“Answers for the Future Often Lie in the Past”
Speech delivered at a rally on the Brooklyn Bridge during AAPI Heritage Month in 2023. “Stop AAPI Hate” and “Hate is a Virus” are printed in bold letters on poster boards, as AAPIs and allies protest continued violence and structural inequalities.
The Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community is under attack! Characterizing it otherwise would be a blatant lie. COVID saw a rise in anti-AAPI hate, as countless frustrated Americans blamed East Asians for a pandemic that all humans experienced. 5,771 AAPIs—our siblings, our parents, our friends—died in incidents of violent hate crimes in 2021 alone. Even though these numbers have decreased since the height of the pandemic and the nation’s attention has left our struggle, structural inequalities still exist, as they have throughout American history. AAPIs are still subject to forced deportations that break up our families. AAPIs still suffer from the unfair expectations of the model minority myth.
But how do we exert agency in such rigid institutions and fight against systems of oppression? What does progress look like for us, and how can we work towards it? These are questions that continue to gnaw at me, as I am sure they do for you. I urge you to turn your attention to history to start to find answers to these questions.
Take Clyde Ross for example. As a Black man born in Clarksdale, Mississippi in 1923, he experienced the full force of the Jim Crow kleptocracy. He came to North Lawndale, Chicago in 1947 to escape the violence, but the North was no safe haven. Clyde still could not access homeownership due to racist mortgage policies and redlining: “He’d bought ‘on contract,’ a predatory agreement that combined all the responsibilities of homeownership with all the disadvantages of renting—while offering the benefits of neither.” Without owning property, Clyde could not tap into the suburban, middle-class bliss of Levittown. He was denied the “emblem of American citizenship” throughout history, but especially during the Cold War when owning private property confirmed one’s dedication to America’s capitalist system. The impending threat of meeting rent every month, the cost of fixing a broken boiler, and the lack of equity gained from his property over time meant that Clyde could never view his house as anything more than a shelter. His house was not a place of comfort or belonging—like it is for many of us—but a reminder of the cycle of poverty and systemic racism he was trapped in.
Even though dismantling structural inequalities, which infected almost all aspects of American society, felt impossible, Clyde still fought. He helped create the Contract Buyers League in 1968, where a collection of roughly 500 Black people protested the predatory contract system. They went door-to-door in upper-class neighborhoods, exposing the inequities of contract lending to white speculators. They supported each other financially and emotionally. They sued contract sellers in a monumental case, accusing them of depriving Black people the equal protection of the law.
I will not sugarcoat the result of the suit for you. Clyde lost, but that should not deem his work futile nor invalidate the importance of his story. Through the state court case, Clyde and his organization made the racist housing policies more visible to white American society, paving a path for future activists—a huge leap forward in the marathon of progress. Besides, Clyde demonstrates how advocacy does not necessarily require large-scale legal reform but rather innovative methods of resistance that tangibly help people in need. Building a community of like-minded activists and leveraging their strength in numbers to start to make the change they wanted to see, Clyde translated his anger with the unjust American system and his will to fight since his early days in Mississippi into action.
Tony Kushner, a gay American, channeled a similar frustration into his art, fighting against the Reagan administration’s complete neglect and ignorance that killed thousands of gay people during the AIDS epidemic. In his play Angels in America, a protagonist named Prior grapples with mortality and estrangement when he is diagnosed with AIDS as a gay man in the 1980s. As Prior lies on his bed and counts his remaining days, the Angel of America descends from Heaven and chooses Prior as a prophet, telling him to stop human movement. At the Hall of the Continental Principalities in Heaven, Prior challenges this absurd prophecy: “we can’t just stop. We’re not rocks. Progress, migration, motion is…modernity. It’s animate, it’s what living things do. We desire.” Prior’s altercation with the Angel represents the age-old struggle between change and stagnance—a push forward versus a pull back. As Prior and other marginalized people carve out more liberties for themselves—reflective of the progress made by the social movements of the 60s and 70s—the Angel absurdly urges Prior to stop this human movement. She views the challenge of traditional power structures as the chaos that caused God to flee and left Heaven in shambles. The Angel’s prophecy—fighting for so-called order and a restoration of law and traditional values—echoes that of the uproaring religious right in the 80s, especially Reagan who preached Nixon’s “law and order.” I mean it’s no coincidence that Tony uses angels, who are typically associated with organized faith like Christianity, to hint at his connection to the religious right in this metaphor.
