With May being Asian Pacific American heritage month, there are plenty of Asian American heroes to celebrate. But the majority of Americans may have overlooked the Asian American activism of one very prominent American hero–Mark Twain. Lauded as the father of American literature, few know that one of Twain’s first written, rejected, and finally published articles was a satiric criticism of the poor treatment of Chinese Americans in the 1800s, “Disgraceful Persecution of a Boy”, published in The Galaxy Magazine in May of 1870. The genius in this piece is that he starts out sounding like he is on the side of the boy who is punished for stoning a “Chinaman”, reeling the racist reader in, and then he comes in for the final blow where he reveals that the real culprit of this child’s cruel sin (on a Sunday no less!) was the community of racist bigots that raised him with such xenophobic views. It takes a village, right?
“Everything conspired to teach him that it was a high and holy thing to stone a Chinaman, and yet he no sooner attempts to do his duty than he is punished for it…”
Twain’s pro-Asian and Asian American activist writing doesn’t stop there.
In Roughing It, he dedicates all of Ch. 54 to documenting the the Chinese Americans who live in Virginia. Although his descriptions border on stereotypical, as can be expected of writers of his day, he does make a clear attempt at making respectful and fair observations. Further, he ends the chapter with a scathing description of those Americans who mistreat the Chinese:
“No Californian gentleman or lady ever abuses or oppresses a Chinaman, under any circumstances, an explanation that seems to be much needed in the East. Only the scum of the population do it—they and their children; they, and, naturally and consistently, the policemen and politicians, likewise, for these are the dust-licking pimps and slaves of the scum, there as well as elsewhere in America.”
When the United States of America thoroughly back-stabbed the Philippines by undermining the independence they had so painfully won after centuries of Spanish rule, Twain was one of those who spoke most vocally against the United States imperialistic actions against the Philippines:
“I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Phillippines. We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem. . . It should, it seems to me, be our pleasure and duty to make those people free, and let them deal with their own domestic questions in their own way. And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.”
On top of all that, Twain even collaborated in the writing of a play called “Ah Sin” in which the Chinese American protagonist outwits many white characters, solves the mystery, and saves the day.
For a very interesting, in-depth academic analysis of Mark Twain’s pro-Chinese literary activities, see “Mark Twain’s Racial Ideologies and his Portrayal of the Chinese” by Hsin-yun Ou published in the 2011 Literary and Cultural Studies journal.
I’ve always liked Huckleberry Finn.