At this point in the development of our culture and its history, most college-educated folks, as well as many others, know that the white-washed, reductionist history we were taught in grade school is narrow and crafted to serve the ruling classes; white men dominate that history, despite the fact that people of color, the poor, women, and others had major impacts both on the stories we were told about our nation’s origins and, especially, on the stories we were not (usually) told. At the same time, our knowledge is frequently theoretical; that is, our concrete knowledge of the contributions made by non-white males is often limited.
Ronald Takaki’s A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America (1993) is here to change that. Organized both chronologically and by ethnic group, the book is separated into chapters that tell a single group’s history and its effect in the U.S., including a wealth of quotes and information from original and secondary sources. Connected enough by unifying metaphors to read the work through from cover to cover, each chapter can also stand alone if your interest is more focused and less general.
Among many significant insights, Takaki’s analysis of the civil rights movement as emerging from the upheaval and opportunities during World War II surprised me, because I hadn’t heard it before, and rang true. Such analysis is helpful as we continue to see the results of these developments in our culture. The current backlash in our “post-feminist” and “post-racial” society, with its roots in the 1980s, is another attempt by those with privilege and power in our country to keep the rest of us from uniting for the good of the many, rather than the benefit of a few. Such moves started early in our history (e.g., when “race” was created to divide white indentured servants from black) and, as I’ve said, continue to this day.
Takaki’s book is a classic and deserves to be. When I saw him speak in 2007, his enthusiasm, erudition, and genius were obvious. His tragic death last year was a loss to us all.