- Racial Reconstruction: Black Inclusion, Chinese Exclusion, and the Fictions of Citizenship by Edlie L. Wong
Edlie L. Wong's Racial Reconstruction: Black Inclusion, Chinese Exclusion, and the Fictions of Citizenship explores a range of literary texts produced between the 1850s and World War I to show how the processes of racialization of the Chinese diaspora, mainly in the United States, intersected with evolving post-Reconstruction concepts of American citizenship. Wong recovers and examines a variety of largely forgotten literary and journalistic genres about the phenomenon of Chinese immigration to, and presence in, the United States. She threads together the relationships between racializing discourses around African Americans and Chinese residents through an exploration of travel narratives about "coolie" labour in Cuba, journalism exposing white labour's fears in California, apocalyptic Chinese invasion narratives (harbingers of new forms of science fiction), and Chinese and English literary sentimentalism, which protested the treatment of Chinese in the United States and its expanding Pacific empire. Wong's incorporation of transpacific literary forms, including Chinese-language writing, into the corpus of the literature of the United States—which, by extension, would locate American literature in a kind of literature of the Pacific—is one great contribution that this book makes. Employing a highly theorized approach to literary and journalistic texts, Wong's Racial Reconstruction contributes an important chapter to the long, vexed, sad, and complex story of race in America, a story that continues to unfold.
Wong demonstrates the roles that norms and assumptions around labour, religion, and family played in the racializing discourses that generated what Wong calls a "dialectical configuration of black inclusion/Chinese exclusion" (3). This "dialectical configuration" structured arguments around the rights of both African Americans and those characterized as Chinese, wherever they were born or raised. She illuminates the wondrous illogic that permitted men viewed as abject virtual slaves (though of course bound by exploitative contracts) to be seen simultaneously as a looming [End Page 334] threat to the very existence of the (white) United States. She suggests how the characterization of African Americans-no longer susceptible to enslavement but still subordinate-inflected the characterization of Chinese residents as fundamentally unassimilable. She shows the absence of Chinese women-because they were legally excluded from the country-being interpreted as a sign of how very different the Chinese in America were in their approaches to familial relations and thus, again, in their assimilability. Wong weaves into the text the way that the supposed "heathenism" of Chinese residents in the United States also set them apart, and she links this religious angle to refusals to accept indigenous people's claims to American citizenship during the same period. I would have been curious to learn more about whether and how characterizations of people of Spanish and Mexican descent in California and the rest of the Southwest also inflected the racialization of Chinese immigrants and their descendants, in the nation as a whole or in the Southwest. Wong's discussion of journalistic depictions of the purported threat to white labour in California suggests that racialization was at least to some extent region-specific, with newspapers and stories-even if they circulated nationally-being interpreted against a regional or local context.
Wong's discussion of literary forms is punctuated by treatment of legal milestones-cases and statutes-which created intolerable, frequently unstable, and even incomprehensible legal situations not only for migrant Chinese workers but for their American-born children. The literary and the legal were mutually constitutive. The contemporary echoes make these stories even harder to read than they would be if they could be comfortably relegated to the bad old days of the distant past. Relying on a solid base of legal historical scholarship, Wong describes the development of the doctrine that the decisions of immigration officers are not reviewable in courts and that Congress (not the president, it should be noted) has plenary power to make laws to defend the nation, even though this power is not among the enumerated powers that the states, through...