In the midst of the long black freedom struggle, African American military participation in the First World War remains central to civil rights activism and challenges to systems of oppression in the United States. As part of a long and storied tradition of military service for a nation that marginalized and attempted to subjugate a significant portion of US citizens, African American soldiers faced challenges, racism, and segregation during the First World War simultaneously on the home front and the battlefields of France. The generations born since the end of the Civil War continually became more and more militant when resisting Jim Crow and insisting on full, not partial, citizenship in the United States, evidenced by the events in Houston in 1917. Support of the war effort within black communities in the United States was not universal, however, and some opposed participation in a war effort to “make the world safe for democracy” when that same democracy was denied to people of color. Activism by organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) challenged the War Department’s official and unofficial policy, creating avenues for a larger number of black officers in the US Army through the officers’ training camp created in Des Moines, Iowa. For African American soldiers sent to France with the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), the potential for combat experience led to both failures and successes, leading to race pride as in the case of the 93rd Division’s successes, and skewed evidence for the War Department to reject increasing the number of black officers and enlisted in the case of the 92nd Division. All-black Regular Army regiments, meanwhile, either remained in the United States or were sent to the Philippines rather than the battlefields of Europe. However, soldiers’ return home was mixed, as they were both celebrated and rejected for their service, reflected in both parades welcoming them home and racial violence in the form of lynchings between December 1918 and January 1920. As a result, the interwar years and the start of World War II roughly two decades later renewed the desire to utilize military service as a way to influence US legal, social, cultural, and economic structures that limited African American citizenship.
African American Soldiers in World War I
Amanda M. Nagel
Agriculture and Rural Life in the South, 1900–1945
William Thomas Okie
The period from 1900 to 1945 was characterized by both surprising continuity and dramatic change in southern agriculture. Unlike the rest of the nation, which urbanized and industrialized at a rapid pace in the late nineteenth century, the South remained overwhelmingly rural and poor, from the 1880s through the 1930s. But by 1945, the region was beginning to urbanize and industrialize into a recognizably modern South, with a population concentrated in urban centers, industries taking hold, and agriculture following the larger-scale, mechanized trend common in other farming regions of the country. Three overlapping factors explain this long lag followed by rapid transformation. First, the cumulative effects of two centuries of land-extensive, staple crop agriculture and white supremacy had sapped the region of much of its fertility and limited its options for prosperity. Second, in response to this “problem South,” generations of reformers sought to modernize the South, along with other rural areas around the world. These piecemeal efforts became the foundation for the South’s dramatic transformation by federal policy known as the New Deal. Third, poor rural southerners, both black and white, left the countryside in increasing numbers. Coupled with the labor demands created by two major military conflicts, World War I and World War II, this movement aided and abetted the mechanization of agriculture and the depopulation of the rural South.
Agriculture and the Environment
During the Holocene, the present geological epoch, an increasing portion of humans began to manipulate the reproduction of plants and animals in a series of environmental practices known as agriculture. No other ecological relationship sustains as many humans as farming; no other has transformed the landscape to the same extent. The domestication of plants by American Indians followed the end of the last glacial maximum (the Ice Age). About eight thousand years ago, the first domesticated maize and squash arrived from central Mexico, spreading to every region and as far north as the subarctic boreal forest. The incursion of Europeans into North America set off widespread deforestation, soil depletion, and the spread of settlement, followed by the introduction of industrial machines and chemicals. A series of institutions sponsored publically funded research into fertilizers and insecticides. By the late 19th century, writers and activists criticized the technological transformation of farming as destructive to the environment and rural society. During the 20th century, wind erosion contributed to the depopulation of much of the Great Plains. Vast projects in environmental engineering transformed deserts into highly productive regions of intensive fruit and vegetable production. Throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries, access to land remained limited to whites, with American Indians, African Americans, Latinas/os, Chinese, and peoples of other ethnicities attempting to gain farms or hold on to the land they owned. Two broad periods describe the history of agriculture and the environment in that portion of North America that became the United States. In the first, the environment dominated, forcing humans to adapt during the end of thousands of years of extreme climate variability. In the second, institutional and technological change became more significant, though the environment remained a constant factor against which American agriculture took shape. A related historical pattern within this shift was the capitalist transformation of the United States. For thousands of years, households sustained themselves and exchanged some of what they produced for money. But during the 19th century among a majority of American farmers, commodities took over the entire purpose of agriculture, transforming environments to reflect commercial opportunity.
