“Otheredness” Asian American & Black American Asian History

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Family of Paula Williams Madison, from left to right: her mother, Nell, of Jamaican and Chinese descent; Paula; her two brothers; and her father, Elrick Williams, a Jamaican immigrant to the U.S.

The HistoryMakers

On March 16, 2021, in a series of mass shootings by a white American gunman, 21 year old Robert Aaron Long killed eight Asian Americans in Acworth, Georgia. This week, a 65 year old Filipino woman was kicked and beaten by Brandon Elliott, a 38 year old black man near New York’s Times Square. These incidences are not singular ones. In fact, they are best viewed and understood within a historical context that is as richly complicated and nuanced as that of the African American experience. It is also equally not well known.

Zhu Sun

For The HistoryMakers, this is of particular interest, since several of our HistoryMakers are of Asian descent, and also because our Chief of Staff, Zhu Sun, is of Chinese descent. From China’s northeastern city Jilin, she has played a critical role the past decade in our organization’s growth. Recently, she has spoken poignantly of feeling out of place amidst her worry about her own safety. In fact, last year she wrote: “It’s this persistent sense of otherness that a lot of us struggle with every day.” “Otherness” is defined as “individuals or groups who do not fit in within the norms of a social group… It can often lead to the persecution of marginalized groups, the denial of rights based on group identities, or even acts of violence against others.”

Zhu Sun would go on to explain her feelings: “That no matter what we do, how successful we are, what friends we make, we don’t belong. We’re foreign. We’re not American. Even though Asian Americans have made significant contributions to American life, society and culture, the world is still largely unaware of these contributions as well as the personal stories of these Asian American contributors. That is why there is a paradox familiar to every Asian American who regularly faces the question, ‘But where are you from, originally?’ Asian Americans are identified as a model minority, but they are still affected by racial discrimination. These negative stereotypes of Asian Americans are harmful and it hides the pressures and paradoxes inherent within an Asian American identity. The Asian American story transcends color and ethnicity. It is an integral part of the American experience.”

These words ring so true. In fact, Asian immigrants arrived in North America as early as the 18th century. Since that time, they have been a part of and yet separate from America’s melting pot—one which still has not yet completely melted.

Chinese men who worked on the U.S. Transcontinental Railroad, c. 1870s

In his interview for The HistoryMakers, character actor, music executive and son of a Chinese father Aki Aleong, who is best known for portraying Senator Hidoshi in Babylon 5, explained the migration of Asian immigrants to the U.S.: “They came to the [British] West Indies in 1850s to work in the sugarcane fields in Cuba and all over the place. The Chinese came to the United States in the 1700s aboard the ships that were in Louisiana. The Filipinos came also in the 1800s to the United States, so they were merchant seamen… they travelled all over to find work, they came for the Gold Rush… they build the railroads in California, they built seventeen railroads in the West. They were in the sugar plantations.”[1] Chinese Americans played a signature role in the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. Upwards of 20,000 Chinese were employed by the Central Pacific Railroad to build the western half of the railway. They did so while “receiving 30-50 percent lower wages than whites… [and] had the most difficult and dangerous work, including tunneling and the use of explosives.”[2] Yet, their contributions, alongside those of the African American workers, are often ignored.

Ed Williams, a Clark Atlanta University graduate who was the first African American to integrate the banks in Chicago, recalled the experiences of his Chinese maternal grandfather: “Throughout the South and in the West [in the U.S.], Chinese were brought over as laborers, and… suffered the same economic status as the blacks did at the time.”[3] After the Emancipation Proclamation, Chinese were recruited to replace the formerly enslaved on the cotton plantations: “Southern landowners, anticipating the demise of slavery, began recruiting ‘coolie’ workers–indentured and exploited workers generally from China or India–common on plantations in the Caribbean. Chinese workers seemed an ideal replacement workforce for slaves because the planters believed them to be a racially distinct, cheap, and controllable labor force.”[4] Former NBCUniversal executive Paula Madison, whose documentary and biography entitled Finding Samuel Lowe explored her Chinese and Jamaican roots, further commented: “My [maternal] grandfather migrated [from China] to Jamaica in 1905 when he was fifteen years old. When slavery was abolished… in the British Commonwealth in 1838, they had great difficulty getting the Africans to continue to cut sugar cane and they started importing indentured workers initially from China.”[5]

