by Herb Kane
Pele, "She Who Shapes The Sacred Land," is a fiery goddess of Hawaii, who demands notice. Her volcanic aspect belies the sterotypical imagery we often find attributed to our Asian and Asian Pacific Island sisters.
I dedicate this to her fierce spirit, and to her spiritual daughter Liliuokalani, and honor the fire found within a diverse group of women who have formed an alliance to fight for their rights in our nation.
We are not often reminded of Asian and Asian Pacific women as rulers and leaders. And yet many have ruled as monarchs and heads of state, while we have not managed to do that in the United States—yet. The history of Hawaii illustrates the tale of one such leader.
Though Hawaii became a state in 1959 (yes, birthers, our president was born in the U.S.), it was annexed by the U.S. in 1898, after the overthrow of the last reigning Native Hawaiian monarch, Queen Liliuokalani, in 1893.
Historians Shirley Hune and Gail M. Nomura write, "Between 1820 and 1845, the role of Native Hawaiian women was equal to that of men. They could vote, own property and leave intolerable marriages." That ended with the advent of U.S. rule.
Liliuokalani fought for the economic and cultural rights of Native Hawaiians and Asians, but with the help of a U.S. military invasion, and the backing of a group of American and European businessmen, her reign was ended.
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Here are excerpts from a documentary on her life, narrated by Anna Deavere Smith:
For an in-depth history and biography, read The Betrayal of Liliuokalani: Last Queen of Hawaii 1838-1917 by Helena G. Allen.
It is important that we gain a better understanding of the women who make up a majority of this diverse demographic category, their history in the U.S., and their current political and social struggles. We need to examine the different waves of migration, which continue into the present.
Recently, Markos wrote of Asians as the fastest growing population population in our nation:
32.1 percent of Asians live in California, 9.1 percent in New York, 6.4 percent in Texas, 4.6 percent in New Jersey, and 4.5 percent in Hawaii. If you look at the map above, you can see certain interesting pockets -- like the Hmong in Minnesota, Vietnamese around Houston and Galveston, Texas (lots of Vietnamese shrimpers on the Gulf Coast), and strong concentration in high-tech circles like the SF Bay Area, Boston, North Carolina's Research Triangle, and Seattle. The largest nationality among these Asian-Americans is Chinese (3.3 million), Asian Indian (2.8 million), Filipino (2.6 million), Vietnamese (1.5 million), Korean (1.4 million), and Japanese (0.8 million).Much of the early history of Asian American female migration to the U.S. is ugly. Starting with the Page Act, in 1875, which shaped future immigration policy, Asian women were branded as prostitutes, immoral and diseased. Ming M. Zhu from Harvard's Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights wrote The Page Act of 1875: In the Name of Morality about how couching and promoting the law on the grounds of "morality" assisted in excluding Asian labor.
"Anti-Misegenation" laws were also enacted to prevent whites from marrying Asians.
The seven states applying their prohibitions to people of Asian descent were Arizona, California, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Utah. The specific language in these statutes referring to Asian people varied from state to state. The statutes of Arizona, California, Mississippi, and Utah all referred to "Mongolians." Nevada and Oregon used the term "Chinese," and Montana specified both "Chinese" and "Japanese" persons. The reasons behind the inconsistent terminology are unclear, although the evidence suggests that the importance of these distinctions should not be exaggerated.
A Historical Anthology
Edited by Shirley Hune & Gail M. Nomura
The National Women’s History Museum (NWHM) has a superb and detailed online exhibit, Chinese American Women: A History of Resilience and Resistance, which details much of this history.
Though there is no one book that can encompass the varied histories and stories of AAP American women, in recent years, more texts have become available, as more AAP women become historians and women's studies scholars.
I have several to suggest.
Asian/Pacific Islander American Women is the first collection devoted to the historical study of A/PI women's diverse experiences in America. Covering a broad terrain from pre-large scale Asian emigration and Hawaii in its pre-Western contact period to the continental United States, the Philippines, and Guam at the end of the twentieth century, the text views women as historical subjects actively negotiating complex hierarchies of power.Our Feet Walk the Sky: Women of the South Asian Diaspora is not a history. It is an extraordinary collection of poetry, autobiographical narrative and short stories.
The volume presents new findings about a range of groups, including recent immigrants to the U.S. and understudied communities. Comprised of original new work, it includes chapters on women who are Cambodian, Chamorro, Chinese, Filipino, Hmong, Japanese, Korean, Native Hawaiian, South Asian, and Vietnamese Americans. It addresses a wide range of women's experiences-as immigrants, military brides, refugees, American born, lesbians, workers, mothers, beauty contestants, and community activists. There are also pieces on historiography and methodology, and bibliographic and video documentary resources.
