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A Different Mirror by Ronald Takaki takes us through the history of America using a unique point of view. Takaki’s vision of America as a functioning society in times leading up to, during, and preceding the “transformation” of America is told through a very different approach. Previously, when studying American history, the main idea rests on the settling of America as a new land and the portrayal of its possibilities and opportunities by the Europeans. However, A Different Mirror ventures in a different direction, one that looks at the History of America from the viewpoint of those who immigrated here and dedicated their lives to become citizens despite the trials and prejudice that lay before them. Takaki’s emphasis is on an alternative narrative that really sinks its feet into the idea of a multicultural America portraying all cultures and their own personal backgrounds that led them to the new world. Native Americans, Italian Americans, Jewish Americans, Japanese and Chinese Americans, Irish Americans, Mexican Americans, and most of all African Americans all played a pivotal role in the development of American History. However, through this alternative look of America’s history and the outcomes and consequences of manifest destiny and the master narrative, I do find myself asking questions and wondering why he decided to tell this story from this perspective. To say Takaki has bias is an obvious statement, a bias towards who or what is the real question. To me, this bias rests in the credit given to “white Europeans” in the founding and shaping of America.
The first paragraph of chapter one sets up the foundation of the purpose for the rest of the book. “How long have you been in this country”. This question alone speaks volumes to America’s racially diverse culture, yet the reason I feel it is included is due the way it is asked. Had the taxi driver asked Takaki, “Where are you from?” would this have been a more acceptable question? Maybe. I think the passive undertone of the question is what made it important. It gives the idea that the taxi driver is assuming that due to Takaki’s race, he could not be an American, which is just ignorance on the part of the taxi driver. A question that arose when reading this was that Takaki doesn’t specify what year this happened. People’s views have changed, had this been in the late ’70s or early ’80s would it have been more acceptable to ask someone this question. Most likely not, but was it more common to assume someone of another race was not from America back then? Perhaps. In leading up to the current day of America, we can assume that every citizen is of equal rights despite race or ethnic grouping.
I do not believe that Takaki discriminates against people due to race, I feel he is far to intelligent to make such judgments based on ignorance. What I do feel, however, is that he is very prideful and holds his own culture and his past family’s experiences in the forging of America with the highest regard. Being Japanese himself and a descendant to Japanese field workers in Hawaii, in my opinion, may cause a subconscious bias towards the white Europeans who settled here. At the same time, I also feel he is too educated to make these types of biases.
“From an early age, he was acutely attuned to the inequities in Hawaii’s tough and ethnically divided plantation system. He saw how people of color were put to work for long hours in the hot and humid sugar cane factories.’
I feel that his Japanese culture and the history of his ancestors do weigh on his vision of how his alternative narrative of American history was told in A Different Mirror. I feel that many history books when discussing American history tend to only talk about the white Europeans and their progress of the nation. While the history books do include slavery, prejudice, and mistreatment of immigrants, they do not go into great detail being as how those issues arose due to immigration and the history books tend to lean directly towards the settlers. Takaki’s view is refreshing and gives an entirely new perspective, but also tends to sway the opinions of the reader.
One example would be slavery in Virginia. “Virginia’s 550,000 slaves constituted one-third of the state’s population in 1860”. While Takaki’s a Different Mirror goes deep into the tragic event of slavery in chapters three and five, through outside readings, I have found his vision he is trying to portray to the reader, while not exaggerated, does not always tell the full happenings of these times. “Its early African laborers sometimes worked for a term of service alongside similarly indentured Europeans. Black and white indentured servants shared alcohol, sex, marriage, death, and escapes across what would only later, after slavery, be called the “color-line”. Takaki never delves into these incidents of blacks and whites working together and sharing their lives. Granted indentured servants and slavery are by no means the same, not all whites shared the hatred and racial attitude towards blacks as the book would lead us to believe. But that’s not to say that all whites were in favor of slavery and shared Takaki’s implied attitude of whites towards the blacks either, the abolitionists for example were quite the opposite. To be honest, I learned more about the abolitionists from watching the forum video than I did reading Takaki’s book. Now, I do not claim that Takaki purposely did not expand his writings to focus more on the abolitionists in an attempt to further illuminate the suffering and turmoil of slavery, but I do not feel that both sides of the issue were equally represented.
Ronald Takaki is highly respected amongst his peers and an award-winning author. I do not pass any judgment on his character or question his writing. A Different Mirror is a fantastic and extremely well-written book and I would recommend to anyone wanting to read about our country’s history. However, I would tell them to do so with a grain of salt.
Takaki puts great emphasis on the role that race has played when it comes to the growth of America. The main point that Takaki brings to light is that in the history of America, being born with darker skin is a visual indication of being an inferior human being. During the eighteenth century, this was the common view of the public to all non-white races. Takaki’s focus was to counter this idea that continues to grow to this day in America.
While I believe a Different Mirror was not intended to be received with a bias towards white settlers and British settlers, the fact remains that it is there. There were times during my reading of this book that I would stop and think, “Am I proud to be an American?” This is due to the message illustrated by the subject matter of this book. I feel a lot of people who have read this book or intend to read it in the future need to go into doing so with an open mind. Now, I am no way saying that there is an alternative, brighter side to slavery because there is not. The slaves did not choose to come to America, they were brought by force. But for those who did decide to make the trip to America, the “land of opportunity”, did so on their own merit. Now, I agree many were met with hostility, but not all of them. Additionally, not all the hostility they were met with was from whites. As for myself, my biological parents are both Irish, as were their parents who most likely came to America during the early 1900s. Now, much like Takaki, I can say that my ancestors were living in the middle of this time and working in factories and textile warehouses. Should I write a book with an alternate narrative that emphasizes the struggle of immigrants to America in the 1900s? Most likely not. While A Different Mirror his very informative and historically accurate, Takaki, in my opinion, does have an obvious bias. From the way, he describes the early settlers’ attitudes and actions towards the native Americans all the way through the “relocation” of the Japanese after Pearl Harbor, that feeling, to me, stayed constant. With the book being so well written and with such great information, it all seems to come back full circle to one thing, whites treating the non-whites like dirt. As I mentioned earlier, I would highly recommend this book to anyone looking to learn about America’s history, but I would do so with the mention of taking it with a grain of salt.
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