Before turning to Jim Jarmusch’s film protagonist Ghost Dog, who, in

contrast to Tuff, shows a different face of postmodernist passing by play-
Performing Postmodernist Passing 229

ing the role of a samurai in deadly earnest, I scrutinize two examples of

staged passing in popular consumer culture.
Consider the recent R. Kelly music video (2003), ambiguously entitled
Thoia Thoing to arouse both Asian and sexual associations, exemplified by
Kelly’s erotic caressing of a samurai sword handle. The best-selling African
American R&B singer, illustrating the Orientalized beat by Asianizing his
hip-hop gestures, is joined by a troupe of black female singers and dancers
with their pronounced curves clad—very scantily—in Asian clothing,
their faces painted white in geisha-girl style. Stereotypical Asian features
such as martial arts, tea ceremony, kimono hairstyle, slanted eyes abound.
The women’s role is clearly that of serving/servicing the men in the video
as exotic accessories, very different from Nikki Lee’s purposeful use of her
body as an aesthetic text.
The hodge-podge Asian mixture suits the panopoly of professional
quick cuts in time to the music. The MTV video with its chant-like rhythm
obviously appeals to young viewers and listeners, for whom the Internet
even offers a download of the music for their cell phone ring. The lyrics of
the song, however, describe a pickup at a club and the lovemaking after-
math, interestingly enough without the slightest specific reference to Asian
exoticism, not even the reference to “circus” performance fitting that bill:
“Tattoo on her back, lovin’ the way she work it; body movin’ like she’s
dancin’ in the circus.” Would young Asian or African American women
not take offense at Kelly’s appropriation of the woman’s body of both eth-
nicities? An informal student survey of young people who designated their
ethnicity as Asian or African American suggested that they, astonishingly,
did not in fact feel offended.24 Their reaction to this video, which older
viewers would no doubt tend to find in gloriously bad taste, was to dismiss
its appropriations as a feature of a genre with its own rules for reception:
“It’s just an R. Kelly video,” for example. Not unlike Nikki Lee in her mo-
dality as a proclaimed player, however, the singer deliberately calculates
“poetic license” into his work, autographing his lyrics with reference to his
personal rhythm and blues fame, the second “R” in this excerpt referring
to R. Kelly himself: “One day without me and she’s shaking like a fiend
(ah); y’all tell me, what’s R&B without the R (ah)?” Kelly’s viewers, I con-
jecture, do not perceive the video as a modern minstrel show, if min-
strelsy is defined as black or yellowface that amuses through degrading an-
other ethnicity. Through its casually eroticized yellowface exaggerations,
R. Kelly’s Thoia Thoing even parodically comments on an earlier, charged
context. Within the broad context of fluid postmodernist passing for
230 c a t h y c o v e l l w a e g n e r

entertainment consumption, I venture the hypothesis that sophisticated

(or jaded?) young spectators do not find the perfomance by Kelly and his
black geisha girls degrading because they view Kelly’s hyperbolical stereo-
typing with a considerable amount of ironic distance, though, as CD sales
indicate, clearly taking pleasure in his consummate performance.
The more obviously comic—but, according to the student survey, po-
tentially more offensive—short film Tokyo Breakfast depicts a three-gen-
eration Japanese family stylizing themselves as hip-hoppers, dressing and
moving ghetto-style in their tastefully furnished Japanese home. The
mother raps while she cooks in her high-tech stainless steel kitchen, and
even the grandfather uses hip-hop gestures when speaking Japanese. The
hip-hop insider form of address “nigga” becomes the leitmotif of the film,
with the characters punctuating every sentence with the word, calling each
other and themselves “niggas” in a Japanese accent. Not least because of
the Japanese credits, Tokyo Breakfast masquerades as a Japanese product
satirizing the Eastern (Asian) consumption of Western (African Ameri-
can) popular culture, made for the Japanese TV audience. Many Internet
forum participants discussing the film believed it to be the pilot for a real
Japanese sitcom.25
However, the viewers of Tokyo Breakfast were tricked! The video was
actually created by two white American filmmakers, Mike Maguire and
Tom Kuntz, former directors for MTV. The film passes as a clip from a
Japanese sitcom.26 In an email from one of the directors, we learned that
this presentation of the Japanese obsession with Western culture—an en-
grossment which Jones and Singh call with reference to African American
cultural products “the consumption of a fetishized blackness in Asia”27
—was disguised as intraethnic, deliberately meant to con the viewer into
thinking that such a heavy-handed satire could be popular in its home
country of Japan. The Internet debate as to whether the film, ostensibly
produced in the Far East, is a comedy or a racist flick attests to the tricky
success of their undertaking. The directors maintain that their intention is
in a broad sense didactic: to show that the Japanese obsession with West-
ern culture can “backfire when they don’t know the complete story behind
what they’re adapting.”28 Later I point out how this film hovers danger-
ously on the brink of modern minstrelsy.
The yellowface masquerade in Jim Jarmusch’s remarkable film Ghost
Dog is perhaps as hyperbolic as the passing performed in the other film
clips, but it is completely different in focus.29 The African American hero
has become an unlikely samurai in a Jersey City ’hood. His daily solemn
Performing Postmodernist Passing 231

perusal of the eighteenth-century guidebook of the samurai code, Haga-

kure, is intermittently projected on screen with voiceover reading. The
hauntingly atmospheric soundtrack by RZA and the Wu-Tang Clan from
the Asian African American jazz-inflected hip-hop scene enhances Ghost
Dog’s application of samurai ethics to modern-day violence. Donning his
rapper’s hood, Ghost Dog passes into social invisibility, becoming a hit-
man for the satirized Mafia bosses meeting in the tawdry backroom of a
Chinese restaurant and mismanaging their control of racialized neighbor-
hoods. Unlike Nikki Lee, whose impersonation of a black hip-hop groupie
is planned and ephemeral, Ghost Dog, a brutalized child of the ghetto,
internalizes the ancient samurai code, managing even to dignify the karate
kicks and elaborate samurai flourishes of his gun as part of his act. In my
opinion, viewers find themselves drawn to this potentially ridiculous loner
through his understated but powerful performance.
In my other case studies, the staged nature of the passing performance
was emphasized by the encoded presence of an audience or consumers; in
Ghost Dog there is, in addition to the cinema spectators, an intrafilm audi-
ence of improbable disciples in Pearline, a young black girl who reads
the books he recommends—notably the Japanese epic Rashomon—and
the African ice cream vendor Raymond, who speaks only French but
shares Ghost Dog’s thoughts. They watch and understand his last stand as
the rebellious retainer against his Mafia lord who has proved so undeserv-
ing of Ghost Dog’s samurai fealty. The caricatured Mafia “family” mem-
bers are the counteraudience to these insiders. Instead of reflecting a
postmodernist attitude that approves of lateral and creative ethnic inter-
actions, these Italian Americans consider other ethnicities an inferior mix,
as in this parodic dialog among four of the leaders, a veritable minstrel
show complete with mocking mimicry thinly veiling their subliminal fas-

Sonny Valerio: What the f— is his name?

Louie Botticelli: Ghost Dog.
Sonny Valerio: Ghost Dog?! . . .
Louis Botticelli: A lot of these black guys today, these gangsta-type guys, they
all got names like that they make up themselves.
Sonny Valerio: He means like the rappers . . . they all got names like that . . .
my favorite was always “Flavor Flav” from Public Enemy. [Valerio then
raps a few lines theatrically]
Ray Vargo: It makes me think about Indians; they got names like Red Cloud,
232 c a t h y c o v e l l w a e g n e r

Crazy Horse, Running Bear, Black Elk. [He moos loudly in a deadpan
version of an elk]
Old Consigliere: Yeah, Indians, niggers, same thing.

The irony that Sonny then summons his hitman “Sammy the Snake”—
whose name is no less metaphorical than “Ghost Dog”—to eliminate the
tactically undesirable African American escapes these four. The gunman
and a cohort commissioned to “whack” or “neutralize” Ghost Dog mistak-
enly try to kill Ghost Dog’s Native American acquaintance. In their frus-
tration at not locating the elusive and undefinable quarry, they substitute a
gratuitous slaughter of Ghost Dog’s beloved flock of carrier pigeons—his
samurai army—whose beautiful flights above the sordid city like ani-
mated Asian paintings have provided a cinematic and symbolic point of
view at key points in the film.
The deliberate transparency of Nikki Lee’s cross-ethnic playfulness, the
blatant inappropriateness of Tuff ’s, the consumer appeal of R. Kelly’s and
the trickiness of Tokyo Breakfast’s are “replaced” in the person of Ghost
Dog by a dignified, albeit unlikely, merging of what he seems to consider
his African American body and his Asian self. The representations of race
and passing in these case studies are deployed in disparate media and cul-
tural contexts and with different aims for audience reception—and no
doubt received differently by viewers and readers who align themselves
with particular ethnicities—but they can meaningfully be compared with
regard to their performed passing impulse and instrumentalization of par-
odic strategies.

From Danger to Complicity

Most of us associate the term “passing” with a movement from black to

white, from a race socially and legally discriminated against to the eco-
nomically and politically more powerful white race chiefly during bygone
times of blatant racial inequality and the judicial determination of race.
Passing was eminently dangerous, and discovery could easily prove to be
life-threatening. The slave narrator’s escape to freedom frequently hinged
on a daring passing maneuver, as in the dramatic transracial and transgen-
der story of Ellen and William Craft, who managed to escape to the North
with the light-colored Ellen disguised as a young white slave master, her
husband serving as the master’s slave. Giulia Fabi’s recent study of the rise
Performing Postmodernist Passing 233

of the African American novel reveals the importance of the trope of pass-
ing as a thematic and narrative device at the heart of the early novels.30
Fabi’s image of “tres-passing” refers not only to the forbidden entry of
mulattos and mulattas into the white world of privilege and personal free-
dom but also to the quite recent intrusion of those literarily troublesome
African American narratives into the canon of accepted nineteenth- and
early twentieth-century novels. The Harlem Renaissance novels, written
long after emancipation could have eliminated the necessity for passing,
continued to include the physical danger—after all, light-skinned Clare
Kendry in Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929) plunges (or is pushed?) to her
death at least partially because of her immersion in the white world—but
placed more emphasis on the psychological price paid by the passer.
Clearly, the existential urge to pass was still present at this time in a binary,
racialized society despite the rearticulated pride in “New Negro”-ness.
Other motivations for passing emerged and are still potent in conven-
tional passing narratives, such as romantic involvement with a member of
another race or opportunity for professional advancement or the thrill of
cultural slumming.31
Passing was dangerous not only for the passer but also for society and
its status quo in general, since passing threatened the “objective” founda-
tion of the dominant white majority. It was jeopardized by the creativity
of the passer, who had necessarily to forge a “coherent, plausible [but in-
vented] narrative”32 to account for his or her present and past positions;
this revealed a person’s skill as a storyteller at the same time that it under-
mined the hegemonic control exercised by what Toni Morrison famously
calls the “master narrative.” Capturing the spirit of postmodernism, the
discourse of passing—past and present—reveals the limitation of the es-
sentialist view of identity; as Elaine Ginsberg succinctly (and admittedly
somewhat paradoxically—does one “truth” replace another?) puts it, pass-
ing “discloses the truth that identities are not singularly true or false but
multiple and contingent.”33 When Nikki Lee forms artworks out of her
self-transformation, she is making explicit and visual what other passers
have perhaps accomplished unwittingly and invisibly, without the know-
ing gaze of the gallery visitor.34 Lee is creating a new story, which shows
that, like for other passers, her “history is a work in progress”35 beyond the
identity category predetermined by a relatively fixed social and ethnic
hierarchy. As I have shown, she and all the other postmodernist passers
we have dealt with—including the largely silent Ghost Dog, whom we
often follow voyeuristically in the film—require an audience to read her
234 c a t h y c o v e l l w a e g n e r

and their own stories (or histories), to witness and even participate in
the code-switching performance, be it as a music video downloader or a
conned Internet forum contributor.

