Mirror of the Face of America
Robert Takaki’s book A Different Mirror is a history of the people of the nation of America. The book is not, however, a history of America that a reader might expect when he or she first opens an introductory text. The subtitle of A Different Mirror is A History of Multicultural America. The book attempts to give a fuller history of America. It tries to give a fuller history of the America of nationalities such as the Native Indian peoples of America, African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Japanese-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Irish-Americans, and of the people of the Jewish religion in America. By telling the different stories of these different groups, Robert Takaki demonstrates that more conventional American history books are incomplete. The history of A Different Mirror is not simply the history of many different American groups — it is a more complete history of America itself. The book shows that America is a nation founded by immigrants, rather than a nation dominated by one White people and one White face or image.
Robert Takaki begins his book on a personal level, explaining how on one day he had traveled from San Francisco to Norfolk, Virginia “and was riding in a taxi to my hotel to attend a conference on multiculturalism” when his White, forty-something taxi driver complimented him on his excellent English. Takaki was surprised. His Japanese grandfather came to America in the 1880s! Of the many European immigrants, Takaki reminds the reader, although he did not remind the taxi driver at the time of his journey, that Asians and Africans make up large numbers of individuals who emigrated to the United States during the 19th century — of which his own ancestor was one of that proud number, yearning to breathe free! (2) Of course, Takaki’s English was excellent — it was the only language he spoke! But because of his Japanese appearance, the White, Southern taxi driver assumed that Takaki was a recent immigrant from Japab, even in the year of 1993, when A Different Mirror was written.
This incident is funny and truthful on a number of levels. On one hand, it underlines the taxi driver’s racism and assumptions about what an American must look like to be an American. Also, Takaki is headed, in the Deep American South to a conference on multiculturalism, while experiencing discrimination himself as a Japanese-American. And finally, the presence of Indian names such as the Powhatan River in the Virginia where the conference is located reminds Takaki (and should remind his driver) that as Asian and White Americans, they are both strangers in a strange land, originally named by Indian peoples. Neither man can lay claim to being a pure American. And the fact that both Takaki and the driver are in Virginia, a colony named for the Virgin Queen by the English explorer Walter Raleigh, also shows that “indigenous people themselves” would become “strangers in their own land,” as Indian names of states were replaced by English names.
Despite this multicultural history, many White Americans are still anxious about White people becoming the minority group. They are frightened they will become only one group among many, in a majority nonwhite society. When Takaki was traveling to his conference, the popular American news journal Time Magazine had an anxious headline about the browning of America by 2056. Soon, America would become a majority nonwhite society, said the author of the Time article. Yet before the coming of Columbus and the Europeans, this was already the case for American society. (2)
Takaki notes what is changing was not America’s face, but the way that White Americans are thinking about themselves and about American society. Over the course of his book, by detailing such debates that occurred before “The Trail of Tears,” which resulted in Native Americans being driven off of their land, despite treaties which gave them the right to live as a tribe upon such territory, Takaki shows how false the idea of a White America is — America was never purely White in its ethnic makeup. (93) Furthermore, the “Trail” had more to do with money and the desire to settle the West for financial reasons, than for the rights of White Americans to establish themselves upon new territories. The fact that Indians did not see property as ‘owned’ like European-Americans caused the American government of Andrew Jackson to feel justified in taking away the Native people’s land to enrich the American people and government. “According to [early English explorer] Roger Williams, when the Indians were ready to harvest the corn, “all the neighbors men and women, forty, fifty, a hundred,” joined in the work and came “to help freely.” (38) Williams could not understand such an open attitude to land ownership, and thus felt the Indians did not really own the land — an idea that was remembered by Jackson and the Senate when the American government negotiated with Indian tribes.
