Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Exclusion and the Chinese American story by Sarah-Soonling Blackburn

 This narrative nonfiction series is clear in its intentions from the start; exploring and amplifying parts of US history that have been hidden and overlooked. This particular book sets out to explore Chinese American history beyond "the Chinese built the railroads" and is honest, although not overly graphic, historical racism and its sometimes deadly results. Blackburn traces Chinese American immigration from its earliest days, when Chinese were viewed as circus show events, to the historical and economic events that led to the initial boom of immigration during the California Gold Rush. She then explores the various exclusion acts, the part played by the Chinese in the building of the railroads, and the attempts to cover up and hide previous centuries of prejudice and racism during World War II, when America needed China as an ally. After World War II, attitudes towards Chinese Americans had changed somewhat, but there was a return to the exclusionary policies and racism, now under cover of combatting Communism.

Blackburn looks at more contemporary events, tracing the involvement of Chinese Americans in the Civil Rights movement, the damage of the "model minority myth" and the economic and political forces behind continued prejudice. Throughout the book there is an emphasis on intersectionality, honestly acknowledging the part all people have played in history and looking realistically at how Chinese Americans have been used to break strikes or create barriers, especially for Black Americans and how all people have suffered from those events. The book emphasizes breaking down general stereotypes to explore individual experiences as well as more general concepts of racial equality, immigration, and propaganda and how they have shaped internal biases and historical events.

Adults who bristle at any criticism of the whitewashed, mythic view of US history and those who react negatively to concepts like "systems of oppression" will certainly not be happy about this book. However, despite the somewhat daunting length, it's perfectly arranged to be used in a classroom or for home study. Each chapter ends with discussion questions and the narrative works through various concepts and events, showing readers how they fit together while leaving them room to draw their own conclusions and think critically about what they have previously been taught. I do object to several instances where the author addresses kids as "Dear reader" which is a weirdly old-fashioned device that throws out the narrative and sounds patronizing. The book ends with a philosophical overview of where we are today and how readers can move forward.

Verdict: I would recommend this to 5th grade and up, especially for classroom use, although teachers will have to weigh what they know of their parents and administration before decided if the risk of teaching accurate and honest history is worth the potential fall-out. Public libraries should definitely purchase this series and put them where middle school students are most likely to find them.

ISBN: 9780593567630; Published March 2024 by Crown Pub; Review copy provided by publisher; Purchased for the library

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