Minstrelsy and Lateral Passing

But do the categories of black/white/yellow not remain despite the pass-

er’s code-switching? Before considering how the polyculturalists might re-
spond to this question, we can elucidate the ways in which the post-
modernist passing impulse can be distinguished from minstrelsy, even
though sharing certain performance strategies. Recent scholarship has
indicated that the phenomenon of minstrelsy—both as the undeniably
most popular form of public entertainment in the nineteenth-century and
as a long-term, culturally pervasive force—is much more complex, with a
far deeper impact than previously suspected. A relevant aspect here is the
dialectic between adulation and scorn, which led to the white minstrels
and their audiences being fascinated by the African American culture (or,
rather, what they believed were songs, dances, instruments, verbal tactics,
attitudes of the African Americans) and taking pleasure in ridiculing it.
The negative component of ridicule alone cannot account for the many
decades of economically successful minstrelsy in blackface (both black
on white and black on black), including many tours to Europe, Australia,
New Zealand, even China, Japan, and Indonesia. The partially immigrant
audience in the United States was able to laugh at itself as well when
stereotypical whisky-guzzling Irishmen and sauerkraut-devouring Ger-
mans (along with exotic “Injins,” “Chineemen,” and the “Jap-oh-knees”)—
all portrayed by blackface actors—shared the stage with the caricatures of
African Americans. Robert C. Toll points out that between 1865 and 1867 at
least eight major minstrel companies, calling themselves “The Flying Black
Japs,” performed extravagant takeoffs on the tour of the Imperial Japan-
ese Acrobats in the United States.36 In 1877 Bret Harte and Mark Twain
wrote a minstrel-influenced play based on Harte’s widely read poem “The
Heathen Chinee.” Tuff ’s uninhibited political incorrectness thus draws on
a long tradition. Wherein lies the difference, however, between the min-
strels’ derision and Tuff ’s irreverence?
A productive focus of minstrelsy scholarship since the groundbreaking
1970s has been the black-on-black minstrelsy in the latter half of the nine-
Performing Postmodernist Passing 235

teenth century. Most of these African American minstrel troupes wore

blackface, exaggerating their mouths with a broad outline of white make-
up and marked red lips, the large, gaping mouth having become an icon
of minstrelsy. Given the competitive minstrel market and the already cod-
ified audience expectations, the black minstrels were obliged to continue
the character stereotypes as well, such as the ignorant, low-comedy fool
or the pretentious urban dandy; furthermore, the managers of the black
troupes were often, and increasingly, white. There was, however, a mini-
mum amount of room for ironic inversion, which is now being recovered
in research;37 the window of irony has been opened wide to the “signify-
ing”38 of such comic egalitarian narratives as Tuff, in which the characters’
political incorrectness is equally applied to all the ethnicities rather than
being a tool of a dominant one. Tokyo Breakfast hovers on the verge of
media minstrelsy, particularly because of the whiteness of the filmmakers
and their position of superiority in conning their audience. But in show-
ing a humorous Japanese inscription of African American cultural ges-
tures, the film depicts a lateral passing in which a flash of the white skin
(of the filmmakers) behind the blackface of the yellow skin is deliberately
relinquished. The white superiority remains chiefly on the level of media
trick; the didacticism intended in pointing out the pitfalls of the Japanese
when, in Kuntz’s words again, “they don’t know the complete story behind
what they’re adapting” aligns the white directors with the African Ameri-
cans as U.S. “insiders”—but a certain uneasy feeling remains that Kuntz
and McGuire’s satire borders on condescension, with the two film produc-
ers as contemporary, behind-the-scenes media minstrels.

Polycultural Porousness versus Code-Shifting

Developing a theory of “polyculture” as a replacement for “multicultural-

ism,” Vijay Prashad would like to see the binary basis (black/white; yel-
low/black) for racial distinction eliminated.39 Prashad finds the approach
of multiculturalism, albeit liberal and well-meaning, nonetheless racist
and essentialist in that it presupposes separate ethnicities that have iron-
clad, distinct identities and histories. He feels that the porousness and
intermingling—both diachronic and synchronic—of ethnicities should
be foregrounded. His particular version of polyculture is Marxist, stress-
ing the history of economic and class oppression among the ethnicities,
236 c a t h y c o v e l l w a e g n e r

particularly—in America—the Asian immigrant adoption of patterns of

racism discriminating against African Americans. The pattern that solidi-
fied during the Cold War era—that is, the Asian American serving as a
“model minority” anchored hierarchically between the dominant white
majority and the African Americans at the bottom40 —is to a certain ex-
tent and in some geographical areas and social groupings being reshuffled,
with more black/Asian American interaction.41 Claire Jean Kim’s engagé
work, using the Black-Korean conflicts in New York City in the early 1990s
as a case study, however, shows how the larger context of racial power con-
stellations, including white-dominated political strategies, needs to be
understood before improved grass-roots relationships among the “minor-
ity” ethnicities can be expected.42
In the discussion of African American/Asian encounters at the MESEA
(Multi-Ethnic Studies, Europe and the Americas) conference in Thessa-
loniki, Greece, in June 2004, the wish was uttered for the “passing of pass-
ing,” for a time when racial distinction would be insignificant. The Marxist
polyculturalists would oppose this, however, as a Euro/American-centered,
utopian “universalism,” seeing it as one of “the pallid, unilateral declara-
tions of a world beyond race.”43 They would prefer to harness the dyna-
mism of intermixture and cultural complexity, the “recombinant political
and affective potentialities of racial significations and identifications.”44 In
their polycultural utopia, cultural communities would demand acknowl-
edgment, but the hierarchy of racial supremacy would be absent; these
communities would thus “move between the dialectic of cultural presence
and antiracism.”45 The advantage of “polycultural strife,” according to this
school of thinking, is that it privileges larger “social transformation” over
“small, individual gains.”46
Our postmodernist passing certainly reveals the porousness of the cul-
ture lines between the ethnicities, but the very notion of “passing” seems
to embody a reliance on ostensibly static difference, which Prashad would
not willingly espouse, and in music video examples with their “hype of hy-
bridity” there is a decontextualization of ethnic passing to which a histori-
cal materialist would object. Aesthetic rather than anthropological passing
reigns here. Nonetheless, the passing impulse suits the polycultural spirit
of matter-of-course dynamic interaction. A link between the older social
models in which passing made sense and a postmodernist polyculture in
which passing is taken for granted lies in the mobilization of performance.
Judith Butler has taught that “one does one’s body”47 in a constant series of
Performing Postmodernist Passing 237

performative acts which constitute one’s gender; I would like to extend

this to ethnicity,48 which of course in postmodernist theory is commonly
viewed as constructed rather than given. These performative acts can glide
into salutary boundary crossing during which “ethnicity can be performed
or enacted, donned or discarded.”49 Performance thus becomes a kind of
invigorating code-shifting, transmogrifying the passer into a skilled artist
rather than a menacing trespasser. The act of passing defuses the racial
difference, which even in our times is still often fixed and charged in real-
life social confrontations. Passing also means personal empowerment, as
the passer, with dexterity and awareness, exercises control over the cultural
self, in the best mass-media cases minimizing or purposefully implement-
ing the “cultural management” of international commercialism. Granted,
passing still involves a certain amount of risk—not the risk of social and
judicial punishment of earlier passing, but the challenge of forging a flexi-
ble cultural profile in which potential loss is outweighed by increased per-
sonal freedom and versatility and by gains in the imaginary. Surely, these
benefits cannot be classified as the trivial “small individual gains” dis-
missed by Prashad.
Performing in Butler’s sense does not rely on a form of simple double-
consciousness in which the subject is deliberately taking on a role per-
ceived to be separate from his or her authentic identity. In postmodernist
passing, it is just as difficult to separate performing subjects from their
roles as it is in Butler’s gender creation. However, the artificiality of the
cultural crossing is deliberately stressed in our examples of ethnic passing,
enabling parody to become an effective instrument. Yet this is not the dis-
paraging blackface of minstrelsy or the sardonic yellowface of cartoons
that evokes laughter by mocking and ridiculing a race perceived as lower
on the social scale. The parody of the latest passing narratives includes a
strong dose of “signifying” on earlier serious passing and blackface tradi-
tions. Furthermore, the laughter includes the parodist, like Tuff; or delib-
erately plays to and with the consumer’s stereotypes, as in Thoia Thoing;
or involves a revealing media con, as in Tokyo Breakfast. The magic of
Ghost Dog’s convincing passing as a samurai lies in the constant fore-
grounding of the artificiality of his undertaking, reinforced by the gro-
tesque comedy of the inept and racist characters he is surrounded by, in
combination with the beauty of his utter dedication to his role. Thanks to
such performers as Nikki Lee and Ghost Dog, passing has become a poly-
cultural art form of the twenty-first century.
238 c a t h y c o v e l l w a e g n e r

1. Paul Beatty, Tuff (New York: Vintage, 2001 [2000]), 73.
2. I fully realize the risk involved in defining the term “passing” as including
disparate techniques such as masquerade, disguise, yellowface/blackface perfor-
mance, and con. As my argument in this essay shows, the postmodernist pass-
ing urge can be realized through these different strategies. However, “minstrelsy,”
still semantically preconditioned, inscribes a hierarchical concept of race that
goes against the grain of the lateral modes of ethnic passing considered here.
Susan Gubar coins the attractive term “racechanges” in her encyclopedic book
Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture (New York: Oxford Uni-
versity Press, 1997) to refer to the broad “traversing of race boundaries, racial imi-
tation or impersonation, cross-racial mimicry or mutability, white posing as black
or black passing as white, pan-racial mutuality” (5). Her scope is much larger than
mine, however, and as it includes “minstrelsy,” which I attempt to see as being only
parodically “signified on” in my case studies, I prefer my term of “postmodernist
passing” to refer to the recent phenomenon under discussion here.
3. Villa Stuck, One Planet under a Groove: Hip-hop und Zeitgenössische Kunst
(Munich: Villa Stuck, 2004 [press documentation of exhibit, 18 October 2003 to
11 January 2004]); I am certainly grateful to Michael Buhrs, head of exhibitions
at the Villa Stuck Museum, for supplying me with these critiques, many of
which were displayed at the fine exhibition. The photo is also featured as a large
color plate in the exhibition catalog: Bronx Museum of the Arts, One Planet under
a Groove: Hip-hop and Contemporary Art (New York: Bronx Museum, 2001), 57.
This photograph, among others, can be viewed on Lee’s agent’s website: www (retrieved 1 March 2004).
4. I kindly thank Ms. Lee’s agent, Leslie Tonkonow, for this information given
via email on 4 March 2004.
5. Elin Diamond, ed., introduction to Performance and Cultural Politics (Lon-
don: Routledge, 1996), 5.
6. This question is also posed by Malcolm Beith, “It’s a Hip-Hop World: How
a Movement Shaped and Absorbed Global Culture,” Newsweek, 10 November
2003, 60.
7. Tonkonow, email.
8. Beith, “It’s a Hip-Hop World,” 60.
9. “Ein Spiel der Identitäten, das die Originalität der afroamerikanischen Be-
wegung frech unterläuft.” Anna Eckberg, Applaus [event magazine for Munich,
Germany], November 2003, n.p.
10. All the quotations so far in this paragraph are from Sarah Valdez, “Art in
America,” April 2002, available at
90/ai_84669359 (retrieved 1 February 2005).
Performing Postmodernist Passing 239

