We, as Asian Americans, often ask ourselves deep questions about our identity.   “Who am I?”  “Where do I fit in?”  “Am I Asian or am I American?”  “What does it mean to be Asian American?”  These are all necessary questions, integral to the early stages of identity formation that every social group goes through.  I would argue that Asian Americans have been having a difficult time answering those questions ever since the invention of the term “Asian American” and the invention of the multi-ethnic social group itself, in the period following the death of Vincent Chin in 1982.  These questions of identity routinely come up in our ongoing, internal community dialogue.  They are often the central questions of conferences, summits, and Asian American Studies classes across the nation.  And while the answers to these questions continue to elude us, I argue that we can find guidance in examining the history of another community that has had to forge their own identity in this country. 

Looking at the African American community today, one might find that questions of identity are not necessarily on the forefront of their internal community dialogue.  For the most part, African Americans know who they are.  They are comfortable with their identity.  This is not to say that African Americans don’t struggle with these issues, but rather, that the concept of being African American in this country is a concept that was created long ago and has been passed down through generations.  However, studying African American literature from the early 20th century (most notably the work of W.E.B. Dubois) reveals that African Americans had gone through a similar identity crisis that featured the same process of self-questioning over one hundred years ago. 

Asian Americans today often view themselves as a people trapped between two worlds–neither Asian nor American.  In “The Souls of Black Folk”, W.E.B. Dubois also paints a picture of Black people as a people trapped between two worlds–a people born with a “veil” lowered over their eyes, altering their view of themselves.  He dubbed this existence as “double-consciousness,” and explained it as so:

“The Negro is…born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,–a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world.  It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.  One ever feels his two-ness,–an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

Dubois argues that, although freed from slavery in 1865, African Americans spent the latter half of the 1800’s (and indeed much of the first few decades of the 1900’s) feeling spiritually adrift.  Having lived in this country for hundreds of years, they were no longer African and could not return to Africa, for America was their home.  At the same time, although the White American identity had firmly been established, being a free Black person was a brand new concept that hadn’t yet been defined.  How did the free Black person dress now that they could dress as they pleased?  How did the free Black person talk now that they weren’t forced to speak a certain way?  How did the free Black person interact with each other now that they were free to interact in any way they wanted?

African American slaves had the unfortunate fate of having much of their own culture violently taken away from them.  What little that survived did so in subversive ways.  Once slavery was abolished and African Americans were now free to embrace their own culture and hand it down to their children, they found that much of that culture was gone.  Only bits and pieces of their language, art, music, dance, stories, etc. had survived hundreds of years of terror and subjugation.  And of course, as their “freedom” was simply a transfer from slavery to the more complexly nefarious wage-slavery, the newly freed African Americans found themselves now at the very bottom of a very tall economic ladder they now had to climb, with White people placed firmly at the top. 

Many African Americans took to mimicking White Americans and their modes of cultural expression, in an attempt to become accepted members of society and rise the ranks of social and economic class.  This meant wearing the same clothing as White people, affecting the speech patterns of White people, and even using chemicals to straighten their hair and lighten their skin in order to look White.  But of course we all know that White people never accepted them into their community (some might argue that they still haven’t), and even took to physically and structurally violent means to prevent them from fully assimilating (from the formation of the Ku Klux Klan to segregationist laws).  

Being neither fully African nor fully White led to a great crisis of identity that persisted for 70 years.  For 70 years, Black people asked themselves those perennial questions.  “Who am I?”  “Where do I fit in?”  “Am I African or am I American?”  “What does it mean to be Black in this country?”  Questions all too familiar to us as Asian Americans today.

It wasn’t until the 1920’s that a group of African American artists decided to stop asking the question and begin ANSWERING it. 

In the 1910’s, a large migration brought huge numbers of African Americans out of the south and into other areas of the country, primarily the northeast and midwest.  What scholars now call the “Great Migration” was spurred by the search for greater economic opportunities outside the south and an escape from the particularly brutal persecution of both the KKK and the efforts of Southern lawmakers to restrict newfound freedoms.  This saw large influxes of previously rural African Americans into urban areas such as Baltimore, New York City, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, etc. (California and the West Coast would see a second wave later in the 1940’s in what some would call the 2nd Great Migration).  In New York City in particular, African Americans built an ethnic enclave in a neighborhood of Manhattan known as Harlem. 

Over the next 20 years, artists of every genre decided to make Harlem their home.  Writers, painters, photographers, dancers, musicians, poets…all gathered in Harlem to live together and create art together.  These artists, building on the cultural traditions that they were given by their ancestors and synthesizing them with the modern zeitgeist that surrounded them, created forms of art that were uniquely African American and also completely new and cutting edge – forms of art that we are well-aware of now, including jazz music, swing dance, and the literary styles of now famous Harlem Renaissance writers like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, among others.  It was an explosion of expression that spread to all corners of the African American community across the country.

It spread like wildfire.  No doubt helped by new technology that had been invented at the turn of the century including the telephone, the moving picture, and others.  This had a tremendous effect on African Americans everywhere.  African Americans finally had a voice.  They had a way of storytelling that was uniquely their own.  They had a form of dance that was uniquely their own.  They had a sound, a  style, a way of dress, and even a slang that they could all participate in…and whenever someone would ask the question: “What does it mean to be Black in this country?”  They could now point to the plethora of artistic expressions answering that question; There were now multitudes of books and poems that explained It, songs that sung it, dances that danced it.

In the decades that followed, the artistic forms of expression that were popularized during the Harlem Renaissance continued to get re-worked and reinvented.  Every few years the forms would change slightly and be given new names.  Jazz and the Blues became “Bebop” and “Soul”.  Bebop and Soul then became “Rock ‘N’ Roll” and “Rhythm and Blues”.  Every generation of Black folk took the culture they were given and tweaked it slightly to fit their modern experience and created something that was both tied to the past and altogether new, and it would serve as the cultural expression of an entire generation, an answer to the question, “Who am I?”.  It continues to change even to this day, serving the needs of young people and giving them power in identity.  African Americans still face many incredible hardships in this country, but after hundreds of years of being owned as property and not being allowed to own anything (including their own culture), they now are able to claim something that belongs to them.  Others try to tear it from them, to mimic and copy and dilute, but it will always be theirs.  It is a point of pride and a way of keeping their community together.

We argue that the Asian American consciousness sits on the cusp of something great.  Here at the turn of the 21st century, we are spiritually in the same place as African Americans were at the turn of the 20th century.  But more and more we are gathering together to create new things, and we are more and more starting to understand our innate power and agency in this country.  A new era of technology is also changing the way we interact with each other and is allowing people to communicate and influence each other from across the nation.  A great cultural shift is happening; and if Asian Americans can accept each other as a community, accept their cultural traditions that they’ve been handed, and can work together as artists and creators, we might see something amazing happen. We might even stop asking the question, “Who am I?” and perhaps even start answering it.  

We might even see a Renaissance of our own.