more on “chink”

[Classes ended yesterday so I’m in the process of updating and publishing posts I wrote this fall.]

In May, in the aftermath of the controversy over the use of the phrase “chink in the armor” as a ESPN headline for an article about Jeremy Lin, I wrote a post about the term “chink” and its historical use and origin. This fall I’ve been thinking about the digital humanities and data visualization for my courses and I remembered Google’s ngram viewer. It’s an online tool that draws on the digitalization of books and other print materials that are the basis for Google Books. It allows you to can chart the frequency with which a word (or words) occurs in that database. Because the database includes historical works, in effect the ngram viewer charts the historical use of words in print. I decided to use it to check the arguments I made in my previous post.

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segregation’s space: Lakeshore revisited

I posted this summer about Lakeshore Drive’s commemoration of Chicago’s 1919 race riot. This fall, preparing to lecture about the events of the riot for one of my courses, I read a new book, Red Summer, about the several race riots in the United States in 1919 whose broader context inform the Chicago riot.

Following its detailed narrative account, I realized that I had made a mistaken assumption about the geography of the beach’s, as opposed to Chicago’s, segregation. Historically the city’s predominantly African American communities have developed south of its original urban and commercial center. The association is strong enough that the expression “South Side” is sometimes used  synonymously with what University of Chicago sociologists called the “Black Belt.”

In imagining the events on the beach on July 27, 1919, I had always thought the line marking its segregation followed the same north-south distinction. Accounts I had read recounted a group of African American teenagers unwittingly crossing an extension of Chicago’s color line into Lake Michigan’s waters without specifying direction. Generalizing the city’s racial geography to the specific incident, I assumed they swam north from the south. Cameron McWhirter, Red Summer’s author, makes clear instead that they went south from the north.

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Lakeshore memorial

For several summers while taking bike rides along the Chicago lakeshore, I regularly passed a construction zone just south of McCormick Center. Once a few summers ago, stopping near the zone, I noticed a rock along the path with what appeared to be a plaque on it. Taking a closer look, I saw that the plaque was the product of a 2009 high school project marking the spot where the 1919 Chicago race riot, one of the bloodiest and largest race riots in American history, had begun. The rock and plaque, while nice, didn’t seem to do justice to the significance of the event and left me reflecting on how we commemorate sites of historical violence.

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Washington meridian(s)

I’ve been doing background research for my new project on geography and Asian American history, which I’m tentatively calling Barred Zones after the “Asiatic Barred Zone” established in 1917. Part of the article/chapter I’m writing involves systems of longitude and latitude—which fascinates my inner geek. While most people associate these systems with geography and think of them as, in a sense, “natural” because they locate places on the Earth, they are actually “social,” produced by people and institutions within specific historical contexts and circumstances, including politics, local, regional, national and international. A nice example demonstrating this point is the Washington meridian and its use in defining state and territorial borders within the United States in the late 19th century.

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proposed 1920 Asian amendment

Reviewing hearings before the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization from 1920, I was surprised—although not terribly so—to read that Senator James Phelan of California had introduced to Congress a revision of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. The issue was that American-born Asians, specifically children of Japanese immigrants, had access to citizenship.

“No American should be so credulous as to believe that any of the ‘get’ of Japanese picture brides will ever be Americanized,” a lengthy report attached to the proceedings declared. “Yet because of their birth upon our soil they are automatically endowed with the highest civic privilege that can be given man—the vote of a freeman. Because of his birth he becomes a unit of government in any State of the Union, yet remains just what nature made him—an oriental, without one attribute of American citizenship.”

Senator Phelan’s proposal to “cure the evil” of double allegiance and raise the “standard of American citizenship” was to change the first line of Section One, defining citizenship, of the 14th Amendment. His revision amended the original “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside” to the more complicated and cumbersome “All persons born in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof whose parents are white persons, Africans, American Indians, or their descendants, and all persons naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof are citizens of the United States and of the States wherein they reside.” Stipulating what races were eligible for citizenship, the revision also excluded by implication, those who were not, which the House Committee hearings made clear were Japanese and more generally Asians. While the proposed revision never passed, the sentiments it expressed extended, even as Phelan’s term did not, to the 1921 and 1924 Immigration Acts that declared Japanese and other Asian immigrants “aliens ineligible for citizenship.” Significantly, however, they did not preclude native-born Asians, or others, from citizenship and its claim to civil rights and equal protection under the law.

on ‘chink’

The first time someone directed the word “chink” at me, I had a visceral and almost violent reaction to it. Excited to have arrived for my freshman year of college, I took the “T” to visit Boston for the first time and having just exited the Green line station on the Boston Common, a young woman approached me to give me a leaflet. I wasn’t interested, so I said “no thank you” and continued walking when I heard her call after me, “f**king chink.” Without thinking, I turned around wanting to yell something equally offensive in response and raised my hand back wanting to slap her for the offense. Fortunately, I had walked a few paces and the distance allowed me enough time to realize and reconsider what I was about to do. I turned around again and walked away, mad as hell, fuming in frustration, but also determined not to let the situation, rather than my considered intentions, get the best of me.

