May 7, 2009

Post #7: The Snake Dance of Asian American Activism

I mentioned earlier in this "series" that the SAALT Summit made me think about some things a little more than I have for a while. I won't be able to go in depth here, but I want to explore some of these points over the course of the next couple of weeks. Today, rather than get on my computer and muddle through even more work in the evening, I decided to just start reading, which I haven't done in a long time. I pulled out the relatively new book, "The Snake Dance of Asian American Activism," written by Michael Liu, Kim Geron, and Tracy Lai to add some context to the "Asian American Movement" that we keep hearing about.

The book was a surprisingly quick read - perhaps I was skimming some of the things I knew, but I felt like they did a good job of moving quickly through the material. As academics with pretty solid personal histories of organizing and activism, they seemed to know when to move on from a point or moment in history, citing to source material and not lingering too long. The interesting thing about this book is that rather than give me yet another academic tome to criticize for how it has completely left out South Asians from the framing of the "Asian American Movement", I had other things to ponder once I got through this book.

The authors' premise is that there are critical pieces of history and context for what is now referred to as the Asian American Movement that are often hidden beneath the more common accounts of identity formation and struggle for "equality" that take up much of the space in Asian American studies circles. I found the way that the framed when the Movement started interesting yet frustrating, because they actually went as far back as labor organizing on the West Coast in the '30s, but ignored the revolutionary Ghadar movement work that had happened in the early South Asian communities in the Pacific Northwest. Perhaps the idea was to trace the arch from labor organizers who were somehow connected to the Chinese and Japanese Americans who were involved in the '60s and early '70s (though the labor organizers were also Filipino and may not have been so connected).

My other issue was that while the authors mentioned South and Southeast Asians, there was little time spent investigating or thinking about the radical work that was happening in these communities as early as the 80s, and definitely further along into the 90s. Granted, a great deal of the professionalized organizational work (which the book does a good job of critiquing and discussing from the context of the earlier AAM organizations) in South Asian communities have not been driven by an ideology of broad systemic change, but there have been some interesting, and important developments over time that should have been explored.

In addition, some of the specific critiques of the hard-Marxist approaches that some organizations took on, with professionalized "organizers" trying to distance and legitimize themselves in contrast with less doctrinarian counterparts in service and advocacy organizations. This was particularly offputting in some of the organizations that the book's authors bring up, and the reason for some of the fissions that occurred in the 80s and 90s between groups, organizers, and different approaches to the work.

I think what I found the most interesting and thought-provoking, however, was that a lot of the activists in the 70s actually lived in the SROs and hotels with the low-income tenants. The organizations shared space in those buildings as well, sometimes run out of apartments. Activists took jobs in the labor industries to both make a living, and live the same life as the people whose voices they thought should lead or guide the movement. This is so different from what we all do now: we are professionalized, making a career out of talking about and minutely affecting the conditions that real working people deal with every day. The difference between this approach and that taken by some of the folks from the 70s is enormous, and something I plan to think and write a lot more about in this space.

For now - this is enough. Check out this book if you get a chance.


Anonymous said...

This has definitely been on my "to read" list ever since I heard about it. Thanks for the review (and this entire Heritage Month series), and looking forward to reading more thoughts as the month goes on.


Rage said...

Thanks for reading. I need to spend more time writing down what I've been "thinking", but I have to say, the book definitely touched on some things that I've been struggling with lately. I'm going to look at
"From Legacy to Liberation" more closely now, and then see if there are other histories and/or accounts that I can find and learn from.

It's funny - when you're in the middle of this, you think it's a whole huge world, but when you take a step back, you realize how closely so many folks were tied to one another.