Ronald Takaki, the author of the book, finds that people often do not see him as “American” despite the fact that his ancestors emigrated from Japan in the 1880s. He knows that this is thanks to what he calls the “Master Narrative of American history,” which falsely asserts that the United States is a white country. In the book, he will cover the history of many different ethnic groups: African Americans, Asian Americans, Irish Americans, Jewish Americans, Mexican Americans, Muslim Americans, and Native people. Although these groups are very different, they are united by their shared experience of exploitation and class struggle, as well as their hopes and dreams about the US. Takaki believes it is important to study the multiethnic reality of the US in order to “let America be America again,” a phrase he takes from the poem of the same name by Langston Hughes.
During the early period of the English colonization of the US, William Shakespeare wrote The Tempest, a play that analogizes colonialism through its depiction of Prospero, an exiled Italian duke who washes ashore of an exotic island, and Caliban, the indigenous inhabitant of that island. Takaki suggests that Caliban could have been based on the Irish, whose land was colonized by the English and who were dehumanized in the English imagination. English colonizers would repeat the brutal and unjust treatment they originally inflicted on the Irish on Native people when they began colonizing the US.
Although there were initially moments when indigenous people showed generosity to English settlers, this soon gave way to conflict thanks to English violence and duplicity. The settlers killed Native people in brutal ways, and the Native population also began dying of European diseases, to which they had no immunity. The English took advantage of these deaths to expand their settlement.
Meanwhile, in 1619 the first Africans arrived in the Virginia colony. They were indentured servants who had likely been captured as prisoners of war in Africa. For a long time, there were fairly few Africans in the Virginia colony. However, as tobacco farming ramped up, there was a great need for labor. Moreover, the white landowning elite did not want there to be collaborations between white and black indentured servants. As a result, they established a system of racialized slavery. There was thus a contradiction at the very foundation of the American nation state: though the nation was theoretically founded on the principle that all men were created equal, enslaved black people were also legally counted as only three fifths of a person. Under President Andrew Jackson, the federal government aggressively coerced indigenous nations into signing treaties selling their land. Tribes were forced to move west, a move that destroyed their way of life and resulted in the deaths of a staggering number of people. Meanwhile, the government constructed railroad lines through indigenous land.
During the Civil War, the nation was split over the issue of slavery. Black leaders like Frederick Douglass and Martin Delany fought passionately against slavery and anti-black racism. Yet they differed in opinion over whether black people could ever flourish through assimilation in the US, or whether black Americans needed to form an independent nation from white people. Unfortunately, even after the Civil War ended and slavery was abolished, conditions of extreme exploitation, degradation, and dispossession continued for black people. Indeed, some commented that this version of freedom was hardly distinguishable from slavery.
Meanwhile, the ongoing suffering caused by English colonialism and, in particular, the Great Potato Famine, prompted millions of Irish to immigrate to the US in the nineteenth century. Once in the US, the Irish formed close-knit networks of mutual support as well as labor organizations that greatly improved their conditions and status within American society. They were welcomed into Harvard by the university’s President Abbott Lawrence Lowell, and began thriving as part of the country’s middle class.
The American annexation of Texas and California in the mid-nineteenth century left half of Mexican territory a part of the US. Suddenly, a huge number of Mexicans found themselves residents of another country, “foreigners in their own land.” They were strategically dispossessed of their land and rights by American laws, and were forced to work within a “caste labor system.” However, they fought back fiercely against these injustices, frequently going on strike.
In the nineteenth century, the US also saw an influx of Chinese immigrants, who were fleeing the British Opium Wars and economic pressure and pursuing a better life in America. These immigrants, almost all of whom were men, were vital to the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad, and also played key roles within the agricultural sector. Yet in 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusionary Act, which prohibited Chinese immigration. In 1902, the Act was extended indefinitely.
In 1890, American soldiers murdered hundreds of unarmed indigenous men, women, and children in the Massacre at Wounded Knee. Meanwhile, Native people continued to suffer under misguided and deliberately harmful government policies. Meanwhile, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Japanese immigrants began coming to the US, most of them to Hawaii, which was made a US territory in 1900. Many of these immigrants worked on Hawaiian sugarcane plantation under difficult conditions. Yet like other ethnic groups, they fought back by repeatedly going on strike, and in this way managed to improve their circumstances. Despite these gains, though, Japanese immigrants faced intense racism and struggled to find acceptance as members of American society.
In the same period, vehement anti-Semitism and bloody pogroms sent many Russian Jews to the US. These immigrants were concentrated in the Lower East Side of New York City, where many worked in sweatshops as part of the garment industry. Facing difficult conditions, labor struggles became a vital part of the emergent identity of Jewish America. Jewish immigrants enthusiastically embraced the US as their homeland and typically competed to appear as assimilated as possible. However, they faced anti-Semitism in the US too, and in 1924 Congress passed an act that limited the ability of Jewish immigrants to come to the country.
Mexican Americans likewise experienced sustained prejudice and discrimination. One way of coping with these difficulties was through the construction of barrios, Mexican American enclaves where new immigrants could find support and where Mexican culture was a vibrant part of everyday life.
In the twentieth century, African Americans moved North from the South in what came to be known as the Great Migration. Yet although some saw the North as a “Promised Land” where they could finally escape aspects of the suffocating afterlife of slavery, most found life in the North difficult and filled with racism, too. Housing and employment discrimination and violent race riots were a ubiquitous part of life for many black people in the North. At the same time, a new wave of black cultural energy swept the community, which came to be known as the Harlem Renaissance.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans were rounded up and placed in internment camps. Meanwhile, black soldiers were forced to serve in a segregated military, despite the fact that the US was supposedly fighting against racism and for the ideals of equality, democracy, and freedom. The war provided unprecedented opportunities for well-paid employment in the defense industries for many ethnic groups; this social shift was especially meaningful to women of color. The American government refused to allow European Jews to seek asylum in the US even after President Franklin D. Roosevelt knew about the Nazi regime’s plans to exterminate the entire Jewish population of Europe.
Following the Second World War, there was a surge of energy directed toward ending racial discrimination in the US. The main locus of this was the Civil Rights Movement, which culminated with the passing of the Civil Rights Act. Yet despite the legal gains for African Americans during this period, in the following decades the black community continued to suffer from entrenched economic injustice and the cyclical power of poverty.
The fall of the Soviet Union and the Vietnam War brought new waves of Soviet Jewish and Vietnamese immigrants to the US. Meanwhile, brutal conflict and political unrest in Afghanistan likewise pushed many Afghans to seek refuge in the US. Their position in American society was made difficult following 9/11, a terrorist attack orchestrated by the Afghanistan-based organization Al-Qaeda.
In the 1990s and 2000s, the question of what to do with the enormous number of undocumented immigrants in the US—most of them Mexican, although many of them also Irish—became a national talking point. At the time Takaki is writing, the question remains open.
Takaki concludes the book with a reflection on his own life story, which reflects the multiethnic reality of the US. He emphasizes the importance of understanding the past in order to positively shape the future.