“Chinese Cheap Labor in Louisiana – Chinamen at Work on the Millaudon Sugar Plantation, July 29, 1871.” Artwork by Alfred Waud

By the 1870s, the Mississippi Delta region, of all places, was populated by Chinese immigrants who were forced to live next to black communities. Later, they left the farms and began their own small family grocery stores. 1953 Harvard Law School graduate Judge Russell B. Sugarmon’s (1929 – 2019) maternal grandfather was one such an example: “My mother [Lessye Sugarmon] was born in Memphis [Tennessee], her mother [Paralee Sarepta Roach] was… African American and American Indian… And, her father was a Chinese American, who owned a general store in Deeson, Mississippi.”[6]

Left: The Joe Gow Nue & Co. Grocery Meat Market, Mississippi Delta region, c. 1930-1940s
Right: Tri-State Chinese Directory of Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee, c. 1952

By 1880, the tenth U.S. Census of Louisiana determined that 57% of all interracial marriages between Chinese Americans were with African Americans.[7] These statistics continued to increase after passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which required that any Chinese person who remained in the U.S. could not leave the country and re-enter. Neither could they remain married to their wives in China. By 1940, 20%-30% of the Chinese who lived in Mississippi married African American women.[8] The resulting relationships created generations of mixed children who faced the double battle of being both Asian and black.

An interracial wedding between a black woman and Asian man, c.1900s

Paula Madison spoke of her black Asian mother: “My mother looked Chinese, beautiful woman. She had a hard growing up… Her [Jamaican] grandmother viewed her more with shame than anything else… this half child. My mother said the name that she was most often called when she was a child was a ‘half-Chiney wretch.’ …in 1944… she applied for a visa to the United States under the Chinese immigration quota… at that point the United States limited the number of Chinese… something like two hundred per year.” [9][10]

Left to right: Paula Madison’s mother, Nell Williams; Paula Madison (far right) with her two brothers, Harlem, New York City Paula Madison

For ABC’s Dancing with the Stars, Ray Chew: “My father’s father was Chinese… his name was Henry Boy Chew, and he spelled it C-H-U.”[11] Later, Chu would be anglicized to Chew.

Ray Chew (right) and his father, Henry Chew (left)

But these mixed race Asian/black youth described the difficulty of their identities. Aki Aleong, born in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago to a Chinese father and mother of African and Portuguese descent, spoke of attending the mostly white Boys’ High School in Bedford–Stuyvesant, Brooklyn: “I didn’t mix. All I did was go to school and come back home… I had no friends, because I was very shy… five foot tall, I was… a loner, I didn’t fit in… I was a foreigner, and I spoke English but I was still a foreigner… trying to adjust… it was just strange.”[12] For Lieutenant general Thomas Bostick, with his Japanese mother and African American father, said: “I kinda always felt like I was on my own… it was almost like I was isolated… I say I’m African American; they’d look at my hair… [and say,] ‘You are?’ (Laughter)… [I’d say,] ‘I’m Japanese’ (laughter)… [they’d say,] ‘With that color skin?’ So… I didn’t go with an ethnic group like that… I didn’t look at myself as different but I did sense it… I wasn’t kinda fully embraced by the brothers so to speak… there was no negative vibes… we all kinda got along, and when I said I hung out with the academics or the athletes, it was just kinda the nature of it.”[13]

Left: Aki Aleong on the TV show “The Outer Limits,” c. 1960s
Right: Lieutenant general Thomas Bostick, former Commanding General of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the second African American to hold this position

NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum also spoke of how he, as child of a Jamaican American father and a Vietnamese mother, felt: “I looked Asian and at the time the neighborhood… was more black, West Indian… and I was ostracized as a kid… kids would call me Bruce Lee… and they’d mock me… my dad actually did speak to me, not so much at that early age but as I got older about being a black man… he always operated as a proud black man… but we never actually had the conversation about me… having a black dad and an Asian mother. And so… I hid a lot of that stuff from him because I was being bullied, I was embarrassed, I was being mocked and I didn’t have an outlet to talk to anybody about that.”[14]

Mark Tatum

This period of heightened awareness brought upon by the pain of death and brutality will hopefully force us as a nation to explore what underlies these false truths that keep us apart. As an African American organization, we are committed to helping shine a light on other “lost” American stories. Only by doing so, will we as a country start a process of reconciliation. Learning and healing. We thank Zhu Sun for bringing her “otheredness” to the attention of our black “otheredness”.

