Asian American history is U.S. history

A lesson on how to teach in an inclusive way

click to enlarge In homage to Woody Guthrie whose guitar said, “This machine kills fascists,” Tam's guitar says, “This machine kills racists.” - CREDIT: ALPLM
Credit: ALPLM
In homage to Woody Guthrie whose guitar said, “This machine kills fascists,” Tam's guitar says, “This machine kills racists.”

On July 20, at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum (ALPLM) in Springfield, Simon Tam shared his story of growing up as a Chinese American, starting the first all-Asian American dance rock band and then going to the Supreme Court over a fight about his band's name, The Slants.

"What an incredible honor to be here tonight," Tam told the crowd. "Especially on the heels of this groundbreaking news of Illinois being the first state in the country to mandate Asian American history being taught in schools," he said. "Asian American history is American history." The law was signed by the governor earlier this month and will require public schools in the state to include units of history about Asian Americans.

During the presentation, which was more like a two-man Broadway show, Tam was joined by bandmate Joe X. Jiang. They both played guitars and sang songs that went along with the stories Tam told. Tam began with his childhood in San Diego during the 1980s. For being Asian, "I was bullied as a kid, and I was attacked multiple times," he said. He got called Jackie Chan as a put-down, and much worse, including slurs.

It was a lifelong goal of Tam's to join a punk band, to join a world where the misfits were the cool ones. But while living in Portland, he started to miss his culture. He said he was "missing the food, hearing my first languages and seeing people who look like me."

Then, in 2004, he saw the movie Kill Bill. "I realized it was the first time in my entire life that I'd ever seen an American-produced film that showed Asians as cool, confident and sexy." Tam began thinking about the lack of representation of Asian Americans in music, not just Hollywood, and the idea for starting an all-Asian American band was born. To come up with a name, he started asking people what they thought Asians had in common. There was one common refrain: slanted eyes. "I always associated my eyes with shame, with embarrassment and fear," said Tam. "But I was like, 'What if we could flip it from embarrassment to empowerment?'"

And so, the band adopted the name The Slants. It was a punk move – a move to reappropriate something that had been used to harm and make fun. Many terms have been taken back by marginalized people in a way meant to empower – the word queer, for instance, is now proudly claimed by many on the LGBTQ+ spectrum.

But when the band went to seek a trademark, the federal government denied its application. That story is covered in Tam's memoir, Slanted: How an Asian American Troublemaker Took on the Supreme Court. As the title makes clear, the fight to get the band name registered went all the way to the nation's highest court. In 2017, the band won.

Representation matters. Tam said the most powerful moment he experienced playing with The Slants was during a performance at the Oregon State Penitentiary, which he said is known for its high concentration of neo-Nazis. Tam said at the end of the show he was approached by a man with the words, "white power" tattooed onto his chest. Tam said he froze in fear as the man handed him a piece of paper and pencil. It turned out the man wanted an autograph from Tam for his daughter.

Tam said as he spoke to the tattooed man, the man told him, "I can't change what's stained into my skin" – but that he could change what's in his mind and heart. Tam said both men left the encounter for the better. "I technically, literally was judging him by his skin. Granted, it said 'white power' ... But once we actually had a chance to engage and see the humanity in each other, we both walked away changed that day."

The band has also heard from Asian American kids who thank them for the example the band provides. Band members underwent training on how to counsel kids who reach out, some of whom suffer from bullying, and on anti-racism. The Slants Foundation, started by Tam and Jiang, is a nonprofit seeking to use art and activism to amplify the voices of those too often unrepresented.

"By telling our stories and our history and allowing kids to see themselves in it, it's so powerful. When they can see themselves in the textbook, it really changes everything," he said. "That's why I was so excited about coming to Illinois and hearing about what's happening here. Because I know you can actually, literally change people's lives when they see what's possible." Tam's story seems a great example of what Illinois teachers could start adding to their U.S. history curriculum.

At a time when institutions, such as museums, are taking stock of how they share history lessons, "This program is a tangible way in which we can put meat on the bones and explain and show our commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility," ALPLM executive director Christina Shutt told Illinois Times. "We're committed to teaching a complete Illinois history and making sure that everyone's stories and voices are told and heard."

Rachel Otwell is associate editor for Illinois Times. She wants to hear about how educators are working to tell history in new and inclusive ways. Contact her at rotwell@illinoistimes.com.

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