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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
I’ve been interested in Aladdin for many years since I learned working on a Smithsonian project on ethnic imagery in advertising that in the 19th and into the 20th century, he was presented as a Chinese figure. Recently I’ve been working on and off on a piece about Aladdin that I don’t quite know how to finish. Here’s the first part of it:
I’ve always loved to read. When I discovered libraries growing up, I read anything and everything I could find. One of the subjects I devoured was fairy tales and folktales and one of my earliest sources for them were the various colored books of stories collected and published in the late 19th century by Andrew Lang. It was in The Blue Fairy Book that I first encountered the story of “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp.” At the time, I found the story simple and straightforward, but magical and marvelous nevertheless. As an adult and as a historian, I’ve learned the story of the story is anything but simple.
Michelle Bachman’s comments this week about immigration incensed many people, including many Asian Americans. Angry Asian Man wrote about it. ThinkProgress posted about it. The Washington Post wrote about it. While I don’t agree with Bachmann’s statements, these responses themselves cite an immigration history that is as nostalgic, albeit with a different political outlook, as hers.
I have not purchased nor do I intend to read Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. The book excerpts, interviews with the author, and a piece from one of her daughters I’ve read as well as television interviews I’ve watched have convinced me that there’s really no reason to buy it, read it, nor engage the issues she attempts to raise. To do so would validate the stereotypes and caricatures she presents as authentic culture and concerns, continue their presence in public attention, and benefit Chua’s celebrity and fortunes–from directly from sales of her book and indirectly from the fees she garners from the publicity and promotion.
Now that I’ve finished my book on popular science and science fiction in the interwar era, Astounding Wonder (University of Pennsylvania Press, March 2012), I’ve returned to another project on geography, race, and Asian Americans that I’m calling Barred Zones.