The American Experience during World War II
Michael C. C. Adams
On the eve of World War II many Americans were reluctant to see the United States embark on overseas involvements. Yet the Japanese attack on the U.S. Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, seemingly united the nation in determination to achieve total victory in Asia and Europe. Underutilized industrial plants expanded to full capacity producing war materials for the United States and its allies. Unemployment was sucked up by the armed services and war work. Many Americans’ standard of living improved, and the United States became the wealthiest nation in world history. Over time, this proud record became magnified into the “Good War” myth that has distorted America’s very real achievement. As the era of total victories receded and the United States went from leading creditor to debtor nation, the 1940s appeared as a golden age when everything worked better, people were united, and the United States saved the world for democracy (an exaggeration that ignored the huge contributions of America’s allies, including the British Empire, the Soviet Union, and China). In fact, during World War II the United States experienced marked class, sex and gender, and racial tensions. Groups such as gays made some social progress, but the poor, especially many African Americans, were left behind. After being welcomed into the work force, women were pressured to go home when veterans returned looking for jobs in late 1945–1946, losing many of the gains they had made during the conflict. Wartime prosperity stunted the development of a welfare state; universal medical care and social security were cast as unnecessary. Combat had been a horrific experience, leaving many casualties with major physical or emotional wounds that took years to heal. Like all major global events, World War II was complex and nuanced, and it requires careful interpretation.
American Film from the Silent Era to the “Talkies”
The first forty years of cinema in the United States, from the development and commercialization of modern motion picture technology in the mid-1890s to the full blossoming of sound-era Hollywood during the early 1930s, represents one of the most consequential periods in the history of the medium. It was a time of tremendous artistic and economic transformation, including but not limited to the storied transition from silent motion pictures to “the talkies” in the late 1920s. Though the nomenclature of the silent era implies a relatively unified period in film history, the years before the transition to sound saw a succession of important changes in film artistry and its means of production, and film historians generally regard the epoch as divided into at least three separate and largely distinct temporalities. During the period of early cinema, which lasted about a decade from the medium’s emergence in the mid-1890s through the middle years of the new century’s first decade, motion pictures existed primarily as a novelty amusement presented in vaudeville theatres and carnival fairgrounds. Film historians Tom Gunning and André Gaudreault have famously defined the aesthetic of this period as a “cinema of attractions,” in which the technology of recording and reproducing the world, along with the new ways in which it could frame, orient, and manipulate time and space, marked the primary concerns of the medium’s artists and spectators. A transitional period followed from around 1907 to the later 1910s when changes in the distribution model for motion pictures enabled the development of purpose-built exhibition halls and led to a marked increase in demand for the entertainment. On a formal and artistic level, the period saw a rise in the prominence of the story film and widespread experimentation with new techniques of cinematography and editing, many of which would become foundational to later cinematic style. The era also witnessed the introduction and growing prominence of feature-length filmmaking over narrative shorts. The production side was marked by intensifying competition between the original American motion picture studios based in and around New York City, several of which attempted to cement their influence by forming an oligopolistic trust, and a number of upstart “independent” West Coast studios located around Los Angeles. Both the artistic and production trends of the transitional period came to a head during the classical era that followed, when the visual experimentation of the previous years consolidated into the “classical style” favored by the major studios, and the competition between East Coast and West Coast studios resolved definitively in favor of the latter. This was the era of Hollywood’s ascendance over domestic filmmaking in the United States and its growing influence over worldwide film markets, due in part to the decimation of the European film industry during World War I. After nearly a decade of dominance, the Hollywood studio system was so refined that the advent of marketable synchronized sound technology around 1927 produced relatively few upheavals among the coterie of top studios. Rather, the American film industry managed to reorient itself around the production of talking motion pictures so swiftly that silent film production in the United States had effectively ceased at any appreciable scale by 1929. Artistically, the early years of “the talkies” proved challenging, as filmmakers struggled with the imperfections of early recording technology and the limitations they imposed on filmmaking practice. But filmgoing remained popular in the United States even during the depths of the Great Depression, and by the early 1930s a combination of improved technology and artistic adaptation led to such a marked increase in quality that many film historians regard the period to be the beginning of Hollywood’s Golden Era. With a new voluntary production code put in place to respond to criticism of immorality in Hollywood fare, the American film industry was poised by the early 1930s to solidify its prominent position in American cultural life.
