East Meets Black: Asian and Black Masculinities in the Post–Civil Rights Era by Chong Chon-Smith
In East Meets Black, Chong Chon-Smith traces gendered expressions of Afro-Asian “racial magnetism” within cultural texts of the post–civil rights era. Arguing that the construction of Asian and Black masculinities as opposite poles in a moral hierarchy has been a white supremacist stratagem for managing radical dissent, Chon-Smith highlights instances when this comparative racialization paradigm has faltered, allowing for cross-racial masculine identifications and critique. While most scholarship on Asian American masculinities and Afro-Asian cultural politics prioritizes literary analyses and historical perspectives, Chon-Smith’s book favors a capacious cultural studies approach to theoretical and textual interventions. Through analyzing the celebrity of Asian American professional sports figures and hip-hop performers alongside Asian American literary productions and mainstream Hollywood films, Chon-Smith offers an ambitious, intersectional look at the cultural politics of contemporary Afro-Asian solidarity.
As much scholarship within Asian American studies has shown, the model minority discourse has worked to recuperate visions of the United States as a postracial democracy during an era of intensified antiracist critique. The introduction of East Meets Black returns to the emergence of the model minority myth to show how even early iterations of the discourse pitted black and Asian men against each other. By reading the gender politics of the 1965 Moynihan Report off of William Peterson’s (in)famous 1966 article “Success Story: Japanese American Style,” Chon-Smith explicates academic and governmental investments in constructing Asian and black men into binaries of “brain/body, hardworking/lazy, nerd/criminal” (2–3). This attention to the institutional contexts of cultural production characterizes the entire book, as Chon-Smith highlights how contemporary Afro-Asian solidarities are shaped and constrained by exclusionary U.S. nationalism, state biopolitical regimes, U.S. militarism and cultural imperialism, and neoliberal economics. [End Page 270]
Chapter 1 revisits the history of the Asian American writing movement to examine two anthologies that were published by African American presses and overtly relied on black radicalist rhetoric (Aiiieeee! and Yardbird Reader 3, both published in 1974). Analyzing editorial letters and the books’ prefaces, Chon-Smith argues that Frank Chin’s literary efforts to remake Asian American masculinity relied on a triangulation of Asian American femininity and masculinity with African American masculinity. In a nod to queer theory, he concludes that Chin’s interracial homosociality with black men should be read alongside his well-documented homophobia and failures at intimacy with Asian American women (most famously chronicled in his debates with Maxine Hong Kingston).
Subsequent chapters depart from the literary and examine more recent pop culture texts. In order to explicate the place of baseball player Ichiro Suzuki and basketball star Yao Ming within sports internationalism, chapter 2 provides a genealogy of the gender and racial politics of U.S. professional sports. While the emergence of these two athletes has upset biologically essentialist ideas about physically potent black men versus emasculated Asian men, the profit-driven terms of their celebrity have obscured the radicalism behind the history of racial integration in U.S. professional sports. In a sophisticated amalgamation of theory, Chon-Smith ties together key masculinity studies scholarship with critiques of contemporary U.S. imperialism to argue that the neoliberal reception of Yao and Ichiro marks a transition from overt segregation to a less obviously racist global multiculturalism. In a less tightly constructed argumentative arc, chapter 3 also emphasizes the unstable meanings embedded within texts. Titled “‘I’m Michael Jackson, You Tito,’” this chapter demonstrates that the mainstream Afro-Asian buddy films Rush Hour (1998) and Romeo Must Die (2000) echo anti-imperialist and antiracist Hong Kong martial arts and U.S. blaxploitation films by provisionally allowing for an oppositional gaze. Close readings show the buddies implicitly critiquing white power structures of propertied individualism, exclusionary national manhood, and U.S. cultural imperialism.
The final chapter, “Afro-Asian Rhythms and Rhymes: The Hip-Hop and Spoken Word Lyricists of I Was Born with Two Tongues and the Mountain Brothers,” presents the most youthful and, perhaps consequently, most unreservedly hopeful analysis of intersectional solidarities. Both of these performance groups employ urban, hip-hop, and third world aesthetics to construct oppositional identities. The multiethnic, multiclassed spoken-word group I Was Born with Two Tongues relies on Internet publicity and small venues to reach a majority Asian American audience with their personalized, code-switching critiques of racism, sexism, and imperialism. Signed with Ruff House records, the more mainstream hip-hop group Mountain Brothers deemphasizes racial identity and overtly refuses Orientalist tropes while critiquing market logics within their lyrics. [End Page 271]
East Meets Black uses its handful of cultural texts to interrogate how a variety of institutional settings (e.g., independent publishing houses, corporate sports teams, Hollywood filmmaking, online networks, record companies, etc.) can become provisional and yet powerful spaces for contesting the racist and classist status quo of divide and conquer. While the book will especially appeal to scholars interested in comparative racialization, comparative masculinities, and popular culture, it also speaks to broader conversations about neoliberal political economy and transnational cultural relations. This text is a valuable addition to the literature on Afro-Asian cultural interaction and highlights the need for more research on an always-proliferating archive of contemporary cultural phenomena. Chon-Smith’s incisive transnational analysis of Yaomania, for instance, raises important questions about the marketing of Linsanity and his analysis of Afro-Asian buddy films brings to mind more recent visual texts like Aziz Ansari’s Netflix production Master of None. If it is true, as East Meets Black argues, that Asian American masculinity formations have entered a transitory period, then it is especially important that scholars take heed and expand on his intersectional cultural studies critiques. [End Page 272]
Christina Owens is visiting assistant professor in global and intercultural studies at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio. By focusing on the figure of the native English teacher in contemporary Japan, her current book project queries the intersection of comparative racialization, hegemonic masculinities, and U.S. liberal empire. She has also published in Transformations and American Quarterly.