Celebrating Asian Pacific American Heritage
Americans of Asian Pacific descent are one of the fastest growing groups of immigrants in the United States. They are probably also the most misunderstood. For various reasons, many are not familiar with that part of the world. People from Asia have played important roles in the settlement and development of this country, especially in the West.
In 1976, when America was making plans to celebrate its bicentennial, Jeanie Jew, president of the Organization of Chinese American Women, was concerned that Asian Pacific Americans were not being included in the celebration.
"We were excluded from those stories during celebrations of the country's bicentennial," Jew recalled. "We were literally ignored even though we were part of building this country."
Jew’s grandfather had come to America to find a better life and worked with thousands of other Chinese immigrants to build the nation’s first transcontinental railroad. Later, he became a successful prominent business person and community leader. In the late 1800’s, Chinese were being blamed for the variety of economic problems. Asian Pacific Americans were beaten and killed.
Jeanie Jew’s grandfather was murdered when he tried to speak
out on behalf of his people. His death was a direct result of
the ignorance of the significant work that Asian Americans
contributed to the founding of America. Now wonder she felt
compelled to speak out.
The first ten days of May were chosen for the celebration because the first Japanese immigrants arrived on U.S. shores on May 7, 1843, and the completion of the transcontinental railroad was marked by Golden Spike Day on May 10, 1869. Celebrating Asian Pacific American history in May also allowed activities and events to be included in schools across the nation.
President Jimmy Carter signed the resolution to observe Asian American History on October 2, 1978 and the first Asian Pacific American Heritage Week was celebrated in May 1979. This resolution, however, did establish a national celebration. Jeanie Jew, and her supporters had to lobby for the commemorative law to be re-authorized each year.
In 1992, both the both the House of Representatives and the Senate unanimously agreed to create a resolution that would permanently designate May as Asian Pacific American History Month. On October 23, 1992, President George H.W. Bush signed the bill into law.
To the granddaughter of an Asian American that was murdered because of public ignorance about Asian American’s contributions to this county, the creation of an annual, month-long tribute was important. It did not, however, erase the pain of her personal loss. Jeanne Jew devoted a major portion of her life fighting to get America to observe the many ways her ancestors helped make America a mighty nation.
"What started out as a dream in a young woman's eye has become, I think, the single-most significant event to honor Asian Pacific Americans," Jew said. "It may have started in Washington, but it now crosses each state and every state has its own significant manner in which to celebrate it.”
“My dream continues,” Jew added. "Hopefully I'll live long enough to see more of my dream realized. It is a journey, it is a dream; it is an Asian American dream for us to continue because each generation puts their stamp on what this month means to them."
While today the celebration of Asian Pacific American history is a joyous event, all of these celebrations for the different heritages that build this country involve and acknowledge a people who were once excluded and neglected. No, paying homage to people that were once disrespected or even persecuted does not make past wrongs right.
It is a way, however, to create a more meaning dialog in this country and build an appreciation for diversity. People from Vietnam, India, China, Korea, Japan, Cambodia, Fiji, the Philippines, Thailand, and many other nations, as well as the islands of Guam, American Samoa, and Hawaii, have enriched every aspect of American society.
Spending some time each year acknowledging and honoring the talents, intellect, and determination of immigrants is important. It is part of our national heritage. It is also the best way to ensure that Americans will never again commit acts of violence against any ethnic group out of ignorance and intolerance.
By Bill Breitsprecher
[Celebrating Asian Pacific American History Home] [APA
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