American Food, Cooking, and Nutrition, 1900–1945
Helen Zoe Veit
The first half of the 20th century saw extraordinary changes in the ways Americans produced, procured, cooked, and ate food. Exploding food production easily outstripped population growth in this era as intensive plant and animal breeding, the booming use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and technological advances in farm equipment all resulted in dramatically greater yields on American farms. At the same time, a rapidly growing transportation network of refrigerated ships, railroads, and trucks hugely expanded the reach of different food crops and increased the variety of foods consumers across the country could buy, even as food imports from other countries soared. Meanwhile, new technologies, such as mechanical refrigeration, reliable industrial canning, and, by the end of the era, frozen foods, subtly encouraged Americans to eat less locally and seasonally than ever before. Yet as American food became more abundant and more affordable, diminishing want and suffering, it also contributed to new problems, especially rising body weights and mounting rates of cardiac disease. American taste preferences themselves changed throughout the era as more people came to expect stronger flavors, grew accustomed to the taste of industrially processed foods, and sampled so-called “foreign” foods, which played an enormous role in defining 20th-century American cuisine. Food marketing exploded, and food companies invested ever greater sums in print and radio advertising and eye-catching packaging. At home, a range of appliances made cooking easier, and modern grocery stores and increasing car ownership made it possible for Americans to food shop less frequently. Home economics provided Americans, especially girls and women, with newly scientific and managerial approaches to cooking and home management, and Americans as a whole increasingly approached food through the lens of science. Virtually all areas related to food saw fundamental shifts in the first half of the 20th century, from agriculture to industrial processing, from nutrition science to weight-loss culture, from marketing to transportation, and from kitchen technology to cuisine. Not everything about food changed in this era, but the rapid pace of change probably exaggerated the transformations for the many Americans who experienced them.
American Labor and Working-Class History, 1900–1945
Early 20th century American labor and working-class history is a subfield of American social history that focuses attention on the complex lives of working people in a rapidly changing global political and economic system. Once focused closely on institutional dynamics in the workplace and electoral politics, labor history has expanded and refined its approach to include questions about the families, communities, identities, and cultures workers have developed over time. With a critical eye on the limits of liberal capitalism and democracy for workers’ welfare, labor historians explore individual and collective struggles against exclusion from opportunity, as well as accommodation to political and economic contexts defined by rapid and volatile growth and deep inequality. Particularly important are the ways that workers both defined and were defined by differences of race, gender, ethnicity, class, and place. Individual workers and organized groups of working Americans both transformed and were transformed by the main struggles of the industrial era, including conflicts over the place of former slaves and their descendants in the United States, mass immigration and migrations, technological change, new management and business models, the development of a consumer economy, the rise of a more active federal government, and the evolution of popular culture. The period between 1896 and 1945 saw a crucial transition in the labor and working-class history of the United States. At its outset, Americans were working many more hours a day than the eight for which they had fought hard in the late 19th century. On average, Americans labored fifty-four to sixty-three hours per week in dangerous working conditions (approximately 35,000 workers died in accidents annually at the turn of the century). By 1920, half of all Americans lived in growing urban neighborhoods, and for many of them chronic unemployment, poverty, and deep social divides had become a regular part of life. Workers had little power in either the Democratic or Republican party. They faced a legal system that gave them no rights at work but the right to quit, judges who took the side of employers in the labor market by issuing thousands of injunctions against even nonviolent workers’ organizing, and vigilantes and police forces that did not hesitate to repress dissent violently. The ranks of organized labor were shrinking in the years before the economy began to recover in 1897. Dreams of a more democratic alternative to wage labor and corporate-dominated capitalism had been all but destroyed. Workers struggled to find their place in an emerging consumer-oriented culture that assumed everyone ought to strive for the often unattainable, and not necessarily desirable, marks of middle-class respectability. Yet American labor emerged from World War II with the main sectors of the industrial economy organized, with greater earning potential than any previous generation of American workers, and with unprecedented power as an organized interest group that could appeal to the federal government to promote its welfare. Though American workers as a whole had made no grand challenge to the nation’s basic corporate-centered political economy in the preceding four and one-half decades, they entered the postwar world with a greater level of power, and a bigger share in the proceeds of a booming economy, than anyone could have imagined in 1896. The labor and working-class history of the United States between 1900 and 1945, then, is the story of how working-class individuals, families, and communities—members of an extremely diverse American working class—managed to carve out positions of political, economic, and cultural influence, even as they remained divided among themselves, dependent upon corporate power, and increasingly invested in a individualistic, competitive, acquisitive culture.
American Mass Culture, 1900–1945
The story of mass culture from 1900 to 1945 is the story of its growth and increasing centrality to American life. Sparked by the development of such new media as radios, phonographs, and cinema that required less literacy and formal education, and the commodification of leisure pursuits, mass culture extended its purview to nearly the entire nation by the end of the Second World War. In the process, it became one way in which immigrant and second-generation Americans could learn about the United States and stake a claim to participation in civic and social life. Mass culture characteristically consisted of artifacts that stressed pleasure, sensation, and glamor rather than, as previously been the case, eternal and ethereal beauty, moral propriety, and personal transcendence. It had the power to determine acceptable values and beliefs and define qualities and characteristics of social groups. The constant and graphic stimulation led many custodians of culture to worry about the kinds of stimulation that mass culture provided and about a breakdown in social morality that would surely follow. As a result, they formed regulatory agencies and watchdogs to monitor the mass culture available on the market. Other critics charged the regime of mass culture with inducing homogenization of belief and practice and contributing to passive acceptance of the status quo. The spread of mass culture did not terminate regional, class, or racial cultures; indeed, mass culture artifacts often borrowed them. Nor did marginalized groups accept stereotypical portrayals; rather, they worked to expand the possibilities of prevailing ones and to provide alternatives.
American Radio and Technological Transformation from Invention to Broadcasting, 1900–1945
Michael A. Krysko
Radio debuted as a wireless alternative to telegraphy in the late 19th century. At its inception, wireless technology could only transmit signals and was incapable of broadcasting actual voices. During the 1920s, however, it transformed into a medium primarily identified as one used for entertainment and informational broadcasting. The commercialization of American broadcasting, which included the establishment of national networks and reliance on advertising to generate revenue, became the so-called American system of broadcasting. This transformation demonstrates how technology is shaped by the dynamic forces of the society in which it is embedded. Broadcasting’s aural attributes also engaged listeners in a way that distinguished it from other forms of mass media. Cognitive processes triggered by the disembodied voices and sounds emanating from radio’s loudspeakers illustrate how listeners, grounded in particular social, cultural, economic, and political contexts, made sense of and understood the content with which they were engaged. Through the 1940s, difficulties in expanding the international radio presence of the United States further highlight the significance of surrounding contexts in shaping the technology and in promoting (or discouraging) listener engagement with programing content.
American Urban Planning Since 1850
As places of dense habitation, cities have always required coordination and planning. City planning has involved the design and construction of large-scale infrastructure projects to provide basic necessities such as a water supply and drainage. By the 1850s, immigration and industrialization were fueling the rise of big cities, creating immense, collective problems of epidemics, slums, pollution, gridlock, and crime. From the 1850s to the 1900s, both local governments and utility companies responded to this explosive physical and demographic growth by constructing a “networked city” of modern technologies such as gaslight, telephones, and electricity. Building the urban environment also became a wellspring of innovation in science, medicine, and administration. In 1909–1910, a revolutionary idea—comprehensive city planning—opened a new era of professionalization and institutionalization in the planning departments of city halls and universities. Over the next thirty-five years, however, wars and depression limited their influence. From 1945 to 1965, in contrast, represents the golden age of formal planning. During this unprecedented period of peace and prosperity, academically trained experts played central roles in the modernization of the inner cities and the sprawl of the suburbs. But the planners’ clean-sweep approach to urban renewal and the massive destruction caused by highway construction provoked a revolt of the grassroots. Beginning in the Watts district of Los Angeles in 1965, mass uprisings escalated over the next three years into a national crisis of social disorder, racial and ethnic inequality, and environmental injustice. The postwar consensus of theory and practice was shattered, replaced by a fragmented profession ranging from defenders of top-down systems of computer-generated simulations to proponents of advocacy planning from the bottom up. Since the late 1980s, the ascendency of public-private partnerships in building the urban environment has favored the planners promoting systems approaches, who promise a future of high-tech “smart cities” under their complete control.
Angel Island Immigration Station
Judy Yung and Erika Lee
The Angel Island Immigration Station (1910–1940), located in San Francisco Bay, was one of twenty-four ports of entry established by the U.S. government to process and detain immigrants entering and leaving the country. Although popularly called the “Ellis Island of the West,” the Angel Island station was in fact quite different from its counterpart in New York. Ellis Island was built in 1892 to welcome European immigrants and to enforce immigration laws that restricted but did not exclude European immigrants. In contrast, as the primary gateway for Chinese and other Asian immigrants, the Angel Island station was built in 1910 to better enforce discriminatory immigration policies that targeted Asians for exclusion. Chinese immigrants, in particular, were subjected to longer physical exams, interrogations, and detentions than any other immigrant group. Out of frustration, anger, and despair, many of them wrote and carved Chinese poems into the barrack walls. In 1940, a fire destroyed the administration building, and the immigration station was moved back to San Francisco. In 1963, the abandoned site became part of the state park system, and the remaining buildings were slated for demolition. Thanks to the collective efforts of Asian American activists and descendents of former detainees, the U.S. Immigration Station at Angel Island was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1997, and the immigration site, including the Chinese poetry on the barrack walls, was preserved and transformed into a museum of Pacific immigration for visitors.
Anna May Wong and Asian American Popular Culture
Anna May Wong (January 3, 1905–February 3, 1961) was the first Chinese American movie star and the first Asian American actress to gain international recognition. Wong broke the codes of yellowface in both American and European cinema to become one of the major global actresses of Asian descent between the world wars. She made close to sixty films that circulated around the world and in 1951 starred in her own television show, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, produced by the defunct Dumont Network. Examining Wong’s career is particularly fruitful because of race’s centrality to the motion pictures’ construction of the modern American nation-state, as well as its significance within the global circulation of moving images. Born near Los Angeles’s Chinatown, Wong began acting in films at an early age. During the silent era, she starred in films such as The Toll of the Sea (1922), one of the first two-tone Technicolor films, and The Thief of Baghdad (1924). Frustrated by Hollywood roles, Wong left for Europe in the late 1920s, where she starred in several films and plays, including Piccadilly (1929) and A Circle of Chalk (1929) opposite Laurence Olivier. Wong traveled between the United States and Europe for film and stage work. In 1935 she protested Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s refusal to consider her for the leading role of O-Lan in the Academy Award–winning film The Good Earth (1937). Wong then paid her one and only visit to China. In the late 1930s, she starred in several B films such as King of Chinatown (1939), graced the cover of the mass-circulating American magazine Look, and traveled to Australia. In 1961, Wong died of Laennec’s cirrhosis, a disease typically stemming from alcoholism. Yet, as her legacy shows, for a brief moment a glamorous Chinese American woman occupied a position of transnational importance.
Arab American Literature
Pauline Homsi Vinson
Arab American literature as a category has only become recognized since the 1980s; its origins, however, extend back a century earlier to the 1880s, when writers from Arabic-speaking countries formed literary associations, established printing presses, and participated in a thriving intellectual atmosphere that included literary centers in the United States, Brazil, and Argentina, among other places in the Americas, as well as in Beirut, Damascus, and Cairo. While US-based Arab American literature is heavily enmeshed in the context of its location in the United States, it also intersects with literatures produced in the Americas more broadly and with transnational Arabic literature globally. Prevalent narratives of US–Arab American literature typically divide it into three distinct phases that mirror a wave model of immigration from Arabic-speaking countries to the United States from the 1880s to the early 21st century. A non-linear, and transnational approach to Arab American literature in the United States can yield a layered picture of continuities, breaks, and redirections in Arab American writing, thereby deepening appreciation for the rich history, complex politics, and manifold aesthetics of Arab American literary expression.
Arab American Theater
Arab American theater broadly includes the dramatic works and performances of self-identified Arab Americans, Americans of Arab heritage, and immigrants to the United States from the Arabic-speaking world. Beginning in the late 19th century with the first wave of modern Arab migration to the United States, the tradition evolved from early intellectual dramas written by Mahjar playwrights to 21st century plays that span the gamut of form and genre. Among the most prominent contemporary playwrights of this tradition are Yussef El Guindi, Betty Shamieh, Heather Raffo, and Mona Mansour. Arab American performance also includes popular entertainment such as stand-up comedy and digital media. Arab American theater has been supported by a collection of amateur and professional companies over the years, as well as festival and digital media producers. Their contributions have culminated in a concerted cultural movement in the 21st century that seeks to disrupt misrepresentations of Arabs in American culture with authentic narratives from within the community. The contemporary Arab American theater and performance canon covers topics ranging from immigrant experiences to cross-cultural conflict, political resistance to identity politics, and popular stereotypes to anti-Arab bias in the government and media. The academic study of this tradition has increased in early 21st century and includes works by scholars in the United States and abroad.
Arab Labor Migration in the Americas, 1880–1930
Stacy D. Fahrenthold
Between 1880 and 1924, an estimated half million Arab migrants left the Ottoman Empire to live and work in the Americas. Responding to new economic forces linking the Mediterranean and Atlantic capitalist economies to one another, Arab migrants entered the manufacturing industries of the settler societies they inhabited, including industrial textiles, small-scale commerce (peddling), heavy machining, and migrant services associated with continued immigration from the Middle East. The Ottoman Empire enacted few policies to halt emigration from Syria, Mount Lebanon, and Palestine, instead facilitating a remittance economy that enhanced the emerging cash economies of the Arab world. After 1920, the French Mandate in Syria and Lebanon moved to limit new migration to the Americas, working together with increasingly restrictive immigration regimes in the United States, Argentina, and Brazil to halt Arab labor immigration. Using informal archives, the Arab American press, and the records of diasporic mutual aid and philanthropic societies, new research in Arab American migration illustrates how migrants managed a transnational labor economy and confronted challenges presented by American nativism, travel restriction, and interwar deportations.
Arabs in America
Akram Fouad Khater
Between 1880 and 1940, more than 130,000 Arabs immigrated to the United States as part of the Great Migration of the long 19th century. They lived and worked across the breadth of the United States, fought its many wars, and were engaged in the transformative debates about labor, race, gender, and citizenship that raged throughout this time period. As they struggled to carve out a place in “Amirka” they encountered and fought efforts to racialize them as the uncivilized and undesirable “Other.” Their struggles not only contributed to shaping the United States and its immigration policies, but also confronted them with the conundrum of how to belong: to accept and seek admission into the existing system delineated by race, gender, and class, or to challenge the premises of that system. While there was not a singular response from this diverse community, the majority opted to fight for a place in “white” America even if in return this rendered them a liminal ethnicity.
Relations between the United States and Argentina can be best described as a cautious embrace punctuated by moments of intense frustration. Although never the center of U.S.–Latin American relations, Argentina has attempted to create a position of influence in the region. As a result, the United States has worked with Argentina and other nations of the Southern Cone—the region of South America that comprises Uruguay, Paraguay, Argentina, Chile, and southern Brazil—on matters of trade and economic development as well as hemispheric security and leadership. While Argentina has attempted to assert its position as one of Latin America’s most developed nations and therefore a regional leader, the equal partnership sought from the United States never materialized for the Southern Cone nation. Instead, competition for markets and U.S. interventionist and unilateral tendencies kept Argentina from attaining the influence and wealth it so desired. At the same time, the United States saw Argentina as an unreliable ally too sensitive to the pull of its volatile domestic politics. The two nations enjoyed moments of cooperation in World War I, the Cold War, and the 1990s, when Argentine leaders could balance this particular external partnership with internal demands. Yet at these times Argentine leaders found themselves walking a fine line as detractors back home saw cooperation with the United States as a violation of their nation’s sovereignty and autonomy. There has always been potential for a productive partnership, but each side’s intransigence and unique concerns limited this relationship’s accomplishments and led to a historical imbalance of power.
Asian American Activism
Activism is a defining element of Asian American history. Throughout most of their presence in the United States, Asian Americans have engaged in organized resistance even in the face of violent exclusion and repression. These long histories of activism challenge prevailing notions of the political silence of Asian Americans, which have persisted since the rise of the model minority narrative in the mid-20th century. Examining Asian American history through the lens of activism shows how Asian Americans were not simply acted upon, but were agents in forging their own histories. In the century after the first substantial waves of migration in the 1850s, Asian Americans protested labor conditions, fought for full citizenship rights, and led efforts to liberate their homelands from colonial rule. Activism has been a key part of determining who Asian Americans are—indeed, the term “Asian American” itself was coined in the 1960s as a radical political identity in a movement against racism and imperialism. In the decades since the Asian American movement, “Asian America” has become larger and more diverse. Contemporary Asian American activism reflects the expansiveness and heterogeneity of Asian American communities.
Asian and Asian American Women in the United States before World War II
Asian women, the immigrant generation, entered Hawai’i, when it was a kingdom and subsequently a US territory, and the Western US continent, from the 1840s to the 1930s as part of a global movement of people escaping imperial wars, colonialism, and homeland disorder. Most were wives or picture brides from China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and South Asia, joining menfolk who worked overseas to escape poverty and strife. Women also arrived independently; some on the East Coast. US immigration laws restricting the entry of Asian male laborers also limited Asian women. Asian women were critical for establishing Asian American families and ensuring such households’ survival and social mobility. They worked on plantations, in agricultural fields and canneries, as domestics and seamstresses, and helped operate family businesses, while doing housework, raising children, and navigating cultural differences. Their activities gave women more power in their families than by tradition and shifted gender roles toward more egalitarian households. Women’s organizations, and women’s leadership, ideas, and skills contributed to ethnic community formation. Second generation (US-born) Asian American women grew up in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and negotiated generational as well as cultural differences. Some were mixed race, namely, biracial or multiracial. Denied participation in many aspects of American youth culture, they formed ethnic-based clubs and organizations and held social activities that mirrored mainstream society. Some attended college. A few broke new ground professionally. Asian and Asian American women were diverse in national origin, class, and location. Both generations faced race and gender boundaries in education, employment, and public spaces, and they were active in civic affairs to improve their lives and their communities’ well-being. Across America, they marched, made speeches, and raised funds to free their homelands from foreign occupation and fought for racial and gender equality in the courts, workplaces, and elsewhere.
Black Girlhood in 20th-Century America
Examining American history through the lens of black girlhood underscores just how thoroughly childhood everywhere is not “natural” but depends heavily on its social construction. Furthermore, ideas about childhood innocence are deeply racialized and gendered. At the end of Reconstruction, African Americans lost many of the social and political gains achieved after the Civil War. This signaled the emergence of Jim Crow, placing many blacks in the same social, political, and economic position that they occupied before freedom. Black girls who came of age in the 20th century lived through Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, Black Power, and the rise of the New Right. Moreover, black girls in the 20th century inherited many of the same burdens that their female ancestors carried—especially labor exploitation, criminalization, and racist notions of black sexuality—which left them vulnerable to physical, emotional, and sexual violence. In short, black girls were denied the childhood protections that their white counterparts possessed. If fights for cultural representation, economic justice, equal access to education, and a more just legal system are familiar sites of black struggle, then examining black girlhood reveals much about the black freedom movement. Activists, parents, and community advocates centered black girls’ struggles within their activism. Black girls were also leaders within their own right, lending their voices, bodies, and intellect to the movement. Their self-advocacy illustrates their resistance to systemic oppression. However, resistance in the more obvious sense—letter writing, marching, and political organizing—are not the only spaces to locate black girls’ resistance. In a nation that did not consider black children as children, their pursuit of joy and pleasure can also be read as radical acts. The history of 20th-century black girlhood is simultaneously a history of exclusion, trauma, resilience, and joy.