11. Chisun Lee, “Portrait of the Assimilartist,” ColorLines, Fall 2002, available at (retrieved 1 February 2005).
12. Rachel C. Lee, drawing on Frederick Buell, labels Paul Beatty a “postmodern
ethnic” (Lee’s emphasis), who realizes that ethnicity is a nonreferential act. Rachel
C. Lee, “Blackface and Yellowface: Costly Performances or Coalitional Enact-
ments?,” in Literature on the Move: Comparing Diasporic Ethnicities in Europe and
the Americas, ed. Dominique Marcais, Mark Niemeyer, Bernard Vincent, and
Cathy Waegner (Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag C. Winter, 2002), 147.
13. Beatty, Tuff, 132.
14. Ibid., 254.
15. Ibid., 77–78.
16. Ibid., 181.
17. Ibid., 47.
18. Ibid., 54, 61.
19. Ibid., all three quotations 191.
20. Ibid., all quotations 193–200.
21. Ibid., 66.
22. Ibid., 201.
23. Ibid., 252.
24. Two students at the University of Siegen, Caroline Schneider and Benjamin
Marienfeld, conducted an informal survey of Asian and African American stu-
dents on both sides of the Atlantic and Pacific (approximately thirty interviewees),
as well as German fellow students (forty informants), to record young people’s
reactions to the modes of “passing” in three of our case studies.
25. The film premiered at Ohio Indie Film Festival, November 2001. For sam-
ples of the Internet debate, see the Japan Forum,
index.php/t-748.html (retrieved 10 May 2004) and article posted 5 July 2002 at (retrieved 10 May 2004), which labels the
film “a Japanese version of the Osbournes.”
26. In the Schneider and Marienfeld interview, most student interviewees fell
into Maguire and Kuntz’s trap. The ethnicity of the filmmakers was not an issue
for some respondents, however, who considered the film with its rollicking use of
the epithet “nigga” in bad taste, no matter what the source or audience. Other
interviewees enjoyed the exaggeration in the film, finding that it reflected their
notion of “ironic Asian humor.” One participant even viewed the Asian co-option
of the epithet “nigga” as defusing the racialized term: “Asians present the word
nigga in a friendly, ‘natural’ way.”
27. Andrew F. Jones and Nikhil Pal Singh, eds., guest editors’ introduction to
The Afro-Asian Century, special issue of positions 11:1 (2003): 4.
28. Email from Tom Kuntz, 24 February 2004; the filmmaker continued: “We
knew we were going to post the film on the web, and didn’t want people to know
240 c a t h y c o v e l l w a e g n e r

that the film was done by some clever filmmakers. . . . Instead we wanted people to
be confused . . . so we put the title at the beginning which makes it look like a real
TV show pilot from Japan. Needless to say, we were very surprised at how much
attention the film got.” We thank him for his candid information.
29. Perhaps the most surprising response in the Schneider and Marienfeld sur-
vey was the Asian students’ reaction to Ghost Dog. The African American students
tended to find Ghost Dog’s transformation into an African American ghetto
samurai “convincing,” whereas the Asians did not. Perhaps the passing into the
viewer’s culture must meet with different standards of acceptability.
30. Giulia Fabi, Passing and the Rise of the African American Novel (Urbana:
University of Illinois Press, 2001).
31. The widely viewed and highly acclaimed film The Human Stain, based on
Philip Roth’s 2000 novel, shows the continuing interest in “serious” passing. The
secret of college professor Coleman Silk’s passing from African American to Jew-
ish to preserve his relationship to a white woman and to further his academic
career slowly emerges.
Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (2000) shows “cultural slumming” as the most likely
motive for the television producer Dunwitty to become a “wigga” (or “white
nigga”). See also my “Rap, Rebounds, and Rocawear: The ‘Darkening’ of German
Youth Culture,” in Blackening Europe: The African American Presence, ed. Heike
Raphael-Hernandez (New York: Routledge, 2004), 249–271, for a discussion of
white “cultural adulation” of blackness.
32. Maria Carla Sanchez and Linda Schlossberg, eds., Passing: Identity and In-
terpretation in Sexuality, Race, and Religion (New York: New York University Press,
2001), 2.
33. Elaine K. Ginsberg, Passing and the Fiction of Identity (Durham: Duke Uni-
versity Press, 1996), 4.
34. In an exciting study of the events leading to Plessy v. Ferguson in light of
performance theory, Amy Robinson points out that “passing” in the nineteenth-
century political sense depended on the performance being invisible. Amy Robin-
son, “Forms of Appearance of Value: Homer Plessy and the Politics of Privacy,” in
Performance and Cultural Politics, ed. Elin Diamond (London: Routledge, 1996),
239–261. Just the opposite is true for postmodernist passing. According to Robin-
son, it is the spectator who manages a “successful pass” (241) by failing to realize
the con. In my case studies, the complicity of the intranarrative and extranarrative
spectators is required.
35. Ginsberg, Passing and the Fiction of Identity, 4.
36. Robert C. Toll, Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century Amer-
ica (London: Oxford University Press, 1974), 94.
37. Annemarie Bean, for instance, describes the way black female minstrels at
the turn of the century impersonated black males on stage, reclaiming minstrelsy’s
stereotypical, ridiculous “urban dandy” as a sophisticated “ ‘race man’ worthy of
Performing Postmodernist Passing 241

the upcoming Jazz Age.” Annemarie Bean, “Black Minstrelsy and Double Inver-
sion, Circa 1890,” in African American Performance and Theater History: A Criti-
cal Reader, ed. Harry J. Elam Jr. and David Krasner (New York: Oxford University
Press, 2001), 181.
38. David Krasner points to “signifying” as the climax of strategies for African
American performers dealing with “minstrelsy’s insidious representations”: “Black
performers have negotiated, subverted, incorporated, resisted, challenged, and ul-
timately ‘signified’—the black rhetorical strategy of inversion, parody, and innu-
endo—on the pervasive minstrel image.” David Krasner, “Afterword: Change Is
Coming,” in African American Performance and Theater History: A Critical Reader,
ed. Harry J. Elam Jr. and David Krasner (New York: Oxford University Press,
2001), 346.
39. Robin D. G. Kelley’s essay, “People in Me,” ColorLines 1:3 (Winter 1999): 5–
7, appears to be the source of the term “polycultural.”
40. Robert G. Lee, Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture (Philadelphia:
Temple University Press, 1999), has an excellent chapter on the development of the
concept of the “model minority” (“The Cold War Origins of the Model Minority
Myth,” 145–179).
41. The popular Jackie Chan films, notably Rush Hour (1998) and its sequel
Rush Hour 2 (2001), show how popular film types, such as the “crazy cop duo”
genre, can cleverly reflect such a paradigmatic change—and yet remain mired in
42. Claire Jean Kim, Bitter Fruit: The Politics of Black-Korean Conflict in New
York City (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000). Kim refers specifically to the
Flatbush Boycott in 1990.
43. Jones and Singh, guest editors’ introduction, 8. A logical problem here, of
course, is that it is impossible to speak of a “we” of a particular ethnic group if the
commixture is as thorough as the polyculturalists insist.
44. Ibid., 8.
45. Vijay Prashad, “Bruce Lee and the Anti-imperialism of Kung Fu: A Polycul-
tural Adventure,” in The Afro-Asian Century, special issue of positions 11:1 (2003):
54. See also the more direct theoretical statement in Vijay Prashad, “From Multi-
culture to Polyculture in Asian American Studies,” Diaspora 8:2 (1999): 185–204.
46. Prashad, “Bruce Lee,” 81.
47. Judith Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in
Phenomenology and Feminist Theory,” in Performing Feminisms: Feminist Critical
Theory and Theatre, ed. Sue-Ellen Case (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University
Press, 1990), 272; my emphasis.
48. Judith Butler’s approach to gender construction has been applied to eth-
nicity in some recent “performance studies” literature, such as in Diana R. Paulin’s
fine essay, “Acting out Miscegenation” in African American Performance and The-
ater History: A Critical Reader, ed. Harry J. Elam Jr. and David Krasner (New York:
242 c a t h y c o v e l l w a e g n e r

Oxford University Press, 2001), 251–270. In addition, Krasner clearly summarizes

recent understanding of the term “performativity” as shifting emphasis away from
playwrights to relations among authors, performers, and audiences, informed by
the language of the body (Krasner, Afterword, 345–350.)
49. Ginsberg, Passing and the Fiction of Identity, 4. One of the “fathers” of
modern performance studies, Richard Schechner, emphasizes “fluidity” and “play-
fulness,” which we have already mentioned as essential for postmodernist passing,
as common denominators in the many sectors of his very diverse field: “Any call
for or work toward a ‘unified field’ is, in my view, a misunderstanding of the very
fluidity and playfulness fundamental to performance studies.” Richard Schechner,
“What Is Performance Studies Anyway?,” in The Ends of Performance, ed. Peggy
Phelan and Jill Lane (New York: New York University Press, 1998), 361.
Part IV

Celebrating Unity
Chapter 13

Persisting Solidarities
Tracing the AfroAsian Thread in
U.S. Literature and Culture

Bill V. Mullen

AfroAsian Solidarity: Literary Roots

In July of 1946 Zora Neale Hurston wrote to her friend Claude Barnett in a
political rage. The source of her anger was U.S. President Harry S. Tru-
man, specifically Truman’s penchant for bloodthirsty foreign policy. “I am
amazed at the complacency of [the] Negro press and public,” she wrote to
Barnett, perhaps goading a little the president of the Associated Negro
Press, the country’s first Black news service:

Thruman [sic] is a monster. I can think of him as nothing else but the
butcher of asia. Of his grin of triumph on giving the order to drop the
Atom bombs on Japan. Of his maintaining troops in China who are shoot-
ing the starving Chinese for stealing a handful of food. Of his slighting the
Inauguration of the new nation of the Philipines [sic] by nothing bothering
to be present. Of his lynching all the able Japanese under the guise of “War
Criminals.” War is war, but these men are being lynched for it without a
murmur of protest from the Negro population of the U.S. . . . Do we not see
that we any any [sic] too prominent Negro being morally lynched with
everyone of those able Japanese. WE are being taught a lesson and given a
horrible example through that. Is it that we are so devoted to “good Massa”
that we feel that we ought not to even protest such crimes? Have we no men
among us? If we cannot stop it, we can at least let it be known that we are
not deceived. We can make any party who condones it, let alone orders it,
tremble for election time. What are we, anyway?1

