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Books for the Woke Soul

The Making of Asian AmericaBy Sudip Bhattacharya
AsAmNews Staff Writer

I woke up the other day, with a book beside my pillow, because A) I’m a nerd and sometimes, books make more sense than people, and B) I was reading past midnight, and passed out, the words hopefully sinking deeper into my skin.

As of right now, I’ve been knee-deep in material for an upcoming paper I hope to write as part of my political science program at Rutgers, in which I focus on Asian American identity, and possible coalitions with African Americans and Latino Americans too.

The following are books that I feel would benefit anyone who is already conscious about racism, and other forms of oppression, as well those who have an idea of the possibilities for real change in the U.S.

The Making of Asian America: A History by Erika Lee

This is the first book I’ve read that solely focuses on Asian American history, from when the first Filipinos arrived as part of the Spanish Empire to the current social landscape of more Asian Americans accruing political power and finding issues to coalesce around. The Making of Asian America is somewhat big, over 400 pages, but considering how historian Erika Lee goes into detail on practically every major Asian American group, including Hmong, it is of reasonable size and I think, the perfect introduction for anyone, Asian Americans and POC especially, to have a holistic sense of Asian history in the U.S. and the changes that have taken place over time. Lee does something which I felt was extremely helpful too, which was focus on each Asian ethnic group per chapter. For example, she dedicates one chapter to Chinese Americans, another to Indian Americans and South Asians, and so forth. This made it easy for me to follow, and allowed me to find the similarities and differences between them, such as how Filipinos during American colonization were able to immigrate to the U.S., while Chinese immigrants suffered from the Chinese Exclusion Act and were left defenseless since their own “homeland” was being divided among several European powers.  Of course, all Asians faced persecution, regardless of their origin. Again, highly recommended.

RELATED STORY: The People who played a key role in the Making of Asian America

Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America by Vivek BaldBengali Harlem and the Histories of South Asian Americans

At the time when I first found out Bengali Harlem existed, I was working at my first full-time job as a reporter, and my main focus was on ethnicity and race, so when I discovered Vivek Bald’s work, not only was I amazed, but also, encouraged. As an Indian American of Bengali ethnicity, I was proud to know about this period of early American history, when Bengali immigrants, most of whom were male and Muslim, tried to build new lives in the U.S. and in the process, found a new home in mostly Black American communities. Another aspect of this tale that was very fascinating was the class dynamics. As Bald makes apparent through his narrative, many of these Bengali immigrants (from India and what would later become Bangladesh) were often working-class and active in the freedom movement from the British. Later, as the immigration system liberalized in the 1960s (thanks to the efforts of leaders such as MLK), more Black and Brown immigrants were able to come to the U.S., but many already held degrees and were of the professional class. As Bald points out, because of this shift in the demographics of Asian immigrants, histories like those highlighted in his book are threatened to be washed away and forgotten.

RELATED STORY: Early South Asian American History Documented in New Book

Colored Cosmopolitanism: The Shared Struggle for Freedom in the United States and India by Nico Slate

Again, this was another amazing book containing example after example of Black and Brown solidarity. The phrase “colored cosmopolitanism” was coined by W.E.B. Du Bois who is one of the greatest and most forward-thinking human beings to have ever lived. Du Bois was an egalitarian, a socialist, Left, feminist, and anti-imperialist. As a Black man in the U.S., Du Bois was always under pressure to not express his opinions, and persecuted and later, forced into exile. Still, as Colored Cosmopolitanism shows, Du Bois remained connected to the world around him and advocated for Indian Independence from the British because he viewed Indians as people of color and hoped that an independent India would signal more freedom for POC around the world and become a signal of hope for African Americans as well. Of course, Nico Slate doesn’t shy away from the nuances of the engagement between African Americans and Indians overseas, as issues of anti-blackness and the perceptions of an exotic “Orient” percolated and sometimes, boiled over. Yet, once I was finished, I couldn’t help feel more alive and emboldened by the lessons in the book, such as  the fact that so many African American intellectuals and heroes of mine, like Langston Hughes, were ardent supporter of Indian liberation, and the intense bond that many Indian revolutionaries had with African Americans. My own parents taught me that our fates are linked with those who are Black and Brown. My father even taught me about songs he knew back in West Bengal that were about the great African American actor, artist, and activist Paul Robeson, who was held up as an example of a capable and strong-willed, and intelligent fighter for human rights. Robeson himself is discussed often by Slate as someone who understood that people of color can overthrow the White supremacist system if we are able to join hands and share ideas with each other.

How Does It Feel To Be A Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America by Moustafa Bayoumi

If you haven’t checked out Moustafa Bayoumi’s writings (he’s written for The Nation, and the Guardian among other publications), this is the ideal way to begin. I got this book when I was still in undergrad as part of this reading group we’d formed among Asian Americans activist circles. This was around 2006-2007, still under the gaze of the Bush administration and his Neocons. Many South Asians, Arabs, and Muslims, Sikhs, and anyone perceived as “Other” were reeling from prejudice and racial profiling based on Islamophobia. Ten years later, and not much has changed, as the presumptive nominee of a major political party continues to express the belief that Muslim Americans are dangerous and need to be handled. Hate speech is clearly the norm. How Does It Feel To Be A Problem is probably the best written among those I’ve recommended, which shouldn’t be surprising since it’s Bayoumi, who has a very accessible style and manages to balance between description and storytelling without losing cadence. He narrates the stories of actual Arab Americans, including Christians, who open their hearts to him, and he captures slices of their lives, which in turn, connect to the larger theme of what it means to be Arab and young in America.  Not to brag (although I am), I met Bayoumi in-person when he visited Rutgers and got him to sign the book. Since then, I’ve always kept it close, and sometimes, I read what he quickly wrote: Peace and Justice.

I hope these suggestions are helpful and I’ll be doing another listing soon, as the summer hits its peak. Until then, be sure to remain engaged in the world of art, literature, and music, because without them, life would just be a hollow shell, and as Emma Goldman once said, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”


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