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'Overturn the oligarchy': Poets discuss building bridges between Black and Asian communities

At an Oct. 23 event, Caroline Randall Williams and Cathy Park Hong, both poets and authors, discussed the role of the engaged artist in building Black and Asian alliances and communities.
At an Oct. 23 event, Caroline Randall Williams and Cathy Park Hong, both poets and authors, discussed the role of the engaged artist in building Black and Asian alliances and communities.

How can we use the arts to bridge racial divisions and engage with pressing issues of race and racism? 

In a Friday event, Caroline Randall Williams and Cathy Park Hong, both authors and poets, discussed the role of the engaged artist in building Black and Asian alliances and communities in a pandemic that has led to polarization. The virtual event was moderated by Professor of Theater Studies Esther Kim Lee and Patrice Douglass, assistant professor of gender, sexuality and feminist studies.

Williams and Hong shared a similar desire to use their work about race to “comfort the afflicted,” but more than that, to “afflict the comfortable,” Hong said. 

Hong said that she believes white Americans have created a “cultural and economic oligarchy” of their perspectives that have made the histories and voices of BIPOC individuals “marginal.” 

For example, Asian American history is not taught in schools, people don’t hear about the Black-Asian alliances of the 1960s and people don’t consider the Vietnamese perspective when discussing the Vietnam War, she said. She explained that as a writer, her goal has been to “overturn the oligarchy.”

Williams added that the urgency of the writer is to “reorient the conversation away from the white gaze,” to find the extant voices and voice the voiceless.

On the topic of forging stronger Black-Asian alliances, Hong described grappling with a tough moral calculus. On one hand, she said she wishes Asians were less anti-Black and believes that they have to do better to teach their children, but on the other hand, she knows that Americans also don’t understand how many Asians also come from “a history of defeat” and that they also suffer from racism.

“Whiteness needs to be decentered. There needs to be new honest conversations between people of color, not only about our differences but also maybe some of our shared histories,” Hong said. “I think it’s either one or the other—it’s either emphasizing that we’re all just a happy coalition, which is not true, or that our differences are irreconcilable and any way you try to analogize Blacks suffering will be to dilute Black suffering. So, is there a way to acknowledge these structural, economic, historical differences while also finding some commonality between us?”

Williams responded that she believes in the human ability to “connect across things that divide us.” The history of anti-Blackness and its manifestations are complicated, but we “need to talk about that together because we’re all just trying to figure out how to survive toxic whiteness,” she said. “Figuring out the reactions to that—that’s what we need to figure out how to do and to do it with generosity and spirit from both sides.” 

Hong also touched upon the erased histories of allyships between Blacks and Asians in the 1960s. Asian American activists from working class backgrounds and activist groups who took styles similar to the Black Panther of the ‘60s were the ones who defined Asian American identity as a political identity and as an identity that is “interracial, anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist,” she said.

“That just got totally erased,” Hong said. “I think that has to do with Reagan, Reaganomics, with new generations of immigrants coming in… a lot of them were working class immigrants, but a lot of them were also from the professional class who really bought into the American Dream. The Asian American community just got much, much bigger and much more different. This is always a question among Asian Americans—how can we even build a coalition amongst ourselves?”

But she said she has hope in the younger generation of Asian Americans, who “are fierce” in the way that they support Black Lives Matter, are anti-capitalist and are interested in civic engagement and the arts. She noted that although some critical race scholars are “suspicious” of alliances, she believes we don’t have a choice right now.

Williams added that it is important to consider how the involuntary nature of African Americans’ presence in America has robbed them of their independent national identities—which complicates the conversation. She said that for a Black person in America who is a descendant of slaves, there is “no country to retreat to,” since any national identity besides American was “robbed from us in the Middle Passage.”

She said that acknowledging that difference between the voluntary versus involuntary natures of Asian and African American identities is critical and will make it easier to navigate these differences. 

“I think acknowledging the functional differences of how and why we’re existing in this space differently would actually be fruitful because we can learn from both sides of it and then also come together to heal one another because our wounds aren’t from the same places,” she said. “And I think that’s helpful. I might be missing an arm but got two legs and you might be missing a leg but got two arms, but together we got enough limbs to get by. I think there’s something about acknowledging the differences of the wounds that actually makes it easier to connect.”

The event was co-sponsored across 12 departments and organizations, including Asian American and Diaspora studies; African and African American studies; Asian amd Middle Eastern studies; and the Center for Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation. 

Nayoung Aimee Kwon, director of the AADS program, wrote in an email to The Chronicle that AADS was formed in 2018 with the mission of creating “alliances and coalitions from across the university” to create intercommunity dialogues on how racism impacts different communities. She wrote that Duke has an “ethical responsibility” to build a faculty cohort and curriculum for racial reckoning.

“It was powerful to bring into dialogue these renowned poets—Cathy Park Hong and Caroline Randall Williams—who have been writing so powerfully throughout the pandemic to engage with the issues that are so pertinent to the current movement toward racial reckoning,” Kwon wrote. “What we learned from this important conversation is that we have so much more work ahead. Our different and divided communities still know very little about one another’s struggles. We need to work together to challenge wider structures of racism that are detrimental to all of us—although we are impacted [to] different degrees.”

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