In a little less than two weeks, my son’s fourth-grade class will visit a historic site called the Eight Square Schoolhouse in Dryden, New York. Designed by a local carpenter and built in 1827, it is the only octagonal schoolhouse still standing in New York State. It was used as a school for some 114 years, and the building’s significance, I’m told, lies in its shape. Octagonal buildings were thought to be sturdier, possess better ventilation, provide more interior space and allow for the teacher to be the focus of the students’ attention to a greater degree.
But, for my son’s field trip, quite aside from appreciating architectural history and theories of pedagogy, the goal will be for the kids to exercise their historical imaginations. Although I don’t know why those who created the curriculum lit on the particular year, we’ve been asked to imagine that it is 1892. Students are encouraged to dress the part and even to bring lunches with foodstuffs to which schoolchildren in 1892 would’ve had access.
I’m a historian, and I’m all for encouraging kids to engage with the past. But as someone who studies the Asian American past – especially the late-nineteenth century – I’m also well aware that my son – whose last name is Chang – would’ve encountered challenges or obstacles that the field trip’s curriculum will not touch upon. In 1892, the US Congress passed the Geary Act, renewing the Chinese Exclusion Act, which, ten years earlier, had become the nation’s first immigration legislation to target a specific national group.
The original 1882 law specifically barred, for a period of ten years, the entrance of Chinese laborers and miners. Non-laboring Chinese – usually defined as “merchants” – were required to obtain documentation from the Chinese government attesting to their “class” and thus demonstrating that they qualified for legal entrance to the US. Chinese without proper documentation – or laborers who entered the US illegally – were subject to imprisonment and deportation. The coup de grace of the legislation was the prohibition of naturalized citizenship. While laborers may have been the sole class excluded from entrance, all entering Chinese would be barred from becoming US citizens.
Between 1882 and 1892, Congress tightened the legislation in a number of ways – to apply the law to all ethnic Chinese no matter what the country of origin and to prohibit the reentry of Chinese after leaving the US, for example. Yet, when legislators passed the Geary Act, they saw fit not only to renew the Exclusion Act but to take the surveillance and controls over the Chinese population even further. The 1892 law required that Chinese residents in the US possess “certificates of residence” to document that they had entered the US legally and, therefore, had a right to be in the country. The burden of proof rested squarely on the shoulders of the Chinese in the US, and failure to meet it resulted in arrest, detention, denial of bail during habeas corpus hearings, a penalty of hard labor and deportation. By shifting the burden of proof to Chinese residents (indeed, one needed a certificate of residence and the corroborating testimony of at least two white witnesses), Chinese in the US were vulnerable not just to acts of violence, as many were in their everyday lives, but to racial profiling by the state.
I considered ignoring this shameful moment in the nation’s past and merely playing along with my son’s assignment. I was looking forward to going on the field trip and trying to embrace the challenge of historical imagination. Then Arizona passed and Gov. Jan Brewer signed its recent immigration act. The law requires police to detain people they suspect are in the country without authorization and to verify with federal officials the residency status of those they suspect. It also makes it a crime for immigrants to be without their papers. Sound familiar?
Still, I must admit that I was tempted to skip a discussion of Arizona’s folly with my son, too. He’s only ten after all. Yet, on May 1, he and I walked six blocks from our home to downtown Ithaca to join a rally of local people and students from Cornell University and Ithaca College protesting the law. The gathering was just one of a whole host of rallies held nationwide to demonstrate solidarity with Latinos and immigrants in Arizona and elsewhere and to protest the new law.
Being reasonably curious about and certainly suspicious of my motives (he’d rather have been playing Wii, I’m sure), my son inquired as to why we were going. We’re going, I explained, because of this new law in Arizona. I told him how it makes use of one of the many pernicious logics of racism – the idea that someone’s physical features are indicative of some other trait – to make immigrants from Latin America and all Latinos vulnerable to harassment and imprisonment. I said that, more than a hundred years ago, during the time he is studying about in school, a similar law targeted Chinese. And if that law were still around, his grandparents, his father, his aunts and uncles, his cousins, perhaps even his sister and he himself would be subjected to the same sort of capricious and violent acts of the state – questioning, arrest, detention, imprisonment, deportation. I explained that people are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, but that the Arizona law used race to undermine this principle and that good government should protect – not threaten – people. And I said that the Chinese Exclusion Act had been rehearsed by a single state some ten years before the national government took up the issue, so it was vitally important that even people in New York State protest the law in Arizona.
My son hasn’t studied much Asian American history, but he knows that his grandparents and his cousins were born in China; he knows that his father’s family is Chinese, and he knows that some of his classmates are Latino. But it nonetheless made my ears perk up when he asked, somewhat incredulously, “So L—— and Y—— could be arrested for no real reason?” And I really started to listen when he said, “Is this kind of like what happened during World War II when they put Japanese people in camps?” And I thought I might fall over when he asked, “Was this what Martin Luther King and those people in Selma were marching about?”
My first reaction was to want to write thank you notes to his teachers. But it also made me appreciate the power of history – and particularly the kind of history that is currently under siege in yet another piece of Arizona legislation. The bill – H.B. 2281 – has passed both houses of the state legislature, and is now awaiting approval from Governor Brewer. Among other things, it would make illegal any courses or classes that “promote resentment toward a race or class of people” and “advocate ethnic solidarity.” The penalty would be the withholding of state funds. In the words of the bill’s author, state Superintendent of Education Tom Horne, the intent is “to prohibit ethnic studies in Arizona public schools.”
Forget for a moment about academic freedom. Forget for a moment even the problem of what might constitute “resentment toward a race or class of people” or how one might define “ethnic solidarity.” My point here is merely that an ethnic studies education – one that examines, especially, the relationships among race, the nation and power – elucidates the very kinds of connections that my son was making. As we made our way to the rally, he and I engaged in – practiced – comparative ethnic studies. And the connections we both made as we compared various uses of racism, nationalism and state power – Chinese Exclusion, the Jim Crow South, Japanese internment, draconian immigration laws in Arizona – led us to stark conclusions about the nation’s past and its present. Our comparisons illuminated America’s white supremacist past and drew a direct line to the present legislature and governor in Arizona.
From this perspective it is no surprise that the State of Arizona would try to pass its education bill – censorship legislation, really – in the wake of its immigration law. Under the educational regime prescribed by H.B. 2281, my son and I were potentially guilty of “promoting resentment toward a race.” Although I’m not sure “resentment” is the right word, I’m fairly certain we had America’s white supremacist past and its resonances in Arizona dead to rights. And we were certainly establishing the foundations for, if not ethnic, then pan-ethnic and pan-racial solidarity. My son saw the necessity of understanding the similar social and political positions of blacks in the Jim Crow South, Chinese under exclusion, Japanese Americans during World War II and Latinos in the present-day Southwest.
I was inspired by the rally, but, ultimately for my ten-year old boy, it was all a bit boring. When he discovered that the local comic book store around the corner was giving away free stuff, his attention waned. Fair enough. Our conversation on the walk to the rally was enough hard work for the day. He had made those connections and learned something about Arizona and about America. And our conversation helped me make sense of the education bill, which I had heard about only a few hours earlier, as an attempt to censor dissent. To seek justice requires us first to recognize injustice. This is the very dynamic that banning ethnic studies is designed to eliminate.
I’m not sure what – if anything – my son will do with this experience. I do know that I’ll accompany his class to the Eight Square Schoolhouse. I may even wear denim overalls. And I know that, as we imagine ourselves in 1892, we’ll be a little less secure that the past is, in fact, past.