Filling In The Blanks In America's History


By Ronald Takaki

Little, Brown x 576pp x $27.95

Ronald Takaki opens A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America with an anecdote that will be all too familiar to many Asian Americans. A white taxi driver in Norfolk, Va., asked how long Takaki had been in the U.S. Even after the third-generation Japanese American replied that he had been born in this country, the cabbie complimented him on his excellent English.

Takaki laments that so many Americans equate American identity with European heritage. In fact, by early next century, less than half the U.S. population will be of European ancestry. Yet recognition of this growing diversity has come remarkably slowly. Ignorance about other groups, for instance, fed the friction and hatred among blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and whites that underlay last year's riots in Los Angeles.

Takaki, an ethnic studies professor at the University of California at Berkeley whose books include Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans, here seeks to rewrite the American past to include neglected tales of Americans of African, Irish, Mexican, Asian, Jewish, and Native American descent. To be omitted from history, he says, can produce, in the words of poet Adrienne Rich, "a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into the mirror and saw nothing."

Takaki hopes that by writing history that's more inclusive, historians can help temper race-based frustrations and misunderstandings. But his admirable goal is undermined by a tendency toward emotional manipulation. His unremitting depiction of oppression will have readers reaching alternately for their hankies and their protest placards.

Takaki disputes recent works by thinkers such as Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Allan Bloom, and E.D. Hirsch, who have bemoaned the trend toward multicultural studies. These authors have contended that championing the histories of different groups is divisive, that for disparate peoples to function as one nation, they must adhere to one dominant culture--which in the U.S. is Anglo-American. Takaki counters that as the composition of the U.S. changes, so must its national identity and culture, lest those left out feel disenfranchised.

Takaki's highly readable, broad-ranging history, which begins with the founding of the colonies, often amounts to a synthesis of such other works as Irving Howe's World of Our Fathers and Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. But these engaging tales--animated by eyewitness quotations and vivid detail--can draw readers into exploring these histories further.

Takaki's stories are united by a single theme: that racism in the U.S. "has historically set apart racial minorities from European immigrant groups." Readers can weep in outrage over the mistreatment of Native Americans, including the 1838 relocation of Georgia's Cherokees west of the Mississippi--the forced march known as the Trail of Tears, during which thousands perished. Similarly, Takaki explores the indignities heaped on Mexicans exploited as contract laborers in the U.S. He describes the backbreaking plantation jobs done by Japanese in Hawaii, the dangerous work of building railroads done by Chinese in the West--and the discrimination both groups faced. He depicts the hardships of black slave life in America and the racism that met the black migration north early in this century.

Takaki's stories of European immigrants provide a contrast. While acknowledging the hardships these people suffered in their homelands and after immigrating, he notes that they eventually found success and acceptance in the New World. Russian Jews, for example, who had endured violent pogroms, also met discrimination in the U.S.--including quotas restricting their entry to elite universities--but in time, many attained success as professionals and intellectuals. And by the early 1900s, Irish Catholics, who fled to America to escape English oppression, "were attending college in greater proportion than their Protestant counterparts."

At times, Takaki simply goes overboard. Just below the surface of his book, a diatribe against racism and the exploitation of workers is waiting to break through. He could better counter criticisms of multicultural studies as thinly veiled politics if he were more dispassionate. After describing an 1814 battle in which Andrew Jackson's soldiers killed 800 Creeks and made reins from their skin, for instance, Takaki quotes a letter from Jackson asking his wife to tell Little Andrew that he would bring home bow and quiver souvenirs. The sickening juxtaposition perhaps rightly paints Jackson as a racist with no empathy for his enemy. But pages of such narrative end up eliciting only negative, divisive emotions rather than the harmony Takaki says is his aim.

Nonetheless, even the trivia in Takaki's account provide a sense of the many threads woven into the American past: There is evidence, he says, that the word "Yankee" comes from Cherokee and Delaware terms. The Bing cherry was developed by a Chinese immigrant named Ah Bing. American Indian troops confounded Japanese decoders during World War II by sending messages in their own languages.

Despite its shortcomings, Takaki's book does effectively convey the idea that America's identity embraces people of many different backgrounds. Herein lies the value of multicultural history--a broadening of perspective that helps us live together in the present.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.