28 January 2017
Week 4: Third World Alliances and Social-Political Movements
The “Aoki” documentary was filmed by Ben Wang and Mike Cheng. It was released after Richard Aoki’s death on March 15, 2009, and the documentary was a tribute to his legacy as an Asian American activist. Aoki was the 4th or 5th person to join the Black Panther Party, and when he first joined, he jokingly stated, “This is called the Black Panther party, and I don’t exactly look black.” In response, Huey Newton, one of the co-founders of the party said, “The struggle for freedom, justice, and equality transcends racial and ethnic barriers.” This quote is one that I resonate with on an emotional and intellectual level because it encompasses my belief with community work and fights for equality. It reminds me that I must stand in solidarity with my black and brown brothers and sisters and fight against the injustices that oppress them every day. All lives will matter when black lives matter, and it is jarring to think that over fifty years later, we are still fighting for black lives to matter in this country.
The documentary was incredibly valuable in that it included interviews with several members of the community, ranging from the Asian American Political Alliance to the Third World Liberation Front multicultural alumni. Viewers could get a sense of who Richard was behind the sunglasses and tough exterior. Elbert “Big Man” Howard, a member of the Black Panther Party, believed that Richard was a dedicated revolutionary, who was consistent in his philosophy and actions. He was a spokesperson for not just the Asian American community, but also for the civil rights movement and the third world liberation movement as well. His sense of humor and humble personality showed through his passionate speeches. One of the most memorable parts was when asked what obstacles did his organization need to overcome at a conference of sorts, he stated, “The police! [audience laughter] They kept impeding our progress!” He spoke his heart and mind, without fear and he cared not for possible consequences. Growing up in Oakland myself, listening to Aoki speak was like listening to a piece of home that I never even knew existed. Before watching this documentary, I never knew Oakland was a site of struggle for so many Asian American folks. Hearing him say that he grew up in West Oakland and he was the “baddest oriental to come outta West Oakland” gave me a sense of pride in my hometown. He stated, “You gotta know where you come from and where you are… if you’re a member of the oppressed class, you better realize that you are and do something about it.” That statement made me reflect on my identity as an Asian American woman and what I did about it when I realized that I was oppressed and marginalized in a political institution, such as UC Davis, when this place was not made for me.
As cliché as it may sound, one never knows what others are going through until one walks a mile in another’s shoes. When speaking of how he became so politically charged, Aoki stated, “In retrospect, I probably wouldn’t have been so politically sensitive and active if I hadn’t grown up in that environment. That ten years I spent were the formative years of my life and exposed me to the racism, segregation, the oppression, the exploitation of people of color, I could easily see the similarities between the concentration camps and the conditions in the West Oakland ghettos.” His comparison of the Japanese concentration camps, that he was placed in as a child, and the West Oakland ghettos shook me to my core. What is unfortunate is that most people do not want to recognize that these issues of racism and exploitation exist because ignorance is bliss. He acknowledged that times are changing and that movements are not as militant as they were in his days. However, he still understands that there is a lot of work left to do, and it is up to our generation to continue that fight for an equal world, where our lives will matter as much as white lives do.
As a short introduction for Radicals on the Road: Internationalism, Orientalism, and Feminism During the Vietnam Era by Judy Tzu-Chan Wu, the book presents people that are considered “internationalists”—members of communities that transcended national boundaries. This reminded me of transnationalism and how our struggles and outlooks are strong enough to bring us together on issues of social justice and politics, across boundaries and nations. The three ways in which “the exploration of internationalism, orientalism, and feminism contributed to our understanding of social activism” during the 1960s were: (1) “the political journeys of U.S. activists provide an opportunity to frame the antiwar movement of the 1960s and 1970s in an international context;” (2) “how individuals of diverse and ethnic backgrounds developed political partnerships with one another;” and (3) “the growing understanding of how gender shapes the conduct of war, the performance of international diplomacy, and engagement in political activism” (Wu, 7-9). This book aims to provide us with stories of radicals who traveled the world to open their eyes to the injustices that the Western world enacted upon the Eastern world, and that the West was not always the savior.
The Viet Nam War was a collective experience that globally impacted many people’s lives. Astounded by experiences of what the Vietnamese people endured during the war many women activists from North America and Southeast Asia fought together to change the horrific effects of the war. Furthermore, women activists who traveled their way to Viet Nam took a lifelong lesson back to their home countries and applied to change their own societies by the help of the spoken stories of courage and resiliency by the Vietnamese women activists. From different demographic and ethnic backgrounds, women activists around the world joined together as a unit to propagate peace and anti-war ideologies. Not only did these groups of women create such a multitude of members and supporters from various countries, they have also built personal bonds with each that they have noted as ‘sisters’.
The women’s sisterhood movement made conferences that addressed issues that were harmfully affecting large groups of people and used maternalistic tactics to appeal strongly to women. For instance, South Vietnamese women activists discussed the effects of militarization having it “fostered the growth of prostitution in South Viet Nam” (Wu 15). Moreover, as for the maternalistic strategies, the use of children as one of the main reasons to end the War was highly used in various women activist organizations such as those in the Women Strike for Peace. Amy Swerdlow, a historian, and former WSP member, stated: “They [50,000 women] demanded that their local officials pressure President John Kennedy on behalf of all the world’s children, to end nuclear testing at once and begin negotiations for nuclear disarmament” (Wu 10). This form of protest was in response to a suspecting radioactive cloud that moved across United States grounds from several Russian atom bomb tests. From these instant forms of actions from collective communities, it eventually formed committed women activist organizations within the United States nation and in Viet Nam.
