Serve the People: Making Asian America in the Long Sixties is a history of the formation of Asian American identity and movement-building written by one of the participants. Karen L. Ishizuka not only was part of the movement, so were her husband and her extended family. This not only gives her history immediacy, it also gives her access and credibility to interview many of the participants who could be more candid with a fellow traveler than with an outsider.
That access is revealed with discussion of some of the fraught internal struggles within organizations and coalitions. Social change is not easy and there are many competing theories of how to achieve it. There are even disagreements in the diagnosis of the problem and its causes. Reading about the conflicts between different activist organizations over whether it was a class struggle only or a class and liberation struggle has an immediacy because those same conflicts continue today.
Ishizuka focuses on the Long Sixties – the era from the mid-fifties to the early-seventies when activism was very much on a rising tide, but she also goes back into the past to show that Asian Americans have a long history of activism from labor strikes in the 1880’s and in 1905 to community organizing in the thirties and beyond. Far from the stereotype of passive model immigrants, there is a long history of activism that she wants people to remember and incorporate, to recover this erasure of their past agency.
She begins with considering the position of Asian Americans relative to the dominant duality of White and Black. She points out how Asian Americans are used to discredit Black denunciations of racism, how the model minority myth is promoted in order to discredit claims that the United States is racist. In organizing, though, Asian Americans often allied with Blacks, Native Americans and Latinos and vice-versa.
She covers the struggle to coalesce as a united Asian America, rather than as Japanese, Chinese, Filipino and other hyphen-Americans. There were debates over whether Asian American should be hyphenated, whether it should be Amerasian or other construct and it was some time before they settled on Asian American. They were united, though, in opposition to Oriental which described a rug, something you walked on.
Ishizuka does not focus solely on one aspect of activism. She considers the arts and culture activism as important as the anti-eviction, anti-war, affordable housing, anti-discrimination and other issue specific struggles. Focusing mainly on movements in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Seattle, she describes the formation of many organizations, alternative press and the several campaigns they worked on. It is a fascinating history, though on occasion perhaps over-detailed for someone to whom the organizations can become a jumble of acronyms. I have to appreciate, though, her thoughtfulness for the reader in spelling out the organizations’ full names in new sections, not expects us to recall the acronyms from fifty pages earlier.
She also evaluates the movement and shares the evaluations of others who are disappointed to see their past work rewritten. For example, she argues that Asian American civil right activism was rooted more in the work of Malcolm X than Martin Luther King. Huey P. Newton and Stokeley Carmichael were important allies and influencers. She makes clear, too, that the movement was about liberation, imperialism and community struggles for housing, jobs, and education and not solely about cultural and racial identity.
I highly recommend this book for several reasons. It is written with passion and integrity. Sometimes the integrity results in long lists to share credit fairly and that can stall the narrative, but the passion more than makes up for it. I also think it is a necessary history, a corrective history to the de-politicized narrative of model minority chambers of commerce that are highlighted as a reproach to other races. It corrects the false narrative and sheds light on the real and very radical history. It is also a useful example of how the energy and passion of activism can be eroded by doctrinaire infighting and not acknowledging the intersectionality of multiple oppressions—leading to sexist disregard for women in the movement and homophobic marginalization of homosexuality as bourgeois decadence. There is so much to this book it is hard to capture it in a short review. So read it for yourself.