- American History Unbound: Asians and Pacific Islanders. by Gary Y. Okihiro
Gary Okihiro provides us a provocative history textbook that defies traditional narratives of American history as starting with British colonies on the eastern seaboard and then expanding westward, from sea-to-shining-sea. By foregrounding the experiences of Asians and Pacific Islanders (contemporary analytical categories, he concedes), American History Unbound shows how studying Oceanic worlds broadens our understanding of how a world-system of goods and labor has spanned the globe for centuries. One cannot view American history within the narrow bounds of a national history, exceptional and isolated from the rest of the world.
Like the late Tongan anthropologist Epeli Hau‘ofa, Okihiro challenges continental-bound perspectives that privilege large landmasses over islands, thus underestimating the importance of Oceanic worlds. “Land and water form continuities, not separations”, he argues, and “oceans are extensions of lived, worked, and imagined spaces.” (p. 25) Rather than solely focusing on the Atlantic world and its slave trade, Okihiro explains how the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean worlds brought a variety of Asian and Pacific Islander mariners and migrants who journeyed to—and through—points in North America, even before the founding of the United States. By integrating the histories of South Asians, Native Hawaiians, and other Pacific Islanders (mainly through discussing the U.S. colonization and militarization of Guam and American Samoa) Okihiro surpasses older Asian American historical narratives that focused mostly on the experiences of Chinese, Japanese, and Filipinos. In retelling the lesser known histories of early Native Hawaiian travelers to New England (like Henry ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia, who in part, inspired Christian missionaries to go to Hawai‘i) and the variety of Chinese, Filipino, and Asian [End Page 151] Indian soldiers who fought in the U.S. Civil War, Okihiro shows that these were not merely curious stories, but ones rooted in larger currents of migration affected by missionary, mercantile, and labor activities.
Okihiro is transparent about how he has shaped his overall narrative, drawing readers into a discussion of historiography—the theory and writing of history. He shows how racial taxonomies developed over the centuries and how the deploying of these categories was part of a process of empire building and colonization. The United States developed as an imperial republic where matters of race, labor status, and citizenship were intertwined. Geographic location also affected the parameters of social interactions, the need for labor, and the availability of natural resources and market goods. Okihiro shows how migration for agricultural work in Hawai‘i and California was common, but when the U.S. became a more industrialized society, Asians—like African Americans and other groups—moved to urban areas like San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, and New York. In discussing Asian American experiences in the Pacific Northwest, Midwest, Northeast, and South (all spatial constructs), Okihiro synthesizes recent scholarship and lesser-known historical data that he lists in suggested readings and concise chronologies for every chapter.
Uneven sex ratios in various geographic areas led to intermarriages between Hawaiian men and Native American women in the Pacific Northwest, between Punjabi men and Mexican women in rural California, and between Chinese men and white or African American women in New York City. Those of mixed Asian ancestry were sometimes recorded as “black” in government documents—and from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century, Asians were routinely seen legally as “aliens ineligible for citizenship”. Racialized as neither white nor of “African descent” (as specified in the revised 1790 Naturalization Act), first-generation Asians often lacked potent political power. It was not until the World War II era that second-generation children born on U.S. soil came of age and wielded the legal advantages of citizenship and the right to vote.
Nearly every war that the U.S. has fought since the late 19th century has involved Asian or Pacific places as well as Asian and Pacific Islander combatants. Okihiro emphasizes that wars create realignments, as seen for example, in...