Left: The Japanese American Citizen League at The March on Washington, 1963
Right: Vietnam Moratorium Peace March, San Francisco, California, 1969

“There Is No Sunday like Easter Sunday”

As Pastor Reverend Dr. H. Beecher Hicks, Jr. noted: “In the black community there is no Sunday like Easter Sunday,”[15] and even though times are different, let’s take a moment to remember days past.

Women outside the church in their Easter hats
Children on the White House’s South Lawn for the Annual Easter Egg Roll, 1953

However your Easter is spent, whether at church, with friends or family, or at home, there are always little things to be grateful for that the Easter season brings. The Honorable Togo D. West, Jr. (1942 – 2018), former the Secretary of the U.S. Army, when asked in his interview about Easter time, had a beautifully simple reflection: “I remember the arrival of Easter with so much pleasure… the sun and the colors and the flowers.”[16]

WomanMakers: Those Who Inspire

[1] Aki Leonard Gonzales Aleong (The HistoryMakers A2005.108), interviewed by Larry Crowe, April 26, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 3, Aki Leonard Gonzales Aleong describes his father’s family background and the history of Chinese immigration to the Americas.

[2] Lesley Kennedy. “Building the Transcontinental Railroad: How 20,000 Chinese Immigrants Made It Happen,” History, April 30, 2020, accessed April 2, 2021. https://www.history.com/news/transcontinental-railroad-chinese-immigrants

[3] Edward J. Williams (The HistoryMakers A2004.008), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, February 16, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 2, Edward J. Williams talks about his Chinese maternal grandfather.

[4] “ACT TO PROHIBIT THE “COOLIE TRADE” (1862),” Immigration History, accessed April 2, 2021. https://immigrationhistory.org/item/act-to-prohibit-the-coolie-trade-2/

[5] Paula Madison (The HistoryMakers A2013.327), interviewed by Larry Crowe, November 19, 2013, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 4, Paula Madison discusses her mother’s Chinese ancestry and her search for her Chinese relatives, pt. 1.

[6] The Honorable Russell B. Sugarmon (The HistoryMakers A2003.148), interviewed by Larry Crowe, July 28, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 3, Russell Sugarmon discusses his Chinese, Native American and black family background.

[7] “Chinese blacks in the Americas,” ColorQ World, accessed March 31, 2021. http://www.colorq.org/MeltingPot/article.aspx?d=America&x=ChineseBlacks

[8] Ibid.

[9] Paula Madison (The HistoryMakers A2013.327), interviewed by Larry Crowe, November 19, 2013, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 4, Paula Madison discusses her mother’s Chinese ancestry and her search for her Chinese relatives, pt. 1.

[10] Paula Madison (The HistoryMakers A2013.327), interviewed by Larry Crowe, November 19, 2013, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 5, Paula Madison discusses her mother’s upbringing and immigration to the United States in the 1940s.

[11] Ray Chew (The HistoryMakers A2013.194), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, July 24, 2013, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1.

[12] Aki Leonard Gonzales Aleong (The HistoryMakers A2005.108), interviewed by Larry Crowe, April 26, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 1, Aki Leonard Gonzales Aleong remembers attending Boys High School in Brooklyn, New York City.

[13] Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick (The HistoryMakers A2013.182), interviewed by Larry Crowe, August 9, 2013, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 4, Thomas Bostick describes his high school’s racial demographics and talks about his own racial identity.

[14] Mark Alrick Tatum (TheHistoryMakers A2019.072), interviewed by Larry Crowe, August 16, 2019, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2.

[15] Reverend Dr. H. Beecher Hicks, Jr. (The HistoryMakers A2004.240), interviewed by Racine Tucker Hamilton, November 30, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 6, H. Beecher Hicks discusses his book ‘My Soul’s Been Anchored’.

[16] The Honorable Togo D. West, Jr. (The HistoryMakers A2007.054), interviewed by Larry Crowe, February 8, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 8, The Honorable Togo D. West, Jr. describes his experiences of religion.

 

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