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  • Rethinking the Center from the Margins
  • K. Scott Wong (bio)
Margins and Mainstreams: Asians in American History and Culture. By Gary Y. Okihiro. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994. 203 pages. $25.00 (cloth). $12.95 (paper).

Since the 1968–1969 Third World Strike at Francisco State College and University of California-Berkeley, when Asian American studies emerged as part of the political/educational agenda of Ethnic studies, the field has attained a fair degree of respectability and maturity. 1 A number of universities and colleges now offer courses in Asian American studies, a variety of English department courses often include Asian American literature, and most recently, the University of California, Santa Barbara has established the nation’s first Asian American studies department. In addition, the Association for Asian American Studies (AAAS) has grown into a nationally recognized academic association with an annual meeting, and the AAAS regularly sponsors a panel at the yearly American Studies Association conference. The maturity of the field, in terms of published scholarly work, was exemplified with the publication of Ronald Takaki’s Strangers From a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans (1989) and Sucheng Chan’s Asian Americans: An Interpretive History (1991). These two survey texts of Asian American history marked the point at which enough research had already been published to warrant and sustain the writing of two synthetic, yet interpretive, studies of the histories of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, and South and Southeast Asian Americans. Utilizing primary and secondary sources, these two scholars summed up a whole generation of Asian American historical studies and thus provided the field with standards by which future synthetic historical work in the field will be measured. With [End Page 415] the publication of Margins and Mainstreams: Asians in American History and Culture, Asian American studies has been advanced again by Gary Okihiro’s adept blending of history, literature, sociology, and cultural studies, all of which come together to provide a provocative and insightful reading of the Asian American experience and how it fits into the larger themes of American history, Ethnic studies, American studies, and contemporary debates on what it means to be an “American.”

This book is made up of six chapters, each originally presented as lectures (printed here with slight modification) at Amherst College in the spring of 1992 during Okihiro’s tenure there as the John J. McCloy ‘16 Professor of American Institutions and International Relations (Okihiro is an associate professor of history and director of the Asian American studies program at Cornell University). As he mentions in the preface, these lectures were written and presented during a time of cultural debates. During this period, there was a “fervent and oftentimes heated debate about the idea of a mainstream, about the core of American history and culture, about intellectual ‘ghettoization’ and ethnic ‘balkanization’“ (ix). Thus with debates of this nature in the background, these lectures take up the issues of where and when Asian Americans enter and become part of the larger American cultural and historical landscape. There is also a bittersweet irony that these lectures were commissioned by the John J. McCloy Distinguished Visiting Professorship. During the Second World War, McCloy served as the Assistant Secretary of War (and later as the High Commissioner to Germany and the president of the World Bank) and was a staunch supporter of the wartime internment of Japanese nationals and Japanese Americans. Okihiro, one of the foremost historians of Japanese America, must have relished the opportunity to deliver these lectures under the auspices of McCloy’s legacy. 2

A general theme that reappears throughout these lectures is the contention that

the core values and ideals of the nation emanate not from the mainstream but from the margins—from among Asian and African Americans, Latinos and American Indians, women, and gays and lesbians. In their struggles for equality, these groups have helped preserve and advance the principles and ideals of democracy and have thereby made America a freer place for all.


Viewing American history in this way requires a recentering of our perspectives. Herein lies the book’s main contribution to the currrent discourse about race and ethnicity, gender studies, American studies, and [End Page...

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