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Friday, December 8, 2017

December 8, 2017: Reconstruction Figures: Yung Wing?

[December 9th marks the 145th anniversary of P.B.S. Pinchback assuming the Louisiana governorship, making him the first African American governor in U.S. history. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five figures from the Reconstruction era, leading up to a special post on Pinchback himself!]
On whether and how to remember the pioneering educator as a Reconstruction figure.
If Yung Wing isn’t the American historical figure about whom I’ve written the most in my career to date—in this space, in numerous public scholarly pieces elsewhere, and in a chapter of my third book, among other places—he’s definitely on the short list. As a result, I’ve considered him through a pretty wide variety of lenses, including Chinese and Asian American histories, the histories of immigration, immigration law, and diversity in America, how we can better remember a historic site and story like those of Hartford’s Chinese Educational Mission, and the concept of critical patriotism. But even though that Chinese Educational Mission opened in 1872—and even though, as I wrote earlier in the week, the Reconstruction period as a whole focused a good deal on education and its interconnections with cultural and social progress—I’ve never before thought at length about whether that crucial part of Yung’s life and career could or should be linked to Reconstruction in any meaningful way.
My initial instinct, on multiple levels, is to say that it shouldn’t be. Just because an event happens at a particular time doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s related to others from the same time, or even to overarching histories and narratives in that period. More specifically, Reconstruction’s overarching histories focused on the myriad aftermaths of both the Civil War and slavery; while Chinese Americans did fight in the Civil War, including a pair of slave-owning conjoined twins who fought for the Confederacy, I would nonetheless argue that the war did not change Chinese American communities and histories in any specific or promiment way (no more than it did the entirety of the nation, at least). To put it another way, Reconstruction’s efforts and questions were closely intertwined with a particular cultural community, African Americans; linking the period to Chinese Americans would seem perilously close to assuming that all Americans of color are necessarily parallel to one another. Moreover, one of the era’s most significant national laws, the Naturalization Act of 1870 (an extension of the 14th Amendment’s concept of “birthright citizenship”), overtly excluded Asian Americans from its purview, an explicit attempt to highlight the law’s more narrow application to African Americans (especially those born into slavery).
The complex histories comprised by that last sentence can also be read another way, however. It’s entirely possible to see the Reconstruction period as centrally defined by debates and battles over who has full membership in an American community, along with concurrent questions such as how to move particular communities toward such equality. Those debates and questions were certainly particularly salient and fraught when it came to African Americans, but similar tensions and challenges could also be present for other communities, including former Confederates but also other cultural groups such as Asian Americans. Moreover, if education was one of the most consistently advocated paths to African American equality and progress, then Yung’s Chinese Educational Mission might well be seen as a concurrent Reconstruction-era effort to create an educational institution that could help another cultural community become more fully and equally part of America. And moreover moreover, the opposition to the CEM that became part of the move toward the Chinese Exclusion Act could thus be read as parallel to the (nationwide) resurgence of white supremacy that contributed so mightily to the failure of Reconstruction. All of which is to say, broadening our vision of Reconstruction to include Yung and the CEM doesn’t have to mean forgetting or minimizing any other histories, and could even help us understand another layer to them.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other Reconstruction figures or stories you’d highlight?

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