Topics for Inclusion: Suggestions for Adding AAPI Histories

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Last week in his blog post “History of Violence in the Chinese Community” my Macmillan Community colleague Steven Huang emphasized the importance of studying the historical origins of the anti-Asian violence that we have seen dramatically increase since the start of the COVID-19 Pandemic. In particular, Steven encourages us to listen to the voices of Asian-American people across the United States as we search for a more comprehensive approach to anti-racism. 


I’ve been particularly struck by the increased media attention on anti-Asian violence because so many of the students at the community college where I teach identify as Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI). In my US History II survey class we study the nineteenth-century origins of anti-Chinese and anti-Japanese sentiment in the western part of the United States. Students in the course have researched Angel Island and Japanese Picture Brides for their independent projects, and the centerpiece of our discussion of World War II is the internment of people of Japanese descent from 1942-1945. And yet, there is so much more that we could/should be covering to gain a more complete picture of the history of AAPI people in the United States.


It stands to reason, then, that many of us who teach US history need to increase the presence of AAPI in our survey courses. Here are some web-based resources that I have found useful:


A great place to start the search for new material to share with students is Elizabeth Kleinrock’s article “After Atlanta: Teaching About Asian American Identity and History” (Learning for Justice, 17 March 2021). “I can’t change the past...” Kleinrock writes, “But what I can do in this moment is direct these emotions into action to take one step towards ensuring that no Asian child is called ‘Kung-flu’ by a classmate and that my students will not grow up to harass and attack people of Asian descent on the street.” Kleinrock shares the results from having surveyed her students about their knowledge of Asian Americans after the Atlanta attack, and then identifies materials that can help begin the conversation about AAPI history in the classroom.


Numerous government historical repositories including the Library of Congress and the National Archives are hosting a joint web site for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. In addition to finding links to videos from the Smithsonian’s historical collections, teachers and students can access numerous primary sources and lesson plans on such topics as the annexation of Hawaii, immigration, and exclusion. 


The University of Southern California library system has developed an extensive digital finding aid for primary sources related to AAPI. In addition to print sources and dozens of photographs, the site contains images of artifacts found as the result of archeological digs in California. Students will be fascinated to see the items retrieved from the site of a former Chinese laundry (circa 1880-1933), among other interesting pieces of social and cultural history. 


Any conversation about the history of immigration to the United States is incomplete without discussion of Angel Island, the Pacific Coast’s point of entry from 1910 to 1940. It has been my experience that the majority of college students have no idea that immigrants entered the country through any place but Ellis Island (New York). The Angel Island Immigration Foundation site documents a period when people from Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Canada, South America, Russia, Asia and the Pacific Islands sought entry to the United States through the island off of San Francisco. Immigration restrictions placed on people of Asian descent made the process extremely complex and stressful in these years, and Angel Island served as a location at which authorities could separate the immigrants by nationality to prevent the entry of “excluded” people.


A simple Google search for AAPI-related historical materials will lead to many more open resources -- what I’m offering in this blog is merely a starting point. It is critical that we convey to students that any discussion of race/racism must include the challenges faced by the AAPI communities throughout our national history. The willingness to include these groups in our course curriculum is a great way to start students on the path to deeper understanding.


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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.