I’ve recalled the incident many times since, most recently during the brouhaha in February over ESPN’s brief and temporary use of the phrase, “chink in the armor,” in a headline about Jeremy Lin, the New York Knicks basketball player. While I thought its use was inappropriate and ill-considered, I also found much of the reaction to the headline unnecessarily uninformed and hyperbolic, and more importantly, misdirected.

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racial authenticity and the Linsanity

I’m writing a longer piece about Jeremy Lin’s media sensation and its implications, but wanted to post a few of my notes on what I call the Linsanity:

As a Taiwanese American, a basketball fan since the glory days of the Portland Trailblazers, and a Harvard graduate, I would be remise not to have heard of Jeremy Lin. Through friends and occasional reports, I followed his career off and on before it became the media sensation that became the Linsanity this past February.

Like many others, I am excited at his recent NBA success. Having spent my share of time in gyms and playground pick-up games trying to play point guard, I have also been amused by the superficial similarities—including the deficiencies—of his play and my attempts at the same. It remains to be seen if he can maintain his high level of play through this season and beyond, but Lin has already demonstrated that he is more than capable and belongs on the court.

At the same time, I was also disturbed by aspects of the Linsanity, including Asian American commentary, and what it expressed about race and its contours within public discourse. Sports is an enormous and significant segment of our popular culture, but in relating its history, race apparently still requires a particular note of authenticity.

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language wars

This week’s New Yorker has a review of a new book, The Language Wars, by Henry Hitchings. In the book, Hitchens traces disputes over the proper use of the English language over the last century, dividing its participants between prescriptivists, who argue for maintaining language’s rules governing writing and speech and descriptivists, who argue that language’s fluidity allows only description of its changing practices. He aligns himself with the latter while the reviewer, Joan Acocella, takes a more agonistic position, pointing to the strengths and weaknesses of the various warring sides and observing that “nowadays, everyone is moving to the center.” While the book and review usefully discuss an interesting historical subject, the language war they present was more properly a culture war. Its skirmishes and battles concerned, not with language, but its civilizing effect.

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Aladdin and authenticity

Yet more on Aladdin:

Authenticity, however, has always been complicated where Aladdin is concerned. The stories of the Thousand and One Nights derive from Persian, Indian, Arabic, Turkish, and Egyptian folk tale and literary traditions that span several historical periods and were passed on orally for centuries within Islamic society and culture before being recorded.[1] Extant Arabic manuscripts fall into two main manuscript traditions, the one Syrian, the other Egyptian, which differ in which tales they include and in what order. The various manuscripts share a common core of stories, which include an Arabic cycle involving the 9th century caliph Harun al-Rashid and others from his era, including vizier Ja’far and Abu Nuwas, and another group involving 13th and 14th century figures from medieval Cairo. They also share a narrative framework for the collection, the story, from 7th century Persia, of Shahrazad (or, as she is better known, Scheherezade), the new bride who begins, without concluding a new story for her husband, King Shahriyar, each night to avoid execution the next morning, eventually, after a thousand nights, winning his pardon and her life.

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Disney’s Aladdin

Continuing last week’s post about Aladdin:

The Disney film made Aladdin Arabic (and an accused thief instead of a ne’er-do-well tailor’s son) and renamed the princess of his affections Jasmine—from the original’s Badroulbadour (Bedrulbudour, Bedr-el-Budur, Badr al-Budur). Perhaps more significantly, its villain was not the African magician/sorcerer of the literary versions. Instead, following the 1940 adaptation of Thief of Bagdad, the Disney film’s villain was the evil and conniving court advisor, Grand Vizier Jafar (Jaffar in the 1940 film, played by Veidt, its star). The name and title derives from a figure who appears in several of the Thousand and One Nights tales and is loosely based on an actual 9th century historical figure, Ja’far al-Barmaki, vizier to the caliph of Baghdad. Another 9th century historical figure, the poet Abu Nuwas, who appears as a court jester figure in the Nights, provided the name for the thief in the 1940 film—which had divided the 1924 film’s title character into two: a prince, Ahmad, and a thief, Abu—and Aladdin’s sidekick monkey in the Disney film.

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