By highlighting the Angel’s flawed doctrines of immobility, which Prior reveals completely go against animal nature and should rather be associated with inanimate objects like “rocks,” Tony indicts the religious right and the Reagans. He dismantles Reagan’s perfect image as a patriotic evangelical Christian, exposing his blatant mistreatment of marginalized communities that prevented people with AIDS from receiving institutional support and ridiculous views on progress that align with the Angel’s message.
While Clyde used legal and grassroots reform, Tony leveraged art as a mode of political commentary and activism to amplify his and his community’s voices when they were repressed by the government. He makes sure that people like Prior “don’t die secret deaths anymore,” providing visibility to the experiences of gay people with AIDS—their stories, their struggles, and their humanity—to break societal stigma that prevented crucial discourse surrounding the epidemic. Since Tony’s “political theater asks complicated questions; it explores; it doesn’t offer simple dogma,” in contrast to a non-fiction political essay that presents an argument as inherent fact, fiction allows Tony to make his message more digestible to mainstream white society. Through art that does not lull the audience into a false sense of catharsis, Tony gives his readers the agency to ask “complicated questions,” identify with parts that are pertinent to them, and reflect on and combat their implicit biases.
Ultimately, remembering Tony and Clyde shields us from reducing meaningful stories to statistics. While our struggle today is completely different in circumstance, in time, and in goal, their experiences not only teach us how individuals can tackle structures of oppression in diverse, unique ways but also that there is hope for progress and what this can look like now.
When Tony and Clyde indicted people in power for crimes committed against their communities, they “were no longer simply seeking the protection of the law. They were seeking reparations.” We are here to do the same—to follow in the path that Tony and Clyde carved for us. Reparations do not just mean economic compensation but rather “a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.” Just as Tony and Clyde worked to raise awareness about their status quo’s flaws, revealing “the facts of our history,” we must awaken the American consciousness to entrenched anti-AAPI hate. Only when white Americans look past exceptionalism and recognize our country’s anti-Asian immigration policies like the Chinese Exclusion Act will we be able to dismantle persisting institutional discrimination and eventually work toward reparations—both monetary retribution and an ideological paradigm shift.
As the AIDS epidemic exposed explicit and underlying hatred toward the gay community, COVID and the rise of anti-AAPI hate crimes have shown us the “limits of tolerance, because when the shit hits the fan you find out how much tolerance is worth. Nothing. And underneath all the tolerance is intense, passionate hatred.” However, when “the shit hits the fan,” we have bounced back, which Tony and Clyde are a testament to.
It’s now our turn to resist. We urge you to be creative, find your cause, and reveal the harsh truths about persisting anti-AAPI structures! Find your support systems: when Prior’s boyfriend left during his time of need, his real friends stepped up, helping him survive for six years and counting despite the odds.
We recognize that progress, especially reparations, is going to be slow and laborious, which can feel disheartening and frustrating now. But remember that we always have history as a crutch. As we have our sights set forward, remember that answers for the future often lie in the past. Thank you!
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “The Case for Reparations.” The Atlantic, February 2, 2023. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/
Foner, Eric. Give Me Liberty!: An American History. Vol. 2, 6th ed. New York City, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2020.
“Immigration Enforcement: How It Affects the AAPI Community.” Asian American Advancing Justice. Accessed June 1, 2023. https://www.advancingjustice-aajc.org/sites/default/files/2016-09/Immigration%20Enforcement_Why.pdf.
Kushner, Tony. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. Theatre Communications Group, 2013.
Kushner, Tony. “Notes About Political Theater.” The Kenyon Review 19, no. 3/4 (Summer 1997): 1–5.
“National Report (through September 2021).” Stop AAPI Hate. https://stopaapihate.org/2021/11/18/national-report-through-september-2021/.