Black History Month Reflection as a Vietnamese American

February 22, 2019
Nikki Chau, PIVOT member

How do I reflect upon Black History Month as a Vietnamese American? Already, the words “Black”, “African American”, and “Vietnamese American” are fraught labels. Even as these words are used today to reclaim identities and dignity, they are filled with current and historical racialization of our respective peoples. How do I think about Black history beyond the brutal consequences of white European imagination and policies that took roots over 500 years ago?

Black history is full of brilliant inventors, musicians, authors, poets, scientists, engineers, activists, philosophers, athletes, entrepreneurs, and leaders. Black history is filled with flourishing civilizations, cultures, spiritual traditions, culinary traditions, and great works of art.

Black history in the U.S. is people like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the pioneer of rock ‘n roll, MacArthur genius and science fiction author Octavia Butler, and mathematician Katherine Johnson, the pioneer in space science and computing whose work at NASA was critical for the Apollo Moon landing.

Black history is also filled with colonialism and imperialism. Black history in America is over 500 years of legalized chattel slavery, racial segregation, redlining, and mass incarceration. Black history in the U.S. is people like W. E. B. Du Bois, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and James Baldwin and Kimberlé Crenshaw. It is the ongoing fight against discrimination, the fight for civil rights, and the right to be human for Black people.

As I think of Black History Month as a Vietnamese American, I think about the history of the United States and Vietnam, and how Vietnamese Americans can be in community and solidarity with Black people in our interconnected human struggle for freedom and liberation. I think about our Vietnamese emphasis on “cộng đồng”, community, and what writer and civil rights activist Audre Lorde said, “Without community, there is no liberation...but community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist.”

Growing up in Vietnam, I learned about “Mỹ”, “America” through my parents and Hollywood movies. Mỹ, the place where all people were free, where there were plenty of Ovaltine and fresh milk and Coca Cola, and everyone lived in a house like the one in the movie “Home Alone”. Mỹ was where our allies were, where life for us promised to be so much better, that some members of my family — and 3 million others — were risking their lives fleeing persecution, leaving their homeland on a boat, to get to a land over 7000 miles away to reach for greater freedom.

Growing up in Vietnam and the United States, my parents would refer to a “người Mỹ”, an American, as a person with white skin. We are Vietnamese, others are Black, Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, Filipino, etc. “Nước Mỹ”, America, naturally meant the country of the white people. It would take me years to learn the true history of the Americas, and how Black people came to these continents.

By 1480, the Transatlantic Slave Trade had begun, spearheaded by the Portuguese. The Spanish brought enslaved Africans to present-day South Carolina in 1526. Other Europeans would soon follow suit. From the 1500s to the 1800s, it’s estimated that between 10 to 12 million Africans were forced to leave their homes and ruthlessly taken to a land 5,000 miles away to labor under brutal conditions on sugar, tobacco, rice, and cotton plantations. This unpaid labor for hundreds of years provided great wealth and power to Europe, Europeans, and European Americans (who uprooted Indigenous peoples and occupied their lands).

When I talk about this part of U.S. history with other Vietnamese Americans, I sometimes get the response: “But that was a long time ago.” I understand why that resistance is there.

In postwar Vietnam, my dad lost everything, all material and spiritual possessions. He was dehumanized. He was humiliated. He lost his sense of worth, both to society and to himself. He lost his freedom to move around, to have a job, and just to exist. To him, and to many other Vietnamese refugees, coming to America was a second chance to restore what was lost.

My parents often talk about gratitude and indebtedness to those who have helped us. I am currently in Vietnam and have been visiting relatives and friends of my parents for Tết nonstop. I’m exhausted at the end of every day. When I talk to my mom, she reminds me who were kind to us, who let us borrow money, and who let us stay in their homes decades ago. My Tết visits are the smallest repayment possible. “Mình trả ơn, con,” she would say, “We repay the favor.”

I know this feeling of indebtedness also applies to the U.S. as a whole for Vietnamese. “This country gave my family everything we have” is a sentiment I often hear. I suspect that for Vietnamese Americans, acknowledging the shameful history of slavery and racism in America might feel like a betrayal of our “ân nhân”, our benevolent benefactor.

