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American Voices


A Larger Memory: A History of Our Diversity, with Voices

Ronald Takaki

New York; Little, Brown and Company; 1998

ISBN: 0316311626


Review by Jerry Winzig


This latest book by Ronald Takaki, Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, is no scholarly treatise.  Instead, he charms, saddens, and enlightens us with a collection of letters, diaries, and interviews that let 32 diverse Americans share their own voices, from the eighteenth century to the late twentieth century.


In his introduction, Takaki says that "people are history: their experiences, feelings, adjustments, imaginings. hopes, uncertainties, dreams, fears, regrets, tragedies, and triumphs compose our past.  Everywhere, I found their stories bursting in the telling."  And while Takaki's book is no treatise, he would argue that it is scholarly: "This is a view of history I have been sharing with my students.  Our parents and grandparents, I have been telling them, are worthy of scholarly attention: they have been actors in history, making choices as they left their homelands and settled in America."


Here are some of their voices:


Olaudah Equiano describes how he was kidnapped in 1755 at age ten in what is now Nigeria by raiders from another tribe and sold to English slave traders, who brought him to America.  He recounts the voyage to America in terms of  "the loathsomeness of the stench….the closeness of the place,….the shrieks of the women….the groans of the dying…some very severe floggings" and on one calm day, how "two of my weary countrymen, who were chained together…preferring death to such a life of misery…jumped into the sea."


Equiano was sold to a Virginia planter, who sold him to a British naval officer who took him to England.  In 1766, he purchased his freedom.  In his autobiography, he wrote, "O, ye nominal Christians!  might not an African ask you, learned you this from your God?  who says unto you, Do unto all men as you would men should do unto you?"


In a series of conversations in 1930, a Sioux holy man named Black Elk and his friends, Fire Thunder and Standing Bear, described the coming of the "Wasichus" (whites).  Born in "the Moon of the Popping Trees (December)( on the little Powder River in the Winter When the Four Crows Were Killed (1863)."  Black Elk's account is laced with events like the "Battle of the Hundred Slain", the "Winter of the Hundred Slain," and the "Attack of the Wagons."


In an oral history written down in the 1930s by the Federal Writers' Project, Jenny Proctor recounted her days as a slave: "None of us was 'lowed to see a book or try to learn.  They say we git smarter than they was if we learn anything, but we slips around and gits hold of that Webster's old blue-back speller and we hides it till 'way in the night and then we lights a little pine torch, and studies that spelling book.  We learn it too."


Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, daughter of Irish immigrants, writes of how she gave her first public speech for the labor movement in 1906 at age fifteen: "I had labored to write my speech and had stubbornly resisted all attempts of my father and others to tell me what to say  or to actually write it for me.  Good or bad, I felt it had to be my own."


Lee Chew, who came from China in the late 1800s, wrote these words in a "lifelet" in Independence magazine in the early twentieth century: "The reason why so many Chinese go into the laundry business in this country is because it requires little capital and is one of the few opportunities that are open."


A young Jewish garment worker named Sadie Frowne, who had emigrated from Poland to New York City in the early twentieth century, described what happened when she tried to work too fast to make more money: "Sometimes in my haste I get my finger caught and the needle goes right through it. It goes so quick, though, that it does not hurt much. I bind the finger up with a piece of cotton and go on working.  We all have accidents like that."


Monica Soles, the daughter of Japanese immigrants, described her time in an internment camp in Minidoka, Idaho in her 1953 book, Nisei Daughter:  "Of one thing I was sure.  The wire fence was real.  I no longer had the right to walk out if it.  It was because I had Japanese ancestors.  It was also because some people had little faith in the ideas and ideals of democracy."


In a 1942 letter written from boot camp in 1942, Ira Hayes penned these words to his parents on the Pima reservation: "In case you don't know, the picture above is the famous Marine emblem and the words Semper Fidelis which means Always Faithful.  And all of us are Always Faithful - we really are - to our country, our families, our people, and mainly our church."


Jesus Garcia, an immigrant from Mexico, described looking for work as a new arrival in the United States in the early twentieth century at age twenty: "Finally I managed to get work laying pipes and I was working for two weeks earning $2.50 a day.  Then they laid me off because they said that I wasn't strong enough for hard work….Then a Mexican advised me to look for work in the hotels and restaurants because that fitted me, but I couldn't find that, because it was necessary to speak English for those jobs."


Shanti, an immigrant from India, described what it was like for a young Indian woman to come to America in the 1990s:  "In this country I had to learn to be American and do everything American.  I had to learn what baseball was and I had to learn what parents were expected to do during games.  I had to learn how to be active in the school.  I had to do this all by myself….I felt it was unfair that the Indian woman was expected to live in two worlds in this country while the man could still live in one."


You will laugh at some of these stories.  Others will move you to tears or stir up feelings of anger and indignation.  But most of all, you will come away with the feeling that these voices represent all of us as Americans.  As Takaki points out in his epilogue, "In the twenty-first century, there will be no white majority in the United States….At the edge of this tremendous transformation is California, where within a few years whites will become a minority – just like blacks, Indians, Hispanics, and Asians.  Across America by 2050, we will all be minorities."  But we will all be Americans, glorious in our diversity.


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