246 b i l l v. m u l l e n

This singular anti-imperialist outburst, on display in the Claude Bar-

nett Papers and in Carla Kaplan’s Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters, dis-
rupts popular and often persuasive critical narratives that draw Hurston as
a willing accomplice in conservative or racist U.S. political schemes. Yet
Hurston’s letter above could not be clearer: U.S. foreign policy against
Asians is genocidal and racist and implicitly an attack on Black Ameri-
cans. In a rare moment of solidarity, Hurston joined at least ideological
arms with authorial contemporaries—and sometimes literary foes—like
W. E. B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, William Patterson, and
Richard Wright, all of whom spent part of 1946 raging against the expan-
sion of the U.S. empire into Asia and exhorting Black Americans to do
something about it. Like these other writers, Hurston finds reason and
room for a solidarity of analogy: Chinese under the legacy of Western im-
perialism are, as African Americans in the United States, a minority sub-
altern—just as Du Bois observed, while walking the streets of the 1930s
Shanghai, how the colonial partitioning of the city reminded him of the
streets of the Jim Crow South. Indeed, it is interesting to consider how
Wright and Hurston—erstwhile mortal enemies on matters political after
his blind and savage review of Their Eyes Were Watching God and her
sneering dismissal of his Communist sympathies in Uncle Tom’s Children
—could either have written this letter in 1946, the year Wright abandoned
the United States entirely for France, exhausted and estranged by the na-
tion’s predatory wanderlust directed against people of color at home and
around the world.
Hurston’s letter is thus an effective symbol and reminder of the at times
surprising, yet enduring, expressions of solidarity in writing by African
Americans and Asian Americans, a solidarity whose contours are explored
in this essay. Indeed, Hurston’s example foregrounds several features of
this theme. First, pro-Asian sympathies in writings by African Americans
often constitute a specific form of internationalist thought rooted in an
appreciation of racial solidarity that disregards hemispheric divisions.
AfroAsian internationalism in nineteenth- and twentieth-century African
American writing is rooted in a cyclical appreciation of common racial
interests, on the one hand, and in the deleterious global effects of U.S.
interests in people of color everywhere, on the other hand. Second, for
African Americans in particular, both events in Asia and the treatment of
Asian countries by the United States have often been used as a reflective
mirror to assess U.S. racial conditions. For example, Hurston’s insistence
that the Truman administration’s decision to drop the atomic bomb on
Persisting Solidarities 247

Japan was a “high tech lynching” reminiscent of domestic treatment of

Blacks echoed in an Asian vein the “Double Victory” theme inaugurated
by the Black press during World War II—fight (German) fascism abroad,
defeat racism at home. Third, AfroAsian literary collaboration is a distinc-
tive and logical continuation of this solidarity theme. Well before the
groundbreaking Yardbird anthologies of the 1970s, products of AfroAsian
collaboration between West Coast writers Ishmael Reed, Sean Wong,
Frank Chin, and others, African American writers had recognized Asian
and Asian American politics and culture as sources of their own dynamic,
evolving, and innovative literary experiment. The printed word and music
have been especially fruitful arenas to explore and demonstrate these ties.
Examining the continuity and contiguities of AfroAsian alliance in U.S.
literature and culture also serves to underscore a dissenting theme from a
cultural consensus a book like this one seeks to challenge—namely, that
Blacks and Asians have historically perceived each other as enemies or just
plain can’t “get along.” As Vijay Prashad and others have argued, Afro-
Asian affiliation, cultural borrowing, and exchange present a dialectical
and synthetic model of transraciality that abolishes comfortable and dis-
creet categories of “racial,” “ethnic,” or even “disciplinary” modeling. In
this essay, therefore, I hope to trace some of the “roots and routes,” not just
of what some have come to call a “Black Pacific” linkage between Blacks
and Asians but a set of disparate, overlapping, intersecting historical vec-
tors that have consolidated AfroAsian interests and experiences.

Yardbird Lives

In a recent essay titled “The Yellow and the Black,” African American
writer and publisher Ishmael Reed recalls a 1969 party to celebrate the
publication of 19 Necormancers from Now, an anthology of primarily Afri-
can American writers edited by Reed (though the book included an ex-
cerpt from Chinese American writer Frank Chin’s novel A Chinese Lady
Dies). At the party, Reed remembers, four writers, later known as the
“Four Horsemen” of Asian American literature, met for the first time:
Shawn Wong, Frank Chin, Jeff Chan, and Lawson Inada. Reed had invited
the four to do a special issue for Yardbird magazine, Reed’s own dynamic,
energetic forum for multicultural writing. The resulting publication, Yard-
bird 3, precipitated the publication of Shawn Wong’s novel Homebase
under Reed’s own publishing imprint, Reed and Cannon Publishing. As
248 b i l l v . m u l l e n

Cheryl Higashida has noted, Reed’s collaboration with Wong and Chin
and the emergence of AfroAsian publishing collaboration were part of a
larger “coalition building” endemic to post-1965 multiethnic literary move-
ments. According to Higashida, Reed’s Yardbird Publishing Company be-
came a signal moment for Asian American writers who were seeking
venues for challenging hegemonic conceptions of Asian American cul-
ture.2 This literary collaboration reflected more disparate late-1960s politi-
cal currents, like the formation of San Francisco–based Red Guard units
in Asian Pacific American communities, modeled on the Black Panther
Party cells in Oakland, a moment to which I will return.
Though neither Higashida nor Reed does so, however, it would be
a mistake to argue that something like AfroAsian literary collaboration
was “born” out of the Yardbird moment. Its roots are deeper still, en-
meshed in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century experiments in affilia-
tive thought, especially by African American writers seeking national,
international, and even transnational modes of cooperation that might
alleviate the pressures of racial and economic isolation in the United
States. The first cultural and intellectual contact points were established
by nineteenth-century African American nationalists looking to Asiatic
sources in antiquity as a means of recuperating a racial identity beyond
the sphere of classical “Western” models. As Wilson Jeremiah Moses has
noted, and as Martin Bernal has documented in detail, Black “contribu-
tionist” and Egypocentric thoughts of the nineteenth century were predi-
cated on analyzing Egypt, North Africa, and the Mediterranean region as
crossroads of Asiatic and African cultures.3 Jupiter Hammon, Alexander
Crummell, and even Frederick Douglass used Asian antiquity as a touch-
stone for the “roots” of AfroAsiatic civilization. Their interest in “Eastern”
byways for the development of Black culture was often linked to a restora-
tive conception, in particular of Ethiopia as the ancestral home, or “Zion,”
of the Black diaspora. These linkages, the foundation of what Moses calls
“Afrotopic” Black thought, underpinned much of the imaginative work
of early Black nationalists to conceive of a racial nation with nonwhite
sources at its root.
It was W. E. B. Du Bois who most completely and coherently synthe-
sized these nineteenth-century Black intellectual currents with something
like a secular program for “divining” AfroAsian solidarity. In both his
much neglected early literary work and his nonfiction writing on Asia, Du
Bois after 1900 conceived the “color line” quite literally as both separating
and bridging peoples of Black and Asian descent. Du Bois was initially
Persisting Solidarities 249

stirred toward engagement with Asian politics and culture by the forma-
tion of the Indian National Congress in 1885. It drew his interest in two
very specific directions: toward the study of scholarship on the AfroAsian
roots of classical antiquity and toward a theory of what might be called
Pan-Asian-African unity. In The World and Africa: An Inquiry into the Part
Which Africa Has Played in World History, published in 1947 but present-
ing the culmination of a lifetime of study, Du Bois drew on nineteenth-
century Egyptocentrist and Afrocentrist thought, especially that of Alex-
ander Crummell, composing an argument that anticipated Martin Ber-
nal’s Black Athena: “The Greeks, inspired by Asia, turned toward Africa for
learning, and the Romans in turn learned of Greece and Egypt.” Du Bois
also rendered the Western Renaissance a colonial enterprise, meant to
efface Black and Asian contributions to world culture: “Without the wink-
ing of an eye, printing, gunpowder, the smelting of iron, the beginnings of
social organizations, not to mention political life and democracy, were at-
tributed exclusively to the white race and to Nordic Europe.”4 Du Bois’s
outrage at white supremacist historiography was fueled by eugenics theo-
rists like Lothrop Stoddard and Madison Grant, whose World World I era
tomes, The Rising Tide of White World Supremacy and The Passing of the
Great Race, respectively, argued for the literal and figurative elimination of
the colored races. Du Bois’s brilliant and polemical Darkwater, a series of
essays on internationalist themes, published in 1920, in fact riffed off Stod-
dard’s aquatic theme; the two would meet later in a debate on eugenics
theory in 1929 in Chicago.5
In the realm of the secular and the social, Du Bois after 1900 was a tire-
less interpreter of the possibilities of Black-Asian kinship. In 1906, after
Japan defeated Russia in an inter-imperialist war for territory in Man-
churia and Korea, Du Bois celebrated the event as “the first time in a thou-
sand years a great white nation has measured arms with a colored nation
and has been found wanting.”6 The war also provided Du Bois occasion to
rewrite his infamous Color Line thesis from Souls of Black Folk as a hemi-
spheric theory: “The magic of the word ‘white’ is already broken, and the
Color Line in civilization has been crossed in modern times as it was in
the great past. The awakening of the yellow races is certain. That the awak-
ening of the brown and black races will follow in time, no unprejudiced
student of history can doubt.”7 By 1914, Du Bois was again revising his
Color Line thesis to articulate a specific call for racial solidarity along
East-West lines. In “The World Problem of the Color Line,” Du Bois wrote:
“All over the world the diversified races of the world are coming into close
250 b i l l v. m u l l e n

and closer contact as never before. We are nearer China today than we
were to San Francisco yesterday.”8
The literary culmination of Du Bois’s emerging Pan-AfroAsianism, and
perhaps his most neglected text until recently, is his 1928 novel Dark
Princess. Depicting the story of an African American medical student
named Matthew Townes, who becomes lover and political collaborator
with an aristocratic Indian princess, Kautilya, the book is a loosely veiled
allegory of post–World War I AfroAsian efforts at internationalist collabo-
ration and national liberation struggle. The princess is part of a circle or
cell of Asian émigrés operating in Berlin to foment political revolution,
tinged by Soviet policy on ethnic nationalism. Matthew arrives in Berlin—
where Du Bois studied Marx and Engels as a graduate student in the 1890s
—ripe for expressing personal insult and outrage after his medical school-
ing is blocked in the United States by racist, exclusionary policies. Mat-
thew and the princess travel back to the United States, where he works as a
train porter, she as a boxmaker. He becomes involved briefly in a Garvey-
style nationalist movement while the two of them continue to imagine an
international movement that unites workers of the world. Du Bois literally
records this cross-racial, self-determination movement as a flight of fancy:
the book ends with the princess giving birth to a son, who is heralded as
the “messiah to all the darker races” of the world. Dark Princess is an inor-
dinately complex rendering of Black, Asian, and Soviet-influenced libera-
tion struggles narrated as a revolutionary romance.
Du Bois’s novel anticipated the 1930s’ escalation of African American
interest in and support for Asian liberation struggles. Two examples are
Langston Hughes and Richard Wright. As he recounted in his autobio-
graphical I Wonder as I Wander, Hughes, like Du Bois, was positively
drawn to AfroAsian internationalism by trips to the Soviet Union, China,
and Japan during the 1930s.9 As did Du Bois, Hughes developed a pro-
phetic revolutionary poetic voice when moved by China’s liberation strug-
gles in particular. “Roar China” was first published in Volunteer for Liberty
on September 6, 1937, and was later republished in the Communist Party’s
New Masses on February 22, 1938.10 The poem was written at a moment
of intense civil war within China between nationalist and Communist
forces and on the cusp of fullscale war with imperial Japan. The poem was
literally concurrent with Hughes’s better-known, more celebrated poems
about the Spanish Civil War, like “Song of Spain.” “Roar China” shares
with that poem a passionate dedication to anti-Fascist, pro-Communist
politics here in the specific service of an underdog nation which Du Bois
Persisting Solidarities 251

himself once deridingly described as the “Uncle Tom” of Asia. Hughes’s

poem wills China to reject its colonial past and is something like a pep talk
for a nation besieged. I excerpt two passages to demonstrate:

Roar, China!
Roar, old lion of the East!
Snort fire, yellow dragon of the Orient,
Tired at last of being bothered.11

Laugh, little coolie boy on the docks of Shanghai, laugh!