But our “ân nhân” also include Black people. Black people’s blood, sweat, and tears built America for over 350 years without payment and reparations. Black people have made significant contributions to the U.S. and the world in the fields of science, technology, music, and many others, including civil rights.

When four Black college students defied Jim Crow laws and sat down at a “whites-only” lunch counter in North Carolina on February 1, 1960, they ignited the civil rights movement that led to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, abolishing the race-based immigration quota system that had been in place since 1917, which banned Asians from entering the U.S.

The Immigration and Nationality Act made it possible for my cousins, who left Vietnam on a boat illegally in the 70s, to become U.S. citizens and to eventually sponsor their parents — my aunt and uncle –– to legally immigrate to the US in the 90s, and to leave on an airplane. This law made it possible for my nieces and nephews to grow up knowing their grandparents.

Black people aren’t only our “ân nhân” and fellow Americans or fellow residents of the U.S., they are also our relatives, they are also our family. As Vietnamese people migrate, we marry people of different racial and ethnic roots. We now have family members of mixed heritage, including Native American Vietnamese, Filipino Vietnamese, French Vietnamese, Latin Vietnamese, and of course, Black Vietnamese.

It was a Black woman, Mildred Loving, who made it possible for interracial marriages in the U.S. to be legal. Mildred Loving and her white husband were sentenced to prison for having a mixed-race marriage. They sued the state of Virginia and won. In 1967, the United States Supreme Court struck down all state laws banning interracial marriage. This made it possible for me to legally marry a white European American with Polish and German ancestry, sanctioned by the State of California, while I and my mom proudly wore our traditional Vietnamese áo dài.

When I think about Black History Month, I thank Mildred Loving. I remember that Vietnamese people can have many different skin shades. If I have children, they will be Vietnamese, they will be descendants of Lạc Long Quân and Âu Cơ as told in our creation myth. Likewise, children of Black and Vietnamese people are also con rồng cháu tiên – descendants of a water dragon and a mountain fairy.

Today, I know that what I was told as a child about the U.S. is only partially true. Only some Americans live in a house like in “Home Alone”. Centuries of social and economic injustice have created massive inequality. A median white household has 13 times the wealth of the median Black household, most of it is transferred between generations. And this is just one of many issues of injustice and discrimination Black people in America continue to face today.

In 2019, Black people are still fighting for equal treatment under the law; Black people are still fighting to have the same rights to education. It wasn’t that long ago that Black Americans were not allowed to attend the same school as their fellow white Americans. Ruby Bridges, the first Black student to attend an all-white school, was born four years after my mom.

Thinking of Black History Month, I remember that my parents brought me to the U.S. for greater education and career opportunities, and this is what Affirmative Action aims to do for all who have not had equal opportunities in the U.S., especially for my darker brothers and sisters, who proclaim, as poet Langston Hughes wrote, “I, too, sing America.”

As a Vietnamese, I’m often reminded of my history. “One thousand years of Chinese domination,” I’m told. “April 30th,” my dad recalls every year. For every death anniversary in the family, I was taught since a young age to light an incense on our ancestral altar, to remember my ancestors and what they’ve done. Similarly, as an American, It’s my obligation to know Black history, past and present, because Black history is American history.

My mom tells me to “sống có tình có nghĩa”, to live with heart, compassion, and care. She tells me to “nhớ ơn”, to remember what has been done for me. Reflecting on Black History Month as a Vietnamese American, to me it means acknowledging Black people’s contributions to society and how I have benefited; it’s recognizing my place and responsibility in the ongoing fight for justice and equity; it’s looking inward to see what negative anti-Blackness stereotypes live in me; and it’s holding the United States accountable to the Declaration of Independence, that all humans have unalienable Rights to Life and Liberty. I hope many other Vietnamese Americans will join me.

Author’s note: People in the African diaspora are incredibly diverse and have the richest and most varied background of any other ethnic group in the Americas. I chose to use the terms “Black”, “Black folks”, “Black people”, and “Black Americans” instead of “African Americans” to acknowledge this richness and variety of ethnic backgrounds and migration history.