Monday, May 29, 2017

National Museum includes an Asian American perspective on U.S. history

IN THE WANING days of Asian American & Pacific American Month, visitors to Washington DC may be pleasantly surprised to see the displays at the Smithsonian Institute's National Museum of American History. It tells the unvarnished history of our country that is usually excluded in high school history texts - warts and all.

Americans of Asian descent are included in the telling of our country's story: from the building of the transcontinental railroad, the longtime use of imported labor to harvest our crops, to the immigrants of today - the high-tech experts, the medical professionals, scientists and entrepreneurs.

The museum has devoted several rooms to the incarceration of Japanese/Americans during World War II, titled "Righting A Wrong: Japanese Americans and World War II," a dark chapter in America's history that is usually glossed over and given only a couple of paragraphs at most in our schools' studies of American history.

Besides showing a reproduction of Executive Order 9066 which made it possible to round up all people of Japanese descent in the western U.S. and the heroics of the 442nd Regiment, the museum included a display explaining the little known resistance within the Japanese/American community against the illegality of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's executive order. The most notable member of the resisters was Fred Korematsu, whose case was revived in the 1960s that eventually led to an admission of 9066's unconstitutionality, a formal apology from President Ronald Reagan and reparations.

The exhibit consists mostly of document reproductions, photos and quotes. It could use a little more interactiveness, perhaps a recording or two by some of the former internees describing their horror at being detained and the losses they suffered by givng up their homes, farms and businesses.

It be great to simply press a button and hear the story of the late Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye who lost an arm during WWII. Press another button and listen to George Takei's story of being interned as a young child and how it led to creating the Broadway musical "Allegiance." (See how you can donate below.)

Unfortunately, unlike the rest of the museum that had students running to and fro, parents explaining to their kids what the exhibits meant, and lines of people waiting to see an exhibit close up, visitors to the Internment exhibit was relatively sparse. The same could be said of the African/American exhibit next door, that tells their story from the slave ships to their cultural prominence today. It appears that some Americans prefer to turn a blind eye to the real story of our country.

As America's story continues, museum visitors are told of the waves of immigrant workers who work in Hawaii's sugar cane fields and California's agricultural heartland: First the Chinese, then the Japanese, then the Filipinos followed by Mexican farm workers.

This leads to the creation of the United Farm Workers led by Cesar Chavez. Unfortunately, in this exhibit, little is mentioned of the multi-ethnic origins of the UFW initially led by Filipino/Americans Larry Itliong, Phillip Vera Cruz and Andy Imutan that forced Chavez to join forces with the Filipino workers.

Filipino farmworkers in California.

A Japanese/American family in their California strawberry field.

A diorama showing Chinese farmworkers doing the backbreaking work of the harvest

In more modern times, AAPI immigrants continue to contribute to the prosperity of the United States, students who come to study find employment here: medical professionals from the Philippines providing medical help in our hospitals, labs and universities, and the immigrants flocking to Silicon Valley.

Newer immigrants contintue to contribute to America's welfare.

All in all, the Smithsonian should be applauded for their inclusion of AAPI stories in the telling the complete story of our country at the National Museum of American History. The stories are especially relevant this month, Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Month. They could probably use more donations from AAPI individual donors and corporations to expand their work.

For a number of years, the Smithsonian has embarked on a strategy to diversify its story telling and exhibits. These exhibits are put together by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. Among the exhibits are the A Day and Life of Asian Pacific America photo exhibit and the Beyond Bollywood exhibit, South Asian and Asian American artists are featured in H-1B, referring to the work visa for special occupations, plus staging events around the country.  

If the Smithsonian isn't careful, they might attract the attention of the Trump administration. Given the desire of Donald Trump and his followers to return to the good ol' days, they might not like facing the real facts of U.S. history. The gold ol' days were not good for everybody.

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