But America’s early past history is easy to forget. Even American scholars like Harold Bloom, who complain that minorities are not being melted and, in Bloom’s words, “digested” into American culture forget that debates about American-ness have been going on for a long time. Events such as the internment of Japanese-Americans but not white German-Americans show how the image of America remains ‘white,’ despite the many ethnicities and cultures within America’s borders, and despite the many American citizens of different racial and ethnic categories. But things are changing. Takaki asks optimistically, why does the University of Minnesota, a state with, when the book was written a 93% White population, require every student to take an ethnic studies course before graduation? Because, stated the university’s president, Minnesota is part of America, and must prepare its students for a multiracial and diverse America of the future. (4)
To understand the way a culture defines itself, one must ask, who is ‘we.’ And Takaki states that “we” Americans as a people are diverse. The “we the people,” that are Americans, are not simply White and Black, or White vs. Black, the true citizens of Americans wear many faces. This is also why the book is called A Different Mirror, because it shows that while America may define itself as White, it is not a White nation nor has it ever been. Even the English author Shakespeare painted America as a brown and in his eyes, savage nation, when he wrote about it in “The Tempest.” (25) America may see itself as a White nation, and White Americans may see themselves just as plain Americans, but America has always been made up of many people.
Also, what Americans think today as ‘White’ Americans, such as Irish and Jewish immigrants were not even classified as White when they first came to America’s shores. (139) Once upon a time, Irish maids were called “Brigit,” regardless of their real names, because they were not seen as American or fully White, because of their occupation, class, and accent. (154) But it proved easier for Jewish and Irish immigrants to insinuate themselves in American life, especially economic life. “America was in everybody’s mouth,” a Jewish immigrant recalled, of the time before she emigrated. “Businessmen talked [about] it over their accounts; the market women made up their quarrels that they might discuss it from stall to stall; people who had relatives in the famous land.” (7) This is because some immigrant groups, such as Jewish and Irish-Americans have been more successful at seeming like ‘normal’ or traditional Americans, because of their perceived Whiteness. Other groups, like the Chinese-Americans or African-Americans that came to America’s shores, and Japanese-Americans like the author, are still seen as outsiders because they cannot pretend to be White as easily.
Takaki thus shows that not all groups experience the same difficulties in seeming American. Some groups, such as Chinese women, often experienced double forms of discrimination, both as women within their own community, and as Chinese people in Caucasian communities. (209) Plus, some White missionaries used the plight of ‘poor’ Chinese women to justify discrimination against Chinese culture. Also, discrimination against oppressed groups has resulted in different kinds of revolt. Indians used military tactics in revolutions such as Wounded Knee. (228) Groups that were discriminated against such as African-Americans have resisted not only through legal action but also fleeing America — as African-Americans often did not come to America by their own free will, they would go ‘back’ to Africa. (126) This “Nostalgia on the Niger,” as Takaki calls it, resulted in the founding of Liberia in Africa.
But a romanticized view of a native past, like a romantic view of a White past, proves to only be an incomplete solution. Takaki suggests that a more, fuller way of embracing American identity is better than rejecting America altogether. In fact, one of the contradictions of Black slavery in the 19th century was that many Black slaves had White fathers, blurring the lines of racial identity in the racially segregated south. (128) Even in the most racist of societies and circumstances, the dominant theme of the book is that, in the mirror of the face of America, there is no one pure face and image all Americans can aspire to be like, rather all Americans must fight for a more inclusive image of American identity.
Despite the many differences between the ethnic groups in the book, the one similarity in all of the experiences of the different ethnic peoples of A Different Mirror is that all of these groups continue to have trouble being seen as fully American today. Despite the fact that Indians were in America before Europeans, they are still seen as nonwhite and thus not fully Americans. Despite the fact that Robert Takaki’s grandfather may have come to America before his European neighbor’s grandfather, Takaki is not seen as fully American. Overall, the idea of who is an America must change before discrimination can end, suggests the author, a conclusion all readers of all nations and nationalities will agree with.
Takaki, Robert. A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America. Boston: Back Bay Books, 1993. Reprinted 1994.
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