Ronald Takaki’s A Different Mirror
Dr. Ronald Takaki, a professor in the Ethnic Studies Department at the University of California, Berkeley, describes America’s immigrant history from the perspective of the minority group in the time period from Colonial America to the Los Angeles riots of 1992 (the year before the book was published).
The author examines the historical experiences of different immigrant groups upon arrival in America, their reasons and expectations for coming, and the impact of such immigrations upon the Native American tribes who were already living in America and thought they possessed the land.
The groups discussed include African Americans, Chinese, Japanese and other Southeast Asians, Irish, European Jews, and Hipics, each of whom tended to originally settle in different parts of the country and perform different types of work that was available. This is an enormous undertaking in a book of 428 pages.
The book is extremely useful to both readers and teachers through its explanation of the reasons ethnic groups immigrated into the parts of the country in which each settled. For example, Chinese immigrants were usually husbands with wives and children left in China to ensure the men would continue to send money home.
The site of immigration often determined the available work and jobs. The Chinese came to the West Coast and became railroad workers, virtually building the Central Pacific Railroad in 1869 and uniting the country. Then they went into the agricultural industry of California and into small businesses requiring a minimal cash outlay to start. By the 1850’s, the Chinese quarter of San Francisco existed with small stores, Chinese societies and traditions, and gangs.
The Japanese family unit migrated because the Japanese government encouraged this means of maintaining Japan’s national honor. Most came with wives or imported them to work in businesses as unpaid family labor. The Japanese, being 2% of California’s population, were disliked but incorporated into a paternalistic, racial hierarchy, where they also helped to build the railroad, became farmers, and worked in canneries.
Since the book is written from the ethnic groups’ perspective, the leaders of the United States, being primarily Caucasian men whose opinions reflected those of the times, often appear short-sighted and ignorant of the consequences of their actions.
Dr. Takaki is particularly harsh on Benjamin Franklin, Andrew Jackson, and Thomas Jefferson, all fairly well regarded during their lives. He also omits important women in American history, except for writers. The first woman mentioned is Phyllis Wheatly, an African American poetess of the Colonial Era.
There were other important women in that era, as discussed in Our Founding Mothers, by Cokie Roberts. He also does not mention any of the women involved in the Abolitionist Movement, the Women’s Suffrage Movement, or any other women’s movement. Towards the end of the book, he mentions several female writers and their works, including Gloria Anzaldua, Gloria Steinem, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison, all cultural minority writers.
There are no stereotypes. The settings of the book are authentic and describe in detail the way the minorities lived, the areas in which they lived, and the work they did. Dr. Takaki discusses in detail the immigration of European Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe as refugees from the Pale, a part of Russia set apart for them, who could not return to their homelands without being killed.
The Jews were typically educated, had middle class values, worked hard, and were socioeconomic mobile. Their skin was white, they spoke English, and most changed their names to fit into existing American culture. They settled primarily on the East Coast and started work in the garment industry and opened small shops.
All made certain that their children were well-educated and did not have to work at such menial positions. African-Americans began as slaves in the original American colonies. The author mentions several famous Abolitionist men – Frederick Douglas, John Brown and Martin Delany (the leading Black Nationalist of the 19th Century, who was admitted to Harvard Medical School and told he would have to practice in Africa).
He discusses how World War I created a labor shortage when European immigration was closed, creating a need for African-Americans to migrate to the northern cities where work and housing was plentiful. The Harlem Renaissance he dismisses as imagined (page 357) by the white intellectuals.
He mentions some individual African Americans of significance including Marcus Garvey (who wanted to establish a Black nation in Africa); Adam Clayton Powell (Congressman); and Zora Neal Hurston (author of Their Eyes Were Watching God).
Dr. Takaki’s discussion of the Hipic revolution is sketchy. Part of California was settled by upper class Spaniards who created their own hierarchy by ranking darkening skin color, with pure Indians and laborers being on the bottom. There is so much information available on how badly the government treated the Native Americans that his discussion of this material was brief by necessity.