You’re no tame lion.
Laugh, child slaves in the factories of the foreigners!
You’ve no tame lion.
Laugh, child slaves in the factories of the foreigners!
You’re no tame lion.
Laugh—and roar, China! Time to spit fire!12

Hughes’s grandiloquent appeals to Black readers at home to hone an

internationalist sensibility was arguably the thrust of Richard Wright’s
exile period, which also grounded itself in sympathy for Asian national
liberation struggles. Perhaps the least read and least discussed of all of
Wright’s exile books, The Color Curtain, is a riveting, sui generis account
of Wright’s attendance at the momentous 1955 Bandung Conference in
Indonesia.13 The conference was a major meeting of twenty-nine African
and Asian countries seeking to build mutual support for national inde-
pendent movements. Wright attended the conference on the heels of his
travels to Ghana in support of Kwame Nkrumah’s government recorded in
his 1953 book Black Power.14 At Bandung, Wright offered a more difficult
and less successful rendering of AfroAsian solidarity. The book’s enthusi-
asm for Asian self-determination movements is overshadowed by Wright’s
anti-Communist dis-ease with China’s presence at the meeting. Wright
wrote the book at a moment of heightened contradiction for himself be-
cause by 1955 he had become a firm anti-Stalinist. The book is also tainted
by Wright’s contradictory relationship with the idea of the “West.” What
Paul Gilroy calls aptly Wright’s “negative loyalty” to Western cultural, po-
litical, and spiritual life is confounded by Wright’s naïve suspicions about
religious-based societies like Muslim Indonesia, his pragmatic faith in
technological development, and his own premonitions about the need for
the “Third World” to enter something like modernity. The Color Curtain is
252 b i l l v. m u l l e n

one of the most complex works in the AfroAsian literary genealogy of the
United States. It is a landmark text for understanding post-1945 AfroAsian
linkages in the United States. Ironically but importantly, the book nearly
vanished after poor reviews and poor sales still during Wright’s lifetime,
symptomatic of both the book’s limitations and Wright’s gradual eclipse
from public interest in the United States as he stayed abroad.
And yet, those African American writers and intellectuals of the Cold
War who were persistently in search of new modes of international and
transnational solidarities duly noted Wright’s presence at Bandung in par-
ticular. A key moment in the development of 1960s AfroAsian liberation
efforts—one that corresponded with Wright’s appearance at Bandung—
was the case of Robert F. Williams. Williams, a one-time autoworker in
Detroit and leader of the NAACP branch in Monroe, North Carolina, his
hometown, was chased into exile by the FBI in 1961 after attempting to
shelter a white couple during a race rebellion in Monroe. He fled to Can-
ada, then Cuba, where he became first an ardent supporter and then critic
of Fidel Castro’s socialist revolution. Living in Cuba from 1961 to 1966,
Williams was visited by African American political and cultural workers
from the United States, including Amiri Baraka, whose shift from Beat-
nik sensibility to proto-Black Nationalism was in part triggered by both
Williams’s and Cuba’s example. In 1966, disillusioned with Castro for not
speaking out on behalf of Black nationalism in the United States, Williams
and his wife Mabel moved to Beijing at the invitation of Chairman Mao,
with whom Williams had initiated mail correspondence several years ear-
lier. Indeed, Mao’s famous 1963 “Support for the American Negroes in
Their Struggle against Racial Discrimination and for Freedom and Equal
Rights,” released and distributed worldwide,15 was literally provoked by a
written request by Williams. Williams’s arrival in Beijing in 1966, where he
lived until 1969, became a real and symbolic exemplar of the desire for
African American and Asian American race rebels seeking to forge inter-
national affiliations. One iteration of this was the resurgent interest in the
Cultural Revolution and the writings of Mao as touchstones for the Black
Arts Movement. Mao’s famous 1942 “Talks at the Yenan Forum on Art and
Literature”16 became the subject of study circles in Black Arts centers like
Detroit, an example of what Black Arts poet and theorist Larry Neal called
“useable elements of Third World culture” for the building of Black Arts.17
“What we demand is unity of politics and art,” wrote Mao, “of content
and form, and of the revolutionary political content and the highest pos-
Persisting Solidarities 253

sible degree of perfection in artistic form. . . . We must carry on a two-

front struggle in art and literature.”18 Revolutionary art and literature were
to be judged “on the basis of actual life and help the masses to push his-
tory forward.”19 In an extraordinary bit of AfroAsian congruence, Wil-
liams lectured in Beijing on the significance of Mao’s Yenan talk for Black
artists in the United States, citing as example of “Yenan”-style art “progres-
sive new protest jazz” and Frank Greenwood’s all-black theatrical produc-
tion in Los Angeles of Claude McKay’s 1919 sonnet “If We Must Die.”20
Back in the United States, Black cultural workers like Baraka and Detroit’s
Woodie King forged all-black theater companies dedicated to cultural self-
determination and a Black Arts version of a “two-front struggle in art and
It was not long after these literal examples of transnational influence
that Ishmael Reed’s Yardbird appeared on the West Coast as a new mani-
festation of something that might be called in retrospect “proto-multicul-
turalism.” As Reed recounts, California itself, with its history of Mexican
indigenos, Asian miners and railroad workers, Japanese and Philipino farm
workers, and African American migrants was a natural source for a new
conception of interethnic collaboration.21 Los Angeles and San Francisco
became the obvious flashpoints for new forms of AfroAsian collaboration.
Still inspired by events like China’s Cultural Revolution and anticolonial
struggles across Africa, especially Ghana and the Congo, young Asian
American and African American radicals formed nearly concurrently the
I Wor Kuen (IWK) and the Black Panther Party. While the history of the
latter is well known, IWK, a Cantonese name meaning “Society of the
Harmonious Righteous Fist,” played an equally important role in deter-
mining the direction of Asian Pacific American political culture in van-
guard Leftist circles from New York to California, likewise stirring Afro-
Asian interchange in the arts. In a foundational history of IWK, Fred Ho, a
former member, recounts that IWK first formed as a revolutionary collec-
tive in New York City in November, 1969.22 Just months earlier, in San
Francisco, the Red Guard Party had formed, a collection of Asian Ameri-
can street youth formerly members of Leway (from the name “Legitimate
Ways”) formed in 1967. Leway, like the Black Panther Party, developed
study cells for Mao’s Third World writing.23 After it had formed, both
IWK and the Red Guard Party organized “Serve the People” programs
based on the Black Panther Party Survival Programs. While the organiza-
tions did not share membership, they offered a similar revolutionary,
254 b i l l v. m u l l e n

Third World, working-class orientation to young African and Asian Pacific

Americans, simultaneously combating racial and economic hardships in
their respective communities.
Clearly, this political modeling influenced the formation of proto-mul-
ticulturalism championed by Reed, Sean Wong, and other participants in
earlier AfroAsian collaboration in New York and the Bay Area. For exam-
ple, in addition to Reed’s Yardbird publications and books, the early 1970s
featured AfroAsian collaborations like Time to Greez! Incantations from the
Third World, a poetry anthology edited by Asian American poet Janice
Mirikitani, and others, including work by a wide ethnic variety of authors.
As Cheryl Higashida has noted, Time to Greez! was published by Glide
Publications, part of Glide Church, a multiracial San Francisco institution
headed by Mirikitani and African American minister Cecil Williams.24 The
progressive, multicultural paradigms offered by Glide, Yardbird Publish-
ing, and Reed’s Before Columbus Foundation became in many ways the
dominant ones for 1970s cultural production in colored communities; ac-
cordingly, AfroAsian collaboration in the arts deepened across the decade.
Filipino performance poet Jessica Hagedorn, later better known for her
novels Dogeaters and the Gangster of Love, co-founded the West Coast
Gangster Choir with African American authors Thulani Davis and Nto-
zake Shange.25
In jazz, the 1970s produced a number of emerging collaborative Afro-
Asian strands: Chinese American musician and composer Fred Ho picked
up his first baritone saxophone at the age of fourteen, joined the Nation of
Islam two years later as Fred3X, later joined I Wor Kuen, and began to fil-
ter the “free jazz” pioneered by writers and composers like Archie Shepp
into a hybrid sound and dialectical politics which were mutually inform-
ing. Ho formed the Afro-Asian Music Ensemble and began adopting his-
torical Filipino, Chinese, and other East Asian worksongs, love songs, and
anthems of national independent to traditional “jazz” instruments and
radically contemporary arrangements. He also tapped the spirit and rhet-
oric of Bandung-era Third World Internationalism in his work. His early
recordings with the Afro-Asian Music Ensemble include Underground
Railroad to My Heart, a compilation of antiracist, anti-imperialist songs
bridging AfroAsian interests, and later, The Black Panther Ballet Suite, a
multimedia tribute to the Black Panther Party. Ho maintains fidelity to
principles of both Yenan and the Black Arts Movement, seeking to foster
spaces for Third World cultures and autonomous networks of support for
AfroAsian artists and writers. In his essay “Fists for Revolution,” a personal
Persisting Solidarities 255

and social history of I Wor Kuen and the League of Revolutionary Strug-
gle, Ho articulates his vision for building “independent militant, not non-
profit, organizations and resources . . . in all the many visual, spoken word,
musical and theatrical expressions and forms to promote revolutionary
Ho represents the Left vanguard of AfroAsian collaboration in jazz that
also produced dynamic cultural institutions and new talent in the wake of
late 1960s, early 1970s AfroAsian collaborations. Again the San Francisco
Bay Area was central to this merger. The 1980s saw the development of the
West Coast Kearney Street Workshop and Asian Improv Records initiated
by Asian American jazz pianist Jon Jang and bassist Mark Izu, among oth-
ers. These progressive cultural institutions were testing grounds for the
production and distribution of “Asian American Jazz.” Mindful and re-
spectful of the development of jazz as an African American vernacular, the
Kearney Street Workshop continued the spirit of autonomous culture and
community-center building inaugurated by early Black and Asian Pacific
American organizations like IWK. The AfroAsian cast to the institutions
finds echo in other African American–centered cultural groups like the
Combahee River Collection that became the impetus for the formation of
Kitchen Table Press, perhaps the most important feminist multicultural
publishing house in contemporary U.S. culture. In short, the continuity
and persistence of AfroAsian solidarity and exchange is an easily marked
line from the mid-1950s to the present. In the last section of this essay I
discuss in brief the contours of this exchange at present.


The legacy of Bandung and Third World AfroAsian solidarities remains

vital in the work and lives of numerous contemporary U.S. writers of Afri-
can and Asian descent. Some of these writers are veterans of “first wave”
AfroAsian solidarity of the 1960s; others are post-1960s innovators, rekin-
dling and recuperating historical forms of AfroAsian solidarity. New Or-
leans–based poet Kalamu ya Salaam, a veteran of both the Black Arts
Movement and the Congress of Afrikan Peoples, is a co-founder of Runa-
gate Multimedia publishing company and founder and director of Neo-
Griot Workshop, a New Orleans–based Black writer workshop. He has
published several books of poetry and spoken word CDs. He also is col-
laborating with Fred Ho on the Afro-Asian Arts Dialogue, a music/spoken
256 b i l l v. m u l l e n

word duet that pays tribute in part to the legacy of AfroAsian solidarity. In
his poem “We Don’t Stand a Chinaman’s Chance Unless We Create a Rev-
olution,” Ya Salaam pays explicit tribute to the legacies of Bandung and
China’s seizure of state power:

You don’t stand a chinaman’s chance

Is what people used to say to define hopelessness
You don’t stand a chinaman’s chance
Used to be a definition of a loser
But after Mao & crew did their do
A chinaman’s chance got so good
That nobody played that number anymore.

