A History of Multicultural America (Revised Edition)
by Ronald Takaki
Ronald Takaki is an Emeritus Professor at the University of California. He is a major writer in the field of Ethnic Studies . A Different Mirror is 445 pages of rather small text, so doing more than hinting at its contents is impossible.
Before reading A Different Mirror I saw our nation’s history as the story of the advance of civilization. “Civilization” being the version of civilization that was developed in England and passed on through our Declaration of Independence and Constitution and the culture of freedom surrounding it. Now I have an awareness of the equal contribution of other streams some already here, and some also from across the seas. And I am deeply aware of the suffering of these peoples in this process.
Takaki starts with the Irish. The English began thumping on them first when as England and Ireland they were neighbors. With ample help from the English the Irish were impoverished. To escape starvation they boarded the boats, came over here, to do the work of the bestial, stupid, filthy underclass. From that point they built themselves into powerful, knowledgeable and wealthy members of the white system. From my childhood to my adulthood the Irish in my family did not stop being a competitive minority under-class until Jack Kennedy became president. On that day we arrived as members of the white power structure.
While the Irish are described well in Takaki’s history, their fellow whites less so., For instance the Swedes are served not at all, nor the Germans, nor the French, , and just a dab at the Italians This is not a complaint. Even a big book has limits.
After the Irish story comes the tragic tale of the stealing of Indian land. The removal of whole native peoples en mass from the lands they had possessed for generations. This attempt at genocide was based on two very disputable “facts.” First the Indians were ignorant savages, and second, they did not need the land since they were not farming it. Until the 1970s we made the practice of Native American religion a crime, destroying their culture .
Takaki covers the story of the Blacks from slavery to Martin Luther King and close to today. No surprises there if you are following the copious coverage of that history in the media, but he squeezes a lot of African American history into these pages. I realized my own narrowness in thinking of racial history as being a Black and White story. Not at all. It is much broader and much worse than that.
The battle of the Alamo looks much less heroic when I realize that it occurred well within the boundaries of Mexico. (A 2017 joke: The Mexicans will pay for a wall on the border if we give them back California.) The Mexicans did not have to migrate to the United States. We moved the lines, and then they were in the United States, but without property rights, in a foreign culture, vulnerable and victimized.
The Chinese arrived to build the railroads from West to East, as the Irish were building them from East to West. Tough work. Single men came first and families later. The Chinese were being pressured by the spreading British Empire on their East to cross the seas and join and collide with the same culture in our West
The Japanese are followed from their arrival in fruitless pursuit of gold (hills of it they had heard) through World War Two where while young male Japanese Americans were grudgingly allowed to fight on the European front, their families were interned in what can only be called prison camps to prevent any possible seditious activity. (None of which ever appeared.)
In Different Mirrors I first discovered that President Roosevelt turned back to certain death in Germany a ship full of Jews trying to escape Hitler. Worse, he did it because the polls showed that ninety percent of United States citizens wanted him to do precisely that.
What I gained from this book is a deep and specific sense of the terrible cost those other than the founders have paid for a seat at the American table.
Does your picture of how we all got here need tuning as badly as mine? Ronald Takaki is a compelling storyteller. Because of that this is about as easy a lesson as anyone can make it.