In the text, first- and second-generation women from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Burma, and Afghanistan comment on all aspects of their lives here and/or in the countries of their origin. Many discuss the conflicts of growing up with one foot in each culture, while others speak bitterly about the harshness of their fathers and brothers and about the mothers and sisters who accept this as their due. Because the issues addressed by women with a feminist consciousness are not necessarily the issues others want them to address, raising a "Third World child in an immigrant community within the First World" is shown to be a constant struggle. Although written for women of the South Asian community, this has something to offer women of all cultures.
edited by Sonia Shah
Last is a collection of feminist perspectives edited by Sonia Shah.
Dragon Ladies: Asian American Feminists Breathe Fire
Asian American feminism is a political hybrid linking very different cultures. "We all share the same rung on the racial hierarchy and on the gender hierarchy," asserts Sonia Shah, the editor of this appropriately diverse collection of writings. In it, Shamita Das Dasgupta and her daughter, Sayantani Das Dasgupta, comment on both raising and being third-world activists in the American Midwest, teetering outside the approved boundaries of largely white feminist groups and the Indian community. Margarita Alcantara, editor of the zine Bamboo Girl; Leslie Mah, lead guitarist of Tribe 8; and oxymoronic moderator Selena Whang explode model minority images with a freewheeling round robin on issues and events facing self-identified queer, punk Asians. Community activists Bandana Purkayastha, Shyamala Raman, and Kshiteeja Bhide expound on their agency SNEHA, which embodies the contradictions faced by Asian American feminists trying to empower women while respecting cultural traditionsThis book had special meaning for me since the foreword was written by one of my sheroes, Yuri Kochiyama.
I first met Yuri when I was a young activist member of the Young Lords Party in New York's East Harlem, known as El Barrio. She was living in Harlem and had sent her children to Freedom Schools, had become engaged in multiple community struggles, and was the woman in whose arms Malcolm X died, when he was assassinated in the Audubon Ballroom on Feb. 21, 1965.
Yuri was interned in a camp as a child during World War II, which changed her life.
Actress Sandra Oh reads the speech given by Yuri Kochiyama who was held in a Japanese internment camp during WWII. Part of a reading from Voices of a People's History of the United States given October 5, 2005 in Los Angeles California (Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove.)She would go on in life to be the spearhead of activist Asian organizations, always known and respected for supporting other struggles for justice.
Yuri tells her own story in Passing It On, and Diane C. Fujino has written an excellent biography,Heartbeat of Struggle: The Revolutionary Life of Yuri Kochiyama.
She is embraced, honored and respected as a mother of the movement. On May 19, she will be 91. She has lived to see Asian women form strong national organizations, like the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum (NAPAWF), "the only national, multi-issue Asian and Pacific Islander (API) women's organization in the country. NAPAWF's mission is to build a movement to advance social justice and human rights for API women and girls."
Here's a clip from their documentary:
September 2006, NAPAWF celebrated its 10-year anniversary in Los Angeles, where it was founded by over 150 API female activists. Fierce Sisters tells a moving story of the women and the movement, celebrates their vision and work, and emphasizes the importance of elevating the unique issues and concerns of API women and girls in the broader women’s and social justice movements. A 35-minute documentary by Nat Soti.AAPA women are actively involved across the U.S. in organizing low-income workers, in groups like Andolan and the National Domestic Workers Alliance, co-founded byAi-jen Poo.
I cannot possibly cover the contributions of AAPA women in the arts, sciences, and electoral politics in one essay. There is, however, an APA Women's Wall of Fame, which is constantly being updated.
You can also stay informed by following the Women of Color Network.
The Women of Color Network is a national grassroots initiative responding to violence against women and families in communities of color. We are a place where Women of Color in grassroots and mainstream programs can connect across geographic, social, political and professional boundaries.They will be holding an institute and conference July 19-13 in Minneapolis, focusing on five major topics that impact women of color—tribal sovereignty, trafficking, homicide, gender identity, and immigration—as well as self-care, economic justice, anti-oppression, building multicultural alliances, leadership and capacity building.
Designed by and for women of color, WOCN is committed to promoting women of color leadership, facilitating critical dialogues, and mobilizing for social justice issues. As a national advocacy initiative, our programming and issue areas are identified directly by the Network’s Women of Color constituency.
With regrets, today I end this special series for Women's History Month on women of color, but I remind you that we "sisters of the rainbow" make history every day, as we move forward to build a better future for us all.