Regardless of the problems and perplexities

Of China’s current state at least they got a chance,
A future & the whole world recognizes that.27

Maya Almachar Santos is a Filipina American poet and artist from

Seattle. In 1997, she became a founding member of the Isangmahal arts
collective, poets and artists in residence at the Northwest Asian American
Theater. Isangmahal means “one love” in Tagalog. Santos’s work expresses
the urgency of the survival of the culture and political will of colored or
marginalized peoples. It is a plain expression of Third World internation-
alism in which Tagalog and English become a radically hybrid lingua
franca. This is from her poem “self-rebolusyon”:

Kasi mamabuhay ang katipunan
Demokratikung Pilipino movement
Raise up yo fist and labian
Cuz this be the continuation
Our breath the duration
Like the incessant path to liberation
To escape existential situations
Bob Marley called it a “redemption song”
Kinda like, “ang bayan kong pilipinas,”
I press pause and ask the annihilating question,

“what happened to our world war II veterans?”28

Persisting Solidarities 257

Finally, a major player on the Minneapolis/St. Paul Twin Cities hip-hop

and spoken word scene is Thien-bao Thuc Phi. Born in Saigon, Vietnam,
he was raised in the Phillips neighborhood of South Minneapolis. He has
twice won the Minnesota Grand Poetry Slam and won two poetry slams at
the Nuyorican Poets Café in New York. He is the only Vietnamese Ameri-
can man to have appeared on HBO’s Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry.
Bao Phi describes himself as a “straight up ghetto-raised hip hop fan.
Never a hustler or a street kid or a banger, but a ghetto nerd who grew up
in hip hop—and I didn’t necessarily always like it.”29 Yet he has written
profoundly and provocatively of the complex intersections of AfroAsian
exchange in the breeding arena of hip-hop where stereotypes of both
African Americans and Asian Americans are abolished and challenged and
where ethnic remixing is a potentially liberatory project for men (and, he
argues, for women). Bao Phi’s vision of a hip-hop future across the color
line is not only a pragmatic response to hip-hop’s globalization (after all,
rap has even caught the popular imagination of the People’s Republic of
China), but also a very personal dream of extending the AfroAsian legacy
into a public sphere where it can compete or combat popular misconcep-
tions about the nature of AfroAsian relationships. For every Jackie Chan/
Chris Tucker collaboration that reduces Black and Yellow to popular card-
board cut outs—what Fred Ho calls the “chop suey” approach to Afro-
Asian collaboration—Bao Phi suggests the need and space for serious, en-
gaged, “saturated,” as Larry Neal might call it, AfroAsian social movements
and cultural forms.

AfroAsian solidarity has always been future-oriented, anticipating the de-

clining significance of whiteness, the globalization and communion of the
colored world, and the prospects for diminished essentialist or separatist
social programs. It is debatable where each of these is in ascent or decline.
What is not debatable is that AfroAsian solidarity needs a constant reori-
entation to itself. The constant threat of historical erasure of the coalition
building of ethnic communities necessitates an urgent, disciplined com-
mitment to a “useable” AfroAsian past. It is toward the preservation and
continuity of this past that this essay is dedicated. Like this book, it hopes
to make the constant, shifting lines of AfroAsian solidarity past and pre-
sent more visible to those who seek to sustain them.
258 b i l l v. m u l l e n

1. Hurston’s letter to Barnett may be found in the Claude Barnett Papers,
Claude Barnett Collection, Chicago Historical Society, Chicago, IL, Box 289,
Folder 25. It is published in Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters, ed. Carla Kaplan
(New York: Anchor Books, 2002), 546.
2. Cheryl Higashida, “Not Just a ‘Special Issue’: Gender, Sexuality, and Post-
1965 Afro-Asian Coalition Building in the Yardbird Reader and This Bridge Called
My Back,” in Afro/Asia: Revolutionary Political and Cultural Connections between
African-Americans and Asian-Americans, ed. Fred Ho and Bill V. Mullen (Durham:
Duke University Press, forthcoming).
3. See Martin Bernal, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civiliza-
tion: The Archaeological and Documentary Evidence (New Brunswick: Rutgers Uni-
versity Press, 1991).
4. W. E. B. Du Bois, The World and Africa: An Inquiry into the Part Which Af-
rica Has Played in World History (New York: Viking Press, 1947), 20.
5. The debate between Du Bois and Lothrop Stoddard was held in the Chicago
Coliseum in March 1929. Du Bois’s remarks were reported in the Chicago De-
fender, 23 March 1939. A pamphlet titled Report of the Debate Conducted by the
Chicago Forum: “Shall the Negro Be Encouraged to Seek Cultural Equality?” Affir-
mative: W. E. Burghardt Du Bois . . . Negative: Lothrop Stoddard . . . March 17, 1929
Fred Atkins Moore, Director of the Chicago Forum” was published in Chicago in the
same year.
6. W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Color Line Belts the World,” Collier’s Weekly, 20
October 1906, 20.
7. Ibid.
8. W. E. B. Du Bois, “The World Problem of the Color Line,” Manchester (NH)
Leader, 16 November 1914.
9. Langston Hughes, I Wonder as I Wander (New York: Rinehart, 1956).
10. See “Roar China!” in The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, ed. Arnold
Rampersad (New York: Knopf, 1995), 198.
11. Ibid.
12. Ibid., 199.
13. Richard Wright, The Color Curtain (Jackson: University Press of Missis-
sippi, 1994).
14. Richard Wright, Black Power: A Record of Reactions in a Land of Pathos
(New York: HarperCollins, 1995).
15. Mao Tse-Tung, “Statement Supporting the Afro-Americans in Their Just
Struggle against Racial Discrimination by U.S. Imperialism (August 8, 1963),” Peo-
ple of the World, Unite and Defeat the U.S. Aggressors and All Their Lackeys (Peking:
Foreign Language Press, 1967).
16. Mao Tse-Tung, “Talks at the Yenan Forum on Art and Literature (May 23,
Persisting Solidarities 259

1952),” in Mao Tse-Tung: An Anthology of His Writings, ed. Anne Fremantle (New
York: Mentor Books, 1962), 254–259.
17. Larry Neal, “The Black Arts Movement,” in The Norton Anthology of African
American Literature, ed. Nellie Y. McKay and Henry Louis Gates Jr. (New York:
W.W. Norton, 1997), 1963.
18. Mao, “Talks at Yenan,” 259.
19. Ibid., 254.
20. Robert F. Williams, “Speech, 25th Anniversary of Mao’s ‘Talks at the Yenan
Forum on Literature and Art,’ ” box 3, Robert Franklin Williams Papers, Bentley
Historical Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI.
21. Ishmael Reed and Al Young, eds., Yardbird Lives! (New York: Grove Press,
1978), 14.
22. Fred Ho, “Fists for Revolution: The Revolutionary History of I Wor Kuen/
League of Revolutionary Struggle,” in Legacy to Liberation: Politics and Culture of
Revolutionary Asian Pacific America, ed. Fred Ho, Carolyn Antonio, Diane Fujino,
and Steve Yip (New York and San Francisco: Big Red Media and AK Press, 2000), 3.
23. Ibid.
24. Higashida, “Not Just a ‘Special Issue,’ ” 29.
25. Ibid., 30.
26. Ho, “Fists for Revolution,” 13.
27. Kalamu ya Salaam, “We Don’t Stand a Chinaman’s Chance Unless We Cre-
ate a Revolution,” in Afro/Asia: Revolutionary Political and Cultural Connections
between African-Americans and Asian-Americans, ed. Fred Ho and Bill V. Mullen
(Durham: Duke University Press, forthcoming).
28. Maya Almachar Santos, “self-rebolusyon,” in Afro/Asia: Revolutionary Polit-
ical and Cultural Connections between African-Americans and Asian-Americans, ed.
Fred Ho and Bill V. Mullen (Durham: Duke University Press, forthcoming).
29. Thien-bao Thuc Phi, “Yellow Lines: Asian Americans and Hip Hop,” in
Afro/Asia: Revolutionary Political and Cultural Connections between African-Ameri-
cans and Asian-Americans, ed. Fred Ho and Bill V. Mullen (Durham: Duke Univer-
sity Press, forthcoming).
Chapter 14

Internationalism and Justice

Paul Robeson, Asia, and Asian Americans

Greg Robinson

I [just sang] Chinese and Hebridean folk songs to illus-

trate a point that is very close to my heart these days—
the likeness of the music of various peoples. . . . This was
brought home to me in Scotland . . . in many of my con-
certs I would find the Chinese and the African and the
Scotch chaps exchanging their music on the flute and on
the bagpipes and on the xylophone, and they all came
out the same way. So it was very interesting and so the
Chinese songs are very much like our African melodies,
and the languages are very close. I think I’ve done it once
before in the church—it might be amusing—I always
say in Chinese “Hao bu hao,” which means “How do you
feel?” You can’t say “Hao bu Hao”; you have to say
“Haaaaoooo BUUU Haaoo” (laughter) and you answer
“xie xie”—”thank you very much. Very well.” In the Afri-
can language I know there is something very close to
that. It goes “Aka AKA ingwah”: try that ‘Aka AKA ing-
wah—Haaooo BUUU Haaoo.’ ”
—Paul Robeson, concert at AME Zion Church,
Harlem, ca. 1950

Am I an American? I’m just an Irish, Negro, Jewish,

Italian, Spanish, French and English, Russian, Chinese,
Polish, Scotch, Hungarian, Litvak, Finnish, Swedish, Ca-
nadian, Greek and Turk and Czech and Double Check
—Paul Robeson as the lead singer in
Earl Robinson–John Latouche,
“Ballad For Americans,” 1939

Internationalism and Justice 261

Throughout the twentieth century, African Americans have looked beyond

the United States to the world stage. Seeing themselves as part of a non-
white world majority—in some cases, such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Rich-
ard Wright, even as the vanguard of that majority—they associated them-
selves with anticolonialist and democratic struggles in many areas of the
world. The power of their identification can be demonstrated in a number
of instances, such as African Americans’ sympathy for India’s campaign
for independence from British rule in the first half of the twentieth cen-
tury (and, conversely, the influence of Gandhi’s theories of nonviolent
struggle on African American civil rights activists), their moral and finan-
cial support for Ethiopia following the Italian invasion in 1935, and later
their concern for South Africa and the leadership of the anti-Apartheid
movement in the United States during the 1980s. A number of recent his-
torical studies, notably those of Brenda Gayle Plummer, Penny von Esch-
en, and Thomas Borstelmann, have underlined the role of internationalist
thought in the African American community and its role in shaping not
only black community attitudes but also government policy toward other
nations, particularly in the nonwhite world.1 More specialized studies, no-
tably those of Sudarshan Kapur, Reginald Kearney, and Mark Gallichio,
have revolved around Black internationalism in its connection with Asia.2
The political activism of Paul Robeson during the 1930s and 1940s, and
in particular his cultural and political engagement with East Asia and with
the Asian diaspora, represents a fascinating case study of Black interna-
tionalism. Robeson was probably the most popular and visible African
American of the 1930s and 1940s. He was a celebrated stage actor, the first
black movie star, an internationally famous folk singer, a champion ath-
lete, a lawyer, a powerful speaker, and a linguist conversant in anywhere
from ten to twenty-five languages. Robeson was and continues to be pri-
marily known for his interest in international politics, chiefly as an uncrit-
ical supporter and admirer of the Soviet Union and of the U.S. Commu-
nist Party. Because of his sympathy for communism, plus his advocacy of
civil rights, Robeson suffered severe repression during the Cold War years
when he was vilified in the press and targeted for boycotts by conservative
groups. When Robeson gave a concert at Peekskill, New York, in 1949, con-
certgoers were attacked and beaten by right-wing vigilantes. During the
1950s, Robeson was blacklisted, harassed by the FBI, and denied a passport
by the State Department. As a result, Robeson (who had been the highest-
paid black entertainer in the nation during the prewar years) was effec-
tively unemployed for ten years, while his health was ruined by the ordeal.
262 g r e g r o b i n s o n

Although it was Robeson’s advocacy of friendship with the Soviet Un-

ion that aroused the greatest public attention and controversy, his primary
interest on the international scene during the 1930s and 1940s was in Af-
rica, whose nations were then engaged in a developing movement for in-
dependence from European colonial rule. Robeson’s principal organiza-
tional affiliation during that period was as co-chair of the Council for
African Affairs (CAA), a New York–based group that served as an infor-
mation clearinghouse on Africa and which campaigned for an end to co-
lonialism. Most of Robeson’s public speeches were made at meetings of
the CAA or in the name of the council, and the CAA organized Robeson’s
concert tours to help in fundraising.
Robeson’s interest in Africa and in its liberation was based on a power-
ful cultural foundation. This in itself is hardly surprising. Robeson’s wife,
the writer and ethnologist Eslanda Goode Robeson, was a prominent stu-
dent of African cultures.3 Furthermore, Robeson came of age as a thinker
during the 1920s, a time when, as David Levering Lewis and other scholars
have observed, the black artists and writers of the Harlem Renaissance
brought a rich sense of the use of cultural politics to the struggle for civil
rights. Cultural nationalists, seeing the route to political enfranchisement
blocked, urged a strategy of black equality through cultural self-assertion.
Africa served as a central spiritual rallying point for nationalists, notably
Marcus Garvey, who attracted millions of followers with his vision of
black pride and a redeemed African fatherland.
Nevertheless, Paul Robeson raised the conjunction between art and
politics to a new level. Unlike many black Americans of his day, Robeson
considered himself fundamentally African in character. He referred to
himself frequently as an Afro-American and took great pride in his ances-
try—he commented that sometimes he felt like he was the only Negro in
the United States who did not want to be white.4 With the encouragement
of his wife, Robeson engaged in intensive, though unsystematic, study of
African languages, sculpture, and music at the School for Oriental Lan-
guages in London, the city that served as his home base throughout much
of the 1930s. These studies and his contacts with Africans in England per-
suaded him that if people of African ancestry could learn and rediscover
Africa’s rich cultural heritage and contributions, which had been obscured
by European racism, they would gain the self-confidence required to throw
off colonialism in Africa and white domination in the United States.
A corollary of Robeson’s feelings of identity with Africa and his hopes
that a cultural revival would catalyze the liberation of its people was his
Internationalism and Justice 263

sense that the interest of Africans (and thus African Americans) lay in co-
ordination with other oppressed groups, particularly those which he felt
had powerful cultural traditions from which they could draw strength. For
example, Robeson was a fervent admirer of Jewish culture and devoted
significant attention to building coalitions between Blacks and Jews in the
United States. He also supported India during its struggle for indepen-
dence from Great Britain in the years surrounding World War II.
Nowhere, however, was Robeson’s particular fusion of cultural politics
and political struggle more apparent than in his attachment to China and
its effect on his ideas. Starting in the early 1930s, Robeson began to learn
about Chinese culture, an interest he retained for decades. Although, un-
like his wife, Robeson never traveled to China, he bought books on Chi-
nese art and politics, intermittently studied Chinese language, and inter-
viewed Chinese opera singers and artists.5 He many times expressed his
desire to analyze his ideas about China in an extended work, and while he
never produced any formal work on the subject, Robeson communicated
his passion in endless casual discussions and by performances of folk
songs in his concert programs.
Robeson drew from his discoveries about China the fundamental con-
clusion that Africans were spiritually (and hence politically) more kindred
with Asia than with the West. As he stated in an article, “ [The Chinese
are] artists concerned mainly with [the] inner development of man. . . .
Long ago this most ancient of living cultures assigned soldier and warrior
and glorious hero to lowest rank—and the scholar stands first—certainly
there is no question of fundamental rightness of the latter.”6 Robeson ex-
pressed great (and from a current-day viewpoint, somewhat excessive) ad-
miration for the capacity of the Chinese to absorb Western science and
technology alongside their particular philosophical and cultural systems,
and thereby reinforce rather than surrender their traditional communitar-
ian values. On several occasions he advised young Africans to study China
and the Far East as a model to use in their own struggle with modernism.
While they could adapt the technical and mechanical knowledge of the
West, they should look to the East for “fundamental values of humanity.”
As he stated in an interview in autumn 1935:

The trouble with the American Negro is that he has an inferiority complex.
He fails to realize that he comes of a great ancestry linked with the great
races of the Orient. . . .
I am more than ever convinced that the African civilization dates back to
264 g r e g r o b i n s o n

the times when Oriental culture, including that from China, began to influ-
ence the Western world. I believe that where the Afro-American made his
mistake was when he began trying to mimic the West instead of developing
the really great tendencies he inherited from the East. I believe the Negro
can achieve his former greatness only if he learns to follow his natural ten-
dencies, and ceases trying to master the greatness of the West. My own in-
stincts are Asiatic.7

However, Robeson’s insistence on the close resemblance between the

spiritual values of Chinese and African culture, and his admiration for the
“profundity” of Chinese culture, is problematic. The cultural connections
he cited were generally superficial and based on an extremely generalized
and ahistorical view of both African and Asian cultures. On the one hand,
he clearly wished to free himself and his readers from internalized colo-
nization and a feeling of inferiority vis-à-vis European and European-
American civilization by reminding them of alternate, and nonwhite,
models of society and sites of culture. On the other hand, by positing a
stark opposition between Western technology and a unitary Eastern spiri-
tuality and wisdom, Robeson bought into familiar Western Orientalist
images of Asia as a land of exotic and mystical wisdom.
Robeson’s cultural interest in China grew in tandem with his develop-
ing political consciousness during the 1930s. He was already deeply disillu-
sioned about life in the United States and Western Europe by the begin-
ning of the decade as a result of the harsh racial prejudice he had experi-
enced, and he began speaking of the necessity for African Americans to
follow a different path. His respect for Russian culture, along with his feel-
ing of sympathy with the Chinese and other cultures he considered non-
Western, gave him a new sense of himself as an artist. As he stated in an
interview in mid-1933:

I will not do anything that I do not understand. I do not understand the

psychology or philosophy of the Frenchman, German or Italian. Their his-
tory has nothing in common with my slave-ancestors. So I will not sing
their music, or the songs of their ancestors. . . . But I know the wail of the
Hebrew and I feel the plaint of the Russian. I understand both, as I do the
philosophy of the Chinese, and I feel that they have much in common with
the traditions of my race. And because I have been frequently asked to pre-
sent something other than Negro art, I may succeed in finding either a great
Internationalism and Justice 265

Russian opera or play, or some great Hebrew or Chinese work which I feel I
shall be able to render with the necessary degree of understanding.8

Shortly afterward, Robeson traveled for the first time to the Soviet Un-
ion. While en route, he passed through Germany, then at the dawn of the
Hitler period, and he was deeply shaken by what he observed of Nazi ra-
cial attitudes. Conversely, his experience in Moscow and on the tours he
was given in the Soviet Union persuaded him that the Communists had
abolished poverty and conquered racial prejudice. While in Moscow, Ro-
beson met Jack and Si-Lan Chen, the children of Eugene Chen, a Jamaican
of mixed African and Chinese ancestry who had been a minister in Sun-
Yat Sen’s government. The willingness of the Chinese nationalists to offer
black men positions of such prominence greatly impressed Robeson, and
he returned from Russia with a heightened political consciousness. The
events of the Spanish Civil War further politicized him. He was deeply im-
pressed by the international mobilization of anti-Fascist groups, in which
the Communists were prominently represented, to fight in defense of the
republic. In January 1938, he traveled to Spain and sang concerts for the
members of the Abraham Lincoln battalions.
Robeson seems not to have reacted immediately to the Japanese inva-
sion of China in summer 1937. Nevertheless, beyond the cultural and race-
based kinship Robeson felt with the Chinese, he clearly felt that China was
part of the larger cause of freedom in the world. Certainly, the occupation
of the country by a pro-Fascist Japan and the leadership of the Chinese
Communist Party in the national resistance movement encouraged Robe-
son, like other progressives, to draw comparisons with the plight of the
Spanish Republic. (In the same way, the African American intellectual and
activist Langston Hughes, who had previously supported the Republican
forces in Spain, published a pro-Chinese poem, “China, Rise,” in the left-
wing magazine The New Masses). Thus, on his return home to London
from Spain, when Robeson was approached by representatives of the Chi-
nese government for support, he agreed to attend a Save China rally in
London and to sing at a fundraiser. A few months later, in response to
another plea from Chinese representatives, he made a public statement of
solidarity: “Greeting to the Chinese people who are so heroically defend-
ing the liberties of all progressive humanity.”9
Still, whatever Robeson’s genuine willingness to serve the anti-Fascist
cause, China was not a central concern of his at this time. Robeson’s
266 g r e g r o b i n s o n

efforts were an adjunct of the dozens of fundraisers and supportive activi-

ties he undertook on behalf of the Spanish Republic before its fall in early
1939. In summer 1938, the U.S. Communist Party published an anti-Japan-
ese pamphlet called “Is Japan the Champion of the Colored Races?” The
pamphlet mentioned Robeson prominently as an American Negro and
underlined the warm reception he had received in the Soviet Union. In
a footnote, the pamphlet mentioned that Robeson was a sponsor of the
China Aid Council of the American League for Peace and Democracy (it-
self a Communist Party front group).10 Although Robeson was not himself
responsible for the juxtaposition, it is no doubt symbolic of China’s subor-
dinate place in his program.
It was not until the end of 1939, two years after the Japanese invasion,
that Robeson became active in the Chinese cause. Although he never ex-
plained the roots of his commitment, the timing of his shift suggests a ten-
sion in his political views. Robeson returned to the United States in fall
1939, shortly after the outbreak of World War II in Europe, and spent the
war years in the United States. There he continued his support for the de-
posed Spanish republic through the Joint Anti-Fascist Committee to Aid
Spanish Refugees and threw himself into the African independence move-
ment through the Council of African Affairs.11 By this time, the signing of
the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact had shattered the Popular Front of
the 1930s and had caused thousands of anti-Fascist activists to abandon
the Communist Party. Robeson himself refused to give up his unswerving
support for the Soviet Union. Instead, as the party line changed in the
wake of the pact from support for international mobilization against fas-
cism to calls for workers to oppose the “imperialist war,” Robeson fol-
lowed suit. He denounced the English and French war efforts, expressed
support for Russia’s invasion of Finland, which he termed defensive in
nature, and during 1940 and early 1941 participated in rallies and made
public statements against American defense mobilization and aid to Great
Britain. In early 1941 he recorded Earl Robinson’s satirical antiwar “Spring
However, if Robeson was publicly silent about Hitler and fascism in
Europe in accordance with the dictates of the party, at the same time
he chose to escalate his involvement in the movement for Chinese free-
dom. This strongly suggests that support for China made it possible for
Robeson to continue his anti-Fascist commitment without challenging
the party line. (Although the Communist Party still officially supported
China’s struggle against the Japanese occupation, party members seem to
Internationalism and Justice 267

have considered the China war a distant “local” conflict, subordinate to

the European question, and did not offer significant support to the Chi-
nese war effort).12 In early 1940 Robeson became a public sponsor of the
Committee to Aid China and appeared at a rally for the China Defense
League, where he called for an end to the Japanese occupation.13 In addi-
tion, Robeson enrolled in a Chinese-language course at Columbia Uni-
versity (his law school alma mater), with the idea of integrating Chinese
songs into his concert repertory as an expression of solidarity.14 He would
continue to study Chinese off and on for several years. During the war
years, Chuh Shih, the director of the Chinese Institute in America, agreed
to tutor Robeson in Chinese pronunciation. Robeson, intrigued by his
tutor’s interest in the United States, suggested that he learn the song “Old
Man River” from the musical Show Boat, which Robeson had popularized
and which remained his signature tune (with lyrics he himself altered), in
order to gain insight into the problems of black Americans.15
In early 1941, Robeson agreed to appear at a number of events on behalf
of the China War Relief. For example, he appeared at “Stars for China,” a
Philadelphia benefit, in May 1941.16 His actions sparked a major contro-
versy when the Washington Committee for Aid to China invited him to
headline a “Night of Stars” benefit at Constitution Hall. The Daughters
of the American Revolution, who owned the hall, refused to admit a black
performer, as they had famously done two years previously in the case of
Marian Anderson. A support committee of prominent liberals, includ-
ing Eleanor Roosevelt, quickly secured another hall for the event, which
agreed to waive its segregation policy for the occasion. When Mrs. Gifford
Pinchot, who was leading the support committee, discovered that the
China Relief organization was giving half the event’s proceeds to the Na-
tional Negro Congress (a Communist-backed civil rights group which
Robeson had made his principal vehicle of activism), she and Mrs. Roose-
velt withdrew their support on the rather specious grounds that it would
be an insult to ask Robeson to sing in a segregated hall.17
Despite the contretemps and withdrawal of sponsorship, Robeson
agreed to sing at the event. That evening he made use of his Chinese flu-
ency to sing a new repertoire of Chinese military anthems that had been
arranged (and presumably translated) by Liu Liang Mo, a Christian So-
cialist from Shanghai who was close to the Communist Party. After fleeing
China, Liu had settled in New York, where he organized the Chinese Peo-
ple’s Chorus to sing at rallies and thereby instill patriotism and cultural
pride in Chinese Americans.
268 g r e g r o b i n s o n

A few weeks after the concert, Robeson joined Liu and the Chinese Peo-
ple’s Chorus to record an album entitled “Chee Lai: Songs of New China,”
which was released on the Keynote label. Robeson sang four Chinese songs
—one in Chinese, one in English, and two in both languages—preceded
by his spoken commentary. The title song, which Liu had popularized in
China, Robeson described as “a song born in the struggle of the brave Chi-
nese people.”18 (“Chee Lai” would later be adopted as the Red Army’s offi-
cial song, and after the Communist Party’s takeover of China in 1949 it
became the national anthem of the People’s Republic of China). Robeson
also sang “Feng Yang,” a classic beggar’s folk song, to which he rather
doubtfully ascribed a contemporary political significance: “This is a true
Chinese folk song about a place called Feng Yang. It tells of the long suffer-
ing of the Chinese people, or the invasion and continued misery and of
the hope for eventual freedom.”19
Robeson and Liu continued their close association during the succeed-
ing years, during which time Liu worked on behalf of the United China
Relief and began a regular column for the African-American newspaper
the Pittsburgh Courier. In his first column for the Courier, Liu wrote that
Robeson’s recording of Chinese songs “is a strong token of the solidarity
between the Chinese and the Negro people.”20
In June 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Robeson quickly
resumed his advocacy of alliance against fascism. His support for China,
though relegated to second place by his interest in a Second Front to aid
the Soviet Union, did not altogether disappear. During the war years, he
continued to speak at United China Relief rallies. For instance, in March
1944, Robeson spoke at a Sun Yat-Sen Day Tribute in New York City in
which he called China the “Promise of a New World.” Robeson claimed
that the recognition of China as one of the four great powers (a recogni-
tion that was, in actual fact, foisted on an unwilling Stalin by Franklin
Roosevelt) demonstrated that the war was one of liberation from “the
Hitlerite doctrine of master and inferior races.”21 During the postwar
years, Robeson praised the Chinese Communists several times for fighting
hunger and removing European-imposed discrimination from China. He
hailed the creation of the People’s Republic after the victory of the Red
Army in 1949 and publicly praised the regime of Mao Tse-Tung for its
efforts to end poverty and feed the population in China.22 As a sign of his
solidarity, he used Chinese songs in his concert repertory.23
Robeson also expressed an interest in Korea. Like the Chinese, the Ko-
reans were engaged in struggling for liberation from Japan. In May 1942,
Internationalism and Justice 269

the East and West Association, an American-Asian friendship organization

directed by novelist and militant Pearl S. Buck, invited Robeson to speak
at a pro-independence rally in New York titled “Korea and the United
Nations.” Robeson performed a Korean folk song at the meeting (accord-
ing to the program, the song was “Do Rah Gee Tah Ryung,” the “outing
song”). After Korea won its independence from Japan in 1945, he spoke
publicly on behalf of the Communist regime of Kim Il Sung, and at the
end of the decade he opposed U.S. intervention in the Korean War. Recall-
ing his earlier singing appearance on behalf of Korean independence, he
urged blacks not to fight their “brothers” in Korea.24
In tandem with his growing political commitment to Asian freedom
during the 1940s, Robeson began to concentrate on the struggles of Asian
Americans. Ironically, despite his concern for Asian liberation, earlier, dur-
ing the 1930s, Robeson had been silent about racial discrimination against
people of Asian ancestry, especially on the West Coast. While this can be
explained to a certain extent by Robeson’s lack of familiarity with West
Coast race relations, it also reflects his cultural politics. Just as Robeson
sought freedom for Africa and saw himself as an African, he seems to have
envisioned Chinese (and other Asian) Americans as primarily Asian in
their identity, and not as fellow Americans. Indeed, despite the evidence of
his friendship for individuals, notably actress Anna May Wong, Robeson
even expressed a certain scorn for Westernized Chinese as divorced from
their cultural heritage and national struggle. In 1934, he wrote that Ameri-
can Negroes looking at Africa and wondering what such lands of savagery
and squalor had to do with them were as ignorant as Chinese students in
the West who wondered what the “chaos of conflicting misgovernments
and household gods and superstition” had to do with them.25 He privately
told a friend, “If necessary I will die for Africa, but what should Africans
care about American Negroes when most of them are Americans in cul-
ture? Can one expect a Chinese in China to be as concerned about the
Chinese in San Francisco as about his own neighbors?”26
Still, if Robeson remained aloof from the plight of Asian Americans,
both his talent and his insistence on racial equality made him widely ad-
mired among young Asian Americans. One Nisei newspaper columnist
rhapsodized about Robeson’s singing at a recital at the University of Cali-
fornia, Berkeley:

Inadequate vocabulary of your writer fails to describe the rich simplicity of

Mr. Robeson’s voice as well as his ability to hold the audience spellbound to
270 g r e g r o b i n s o n

his very last notes. The magnitude of his voice actually made this reporter
forget the presence of the campus cuties at his sides all evening. Of all the
meetings attended by yours truly in the Men’s gym, apparently this Negro
baritone’s recital equalled if not surpassed the brilliance and the dynamic
eloquence of President [Robert] Sproul’s speeches. In short, Mr. Robeson’s
voice decidedly has obscured your talented reporter’s best shower bath
singing into oblivion.27

Meanwhile, the editors of the San Francisco Japanese American daily Nichi
Bei reported exultantly on Robeson’s victorious suit against the proprietor
of a Bay Area café that had excluded him from the establishment on racial
During the war years, however, Robeson developed a growing interest
in the condition of Asian Americans. To a certain degree, Robeson’s com-
mitment seems to have grown out of his activism on behalf of Chinese
liberation. In 1941, he sang a benefit at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania
to raise money for scholarships for Chinese students stranded in America
by the war, and in his speeches on behalf of China Relief, he praised the
repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act. However, this connection should not
be overstated. For example, Robeson expressed his sympathy on various
occasions with Americans of Asian ancestry as laborers and as fellow vic-
tims of discrimination.29 For instance, in a letter in 1943, he stated that
the future of African Americans was “bound with the future of the great
masses of the American people, including the forces of labor, the Mexi-
cans, the Chinese, the American Indians.”30 In a speech shortly afterward
he praised “the workers from Mexico and from the east—Japan and the
Philippines—whose labor has helped make the west and the southwest a
fruitful land.”31
Perhaps the strongest proof of Robeson’s separation between Asians
and Asian Americans is the fact that his strongest connections were not
with Chinese Americans but with Japanese Americans, whom he easily
disassociated from the hated Japanese enemy. In February 1942, as wide-
spread pressure built up for the expulsion of all Japanese Americans from
the Pacific Coast, liberal California congressman John Tolan announced
that his Committee on Defense Migration would open hearings on the
Japanese situation. Robeson, then in California, was approached by the
sculptor Isamu Noguchi, who had founded a progressive group called
Nisei Writers and Artists Mobilization for Democracy. Noguchi asked
Robeson to appear before the commission as part of a blue-ribbon panel
Internationalism and Justice 271

of prominent non-Asians who would testify to the loyalty of Japanese

Americans and thereby help avert mass evacuation. Robeson readily vol-
unteered to testify to the loyalty of Japanese Americans.32 Shortly there-
after, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, autho-
rizing the Army to remove and exclude civilians from the West Coast. The
order made mass evacuation a fait accompli, and the idea of a celebrity
panel was dropped. Robeson’s promise of action nonetheless impressed
many Nisei intellectuals.
Robeson continued, moreover, to keep himself informed of the condi-
tions of the Nisei in the years that followed. In 1946, he publicly opposed
the Canadian government’s movement to deport thousands of citizens
and residents of Japanese ancestry to Japan. As a sign of his solidarity,
Robeson signed on as an honorary life member of the Japanese Cana-
dian Committee for Democracy.33 Meanwhile, he sang and spoke before
Japanese American audiences on several occasions. In April 1946, he gave a
concert in Salt Lake City, then home of the Japanese American Citizens
League (JACL), to an audience composed in significant part of Japanese
Americans. Although he did not refer directly to the Nisei in his remarks,
he spoke out in favor of “equal economic rights” for all races: “It seems to
me that America would have to pause and readjust her thinking, when you
consider that nowhere else in the world do Negroes, Spanish-Americans
or others have to apologize because of their color.”34 This, Robeson said,
was the chief difference between fascism and the Soviet system, which
melded all people into a brotherhood that recognized no racial distinc-
tions. His talk was widely reported in the Nisei press. Community reaction
was so favorable that a coalition of Japanese American groups in Chicago
invited Robeson to be a guest speaker at a testimonial banquet honoring
Nisei veterans on Memorial Day, 1946. At the banquet, which was heavily
publicized in the Nisei press, Robeson strongly denounced racial discrimi-
nation in America as a Fascist doctrine and reminded the veterans that the
victorious struggle against fascism had to be extended to the home terri-
tory. “Your fight is my fight,” he told the veterans.35
The following year, Robeson returned to Salt Lake City to give another
concert. After the concert he granted an interview to Larry Tajiri, editor
of the JACL newspaper Pacific Citizen. Tajiri, an outspoken liberal and a
prominent partisan of collaboration between Japanese Americans and
African Americans, reported that Robeson was “sharply aware of the evac-
uation and of wartime prejudice against the Nisei. He said he would like
to include a Japanese song in his program, a song of the common people
272 g r e g r o b i n s o n

to help fight discrimination against Americans of Japanese origin. It is all

part of one problem, he noted, this matter of discrimination and it may be
the foremost question facing us today in the atomic age.”3