Unpublished Black Asian History

This photo captures a quiet story of a multicultural South, black philanthropy, transpacific militarism and its hauntings, the organizing strength of Black women, and the power of Black journalism and photography. How does this one photo tell me about all these things?

MomGrandmaRuthellaFirst, I have to explain what inspired me to dig this picture out of an old album. Last week, New York Times editor Damien Cave visited my university campus and made a special visit to my anthropology class to discuss the ways journalists are reimagining stories about race and ethnicity and co-creating stories through innovative digital engagement. While formulating my lecture and class activities in anticipation of his visit, I found myself entrenched in the stories in this series he worked on, “Unpublished Photos of Black History.”

Cave and other writers carefully assembled photos that were for one reason or another, excluded from the news or tucked quietly away into archives or back pages as a blip, rendering those particular stories invisible until now.

I then came across a wonderful feature asking readers to contribute their own photo and story of how it could contribute to a less visible/acknowledged piece of Black History. I was compelled and immediately knew which one to submit.

This was taken in the 1960’s in Texas according to my mother. The woman on the left is my mother who had somewhat recently arrived from Okinawa. She left Okinawa before it reverted to Japan which meant she went from a politically ambiguous state that thrived on extralegal governance only to arrive in another nonsensical landscape, fiercely segregated Texas. In a place where the binary of black/white dominated, an encounter with an Asian woman was a strange experience.

In the middle is my stately grandmother. She was biracial and her white father and black mother lived together when it was still illegal. My grandmother and her two siblings were considered bastards until the anti-miscegenation laws were repealed. She was a school teacher and she lived in the fifth ward of Houston. Women like my grandmother gave my mother a somewhat normalizing social life—teaching her how to play card games like Bridge with her friends, cook collard greens and do our thick locks of hair (when we came along.)  She was a sounding board for when she needed a confidante. She helped her navigate life off the US military base and in a world where racial boundaries were dizzying.

On the right is my aunt who was adopted from Korea. She is Black and Korean.  My grandmother read multiple stories about Black Korean children and the crisis of these highly racialized children in orphanages.  In the 1950’s, magazines like Ebony published photos with explicit instructions on how their predominantly Black readers in particular could adopt or make their voice heard at the state department.  These calls to action made their way into the homes of people like my grandmother.  She belonged to an organized group of Black women who were activists, educators, and philanthropists and they had intense discussions about these articles in these Black journals.  She ultimately made the decision to adopt both my aunt and uncle from Korea. Already a stepmother to multiple other children, including my dad and his other siblings (who were already about 20 years older) she was still moved to “do her part” and expand the family by two more children.

This photo tells me of these interesting intersections in the US South: Black women who organized wth an eye on translational events/processes and Asian women and mixed children who were intimately incorporated into the fold of highly racialized spaces.

I encourage other families to submit their photos and stories as well. They open our understanding of what it means to be a member of our imagined communities.

**UPDATE**  I just had a lovely conversation with my aunt in this photo and she said, it was not just the magazines but her church community that also made a significant impact.  She was a member of Antioch Baptist Church, the oldest and first Black baptist church in Houston organized by freed slaves in the late 1800’s.  Members of that church community also had discussions about these adoptions and she reached out to an agency based in Seoul.  

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8 comments

  1. Your American grandmother has been quite progressive. I appreciate how she embraced your Okinawan mother and included her in the circle of friends, teaching her about the culture and ways to cook the cultural food. Thanks for the post. It gives me hope for a more inclusive world. My mother is Okinawan as well. Cheers!

  2. Hi,I really appreciate your story. Your family is beautiful and you obviously come from strong, dedicated stock. After her murder, I learned to appreciate my mother even more while researching records and family history as I learned I was not a citizen and needed to apply. It took years, a series of attorneys and an incredible level of stress to endure. But as of July 2015, I became a citizen at 66 years old. My citizenship process determined my legal name was Teruo Uechi Canty. Before that, it was Ted Canty. Immigrating to the U.S. in 1952 (in the Jim Crow south), my wonderful Black relatives could not pronounce TERUO, so, I was called “Teddy”. That stuck as “Ted”. Well. I could go on and on, but did want to say, I appreciated what you are doing. I had no way to outreach to others that looked like me and that understood those “special” issues. Thank you. By the way, I graduated from Berkeley, my wife from UCLA (boooo!), my son from UC Davis and works with legislation for California Community Colleges . Oldest son is with Department of Finance. All is well!! Note!!–I am going, with son, to world kenjin-kai to Okinawa in October. I will introduce my son to all his relatives and more…. Ted Teruo

    Date: Tue, 8 Mar 2016 12:06:11 +0000 To: me-and-monk@outlook.com

  3. I came across this on FB. My niece is haafu and lives in Japan. I look forward to being there for her so she knows and understands her Black American family from Ohio. She turns two this year so it’s great to know of people like yourself that are interested in sharing their point of view so she will not feel alone and can find answers in people like yourself if she has questions.

    Thank you

  4. What a wonderful, compelling story behind this picture! I need to make “Grits and Sushi”!- regular on-line stop!

  5. My friends sent your blog to me. I’m so happy to see your story. My combo is Chinese-Trinidadian mom and New Orleans dad! Keep shining with your ‘Grits and Sushi’! Check my film “From Shanghai to Harlem” on vimeo.

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