AAPI Heritage Month #10

May 10, 2023

Today in 1869, the “golden spike” completed the transcontinental railroad. Asian laborers were excluded from ceremonial photos. Reflections?

From what I understand, this historic day is a reason policymakers in the 1970’s used to advocate for recognition of AAPI Heritage in May. During these federal bill hearings did politicians and advocates clarify that Asian workers–primarily Chinese indentured laborers–were excluded from the ceremonial photos? Was the creation of AAPI Heritage Month motivated by the exclusion of Asian laborers from the historic documentation? While this is a disgusting and classically American way of re-writing history, is this such a significant transgression against Asian and Pacific Islander peoples that it requires a federally recognized month?

All in all, exclusion is the glaringly obvious reflection here. Let’s keep in mind that this was a time when snapping pics wasn’t as easy as using our handheld future machines. This was a whole process with glass and fire and shit. Let alone the eternal struggle of setting up a group photo. The work it takes to be like, “hey guys could you all just stand way over there? Okay just a little more to your left