The sponsors of the Indochinese Women’s Conferences were known as “old friends”, “new friends”, and “third world” that all advocated anti-war campaigns for the benefit of the world’s children. The “old friends”, or more “traditional” North American women’s activist organizations, consisted of those who have had a long history of friendship Vietnamese women (Wu). This caucus of women fostered the idea of maternal peace tactics and “presented themselves as ‘respectable’ and as ‘maternal protectors of the world’s children’” (Wu 10). The second sponsors for the Indochinese Women’s Conference were known as the “new friends,” or also known as the women’s liberation activists. The “new friends” women’s activists acknowledged the indivisibility, little-to-no authoritative influence, and marginalization of women within their male counterparts in the antiwar organization. These groups of women’s liberation activists then formed a women’s caucus that: “’combat[ed] male supremacy,’ in the antiwar movement, develop[ed] ‘ideological and programmatic clarity about how the struggle for the liberation of women is related to the struggles against racism and imperialism,’ and connecting the ‘spring actions of the Mobe to their own oppression as women’” (Wu 17). Lastly, the third sponsor of the Indochinese Women’s Conference was known as “third world”, who were noted as the non-white women activists in North America. As Wu stated, “Understanding themselves as internal colonial subjects, they expressed solidarity among themselves based on the similar experience of disenfranchisement and marginalization within the U.S.” These groups of women were familiar with the effects of domesticated racism, international pacifism, and colonialism as much as those of their Caucasian descent women activist’s sisters. Nonetheless, all the sponsors felt a strong connection with their Vietnamese sister activists across the globe.
In Chapter 9 Woman Warriors, the book present the delegation of the Indochinese Women’s Conference (IWCs) from Southeast Asia. The Indochinese delegates shared both the “inhumane suffering that the war caused as well as their sustained efforts to fight for liberation” (246). Both groups of women formed critiques of war and colonization that foregrounded the experiences and bodies of Asian women in understanding US militarization and empire. (247). The delegates from SEA gave testimonials that conveyed how war and political persecution had gendered implications for women, their bodies, and their ability to perform responsibilities of motherhood. The IWC addressed the impact of war on families. These accounts of atrocities reminded North American women of the horrific nature of the US war in SEA. The Indochinese women who came to North American used individuals to provide personal examples to show the light of the patterns of gender violence. Additionally, they offered models of resistance and not just evidence of victimization. Some maternalists peace activist expressed a sense of moral obligation that resembled a politics of rescue. North American women tended to put the Indochinese women on a pedestal because of their revolutionary “courage, spirit, and warmth”. Other activists, including maternalists, women’s liberationists, and Third World women placed the Indochinese women on an idealized political pedestal for their resilience to endure and struggle. The phrase, “They Must Be Saved,” positioned North American women as the saviors of Asian women.
Moreover, the Indochinese women highlighted their own political agency in resisting the war. The Indochinese women, as targets of Western militarism, imperialism, racism, and sexism, represented the underdog. The Indochinese ability to forgive and distinguish between the American people and their government led many conferences attendees to regard them as the model of revolutionary figured. Women of SEA encouraged their audience to view everyone as capable of political struggle and achievement. Indochinese women emphasized the importance of forging political unity, which help North American women to engage more effectively in activism.
Asian female offered an image of hope and humanity that contrasted with the oppressive gender roles in North American societies (246). Women of Asian ancestry in the U.S. aspired to connect with their revolutionary Asian sisters in the SEA due to their marginalization within American political movement (246). Asian American women expressed the affinity for the women from SEA and saw them as their role model. The idealization of SEA women reflected a radical orientalists sensibility. Moreover, the conference played a role in the political development of an entire generation of Asian American female activists (255). At the time of the conference, Asian American women were developing a gendered and racialized analysis of the war that emphasized the transnational connections between Asians in Vietnam and in the US. The political leadership of Indochinese women inspired many of American sisters to combat American militarism and imperialism.
This reading was incredibly informative and interesting in that it discussed the Indochinese delegates sharing their experiences, and sharing how the war and political persecution had caused gendered and violence implications for women as well as their effort to fight for liberation. North American women, Asian American women, and others in the world see the strength and resilience of the Indochinese delegates. It was inspiring to hear about their testimonials. Growing up in Los Angeles myself, I never heard or learned anything about this piece of history at school or the media. Just learning about this inspired me as well to connect and play a role in the political development of activism. This reading also reminds me of current events that are happening now with the women’s marches that happened last weekend on Washington in support of women’s rights and related causes.
Documentary: “Aoki,” Directors Mike Cheng and Ben Wang. 2009.
Image Source: http://www.aokifilm.com/film-coverage/Introduction; Part III: Journeys for Global Sisterhood - Chapter 7 “We Met the ‘Enemy’--and They Are Our Sisters,” Chapter 8 War at a Peace Conference, Chapter 9 Woman Warriors.
Judy Tzu-Chan Wu. Radicals on the Road: Internationalism, Orientalism, and Feminism During
the Vietnam Era. 2013.