This blog post is the fifth in a series that features the Connecting Communities Digital Initiative (CCDI) Junior Fellows from the Library’s 2023 Junior Fellows program. These posts highlight each fellow and the projects they developed. CCDI funded six interns in this year’s virtual 10-week program. CCDI is part of the Library’s Mellon-funded Of the People: Widening the Path initiative.
This summer, CCDI’s Junior Fellows created guides that examine Library collections and demonstrate how to use those collections to develop creative projects such as zines, textiles, and collages. They explored topics that ranged from Black and Asian American activism, to the LGBTQ+ Latinx movement, to community-based collaborations, to art and expressive culture, including Asian textiles and African American hair history. As part of their work, they interviewed Library staff and other users to discuss their research topics and to learn more about the Library’s collections.
This guest post, written by Olivia Hewang, a 2023 CCDI Junior Fellow, introduces her project, “Identity and Solidarity: Asian American Activism in the 1960s and 70s.” Olivia is a sophomore at Wellesley College, double majoring in History and Economics.
You can read her guide here.
As part of CCDI’s Junior Fellow cohort this summer, I created a user guide on the topic of Asian American activism in the 1960s and 70s, focused on intersectionality and targeted at modern day activists and artists.
When I started this internship, I knew I wanted to focus on Asian American identity and representation, but as I began to dig deeper, I came across an era of Asian American history that was completely new to me. It was the history of radical Asian American activism and self-determination—an Asian American movement that was born out of the Civil Rights, Anti-Vietnam War and Black Power Movements. It became clear that this was an intrinsically intersectional history of activism.
I am a second generation Chinese-American who grew up surrounded by other children of foreign-born parents, so I rarely encountered Asian Americans whose families’ histories in America stretched generations back. I was intrigued by the idea of exploring a shared history that we are all intrinsically tied to as Asian Americans, no matter our generation. In a way, this experience has been a crash course of Asian American history for me, and I couldn’t be more grateful.
In 1968, Asian Americans of many ethnicities joined together under a pan-Asian political identity, rejecting being labeled as a model minority or Orientals. The movement was coalitional at its core as Asian Americans aligned themselves with other “Third World” minority groups to resist oppression and racism in America and abroad. Radical activist groups, many inspired by Black Power, decried global U.S. capitalism and imperialism. Artists and activists expressed themselves through alternative publications and launched the first major Asian American magazines and artist collectives.
My hope is that today’s Asian Americans, especially young people like me, can feel connected to a rich history of activism and have a greater understanding and appreciation for the origin story of how “Asian Americans” came to be, as an identity that we chose for ourselves.
While much of the conversation around Asian American representation nowadays focuses on gaining visibility in mainstream media, I find it is also important to illuminate the legacy of Asian Americans’ unapologetically radical activism. Their stories are highly effective in smashing the stereotype of Asian Americans as model minority citizens who are stereotyped as passive, obedient and politically apathetic bystanders.
These threads in the Asian American Movement feel especially relevant now. In the last few years, we saw a new generation of Asian Americans rise up in a new wave of activism in reaction to the racism, xenophobia and violent attacks targeted at Asian American Pacific Islanders in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Asian Americans continue to grapple with questions of identity and belonging, resist the model minority myth and wrestle with issues of anti-Blackness within the community.
This guide will celebrate the work done by past generations who built up communities and affinity groups, created support systems and laid valuable groundwork for future activism. I hope today’s artists, activists and coalition builders can be inspired by this history of intersectional collaboration.
Challenges of the process
The primary sources featured in my guide, created by and for Asian Americans, are especially significant as embodiments of self-determination. Historical materials in archives about Asian Americans are often records produced by white people, and too often are racist portrayals, in language and imagery. Spotlighting and using community created materials celebrates the individuals who pushed back and proudly took up space through creative expression.
As I researched in the Library’s Digital Collections however, I struggled with a lack of Asian American materials generally and resources on Asian American activism specifically. As my time period of the late 1960s and 70s is more recent, many holdings are copyright restricted and not digitized. Much of the Asian American Pacific Islander Collection has not yet been digitized. As much of this activism was centered on the West Coast, especially the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles, many West Coast institutions such as UC Berkeley have a more concentrated collection on local protests, organizations and individuals. Therefore, one of my main challenges of this project was balancing Library resources and external archives that hold collections specific to my topic. I tried to place the Library and external archives in conversation. Broadening my focus to include the interracial, coalitional activism of the time also enabled me to play to the Library’s collections’ strengths, for example in African American history.
As I dug deeper into the digital collections, I was delighted to find more materials, including these images: on the left is a series of artworks produced by the Basement Workshop, one of the earliest Asian American artist collectives; while the posters on the right represent the major protests to save the International Hotel, which housed elders in San Francisco Manilatown.
I was able to find these images by narrowing down my search terms to be hyper-specific: note that the images on the right are tagged as “Filipino American” but not “Asian American”. I found the artworks on the left by searching for the publisher “Basement Workshop” specifically. These artworks were not tagged by ethnicity at all, as the Library usually does not tag by artists’ or creators’ identity. I was able to supplement these findings with primary sources on interracial solidarity, for example with images of prominent Black Panther leaders who impacted the movement.
Another major challenge was copyright restrictions. Because many of these 1960s and 70s images are more recent and rights-restricted, I had to pivot from my initial goal of providing open access primary sources for artists and activists to directly reuse.
My hope is that learning about this history and seeing these images will inspire artists, activists and Asian Americans in some way, whether that is creating art, building cross-cultural coalitions, or finding community.
Check out Olivia’s guide here!
CCDI is part of the Library’s Of the People: Widening the Path program with support from the Mellon Foundation. This four-year program provides financial and technical support to individuals, institutions and organizations to create imaginative projects using the Library’s digital collections and centering one or more of the following groups: Black, Indigenous, Hispanic/Latinx, Asian American and Pacific Islander, and other communities of color from any of the 50 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, and its territories and commonwealths (Puerto Rico, Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, American Samoa, U.S. Virgin Islands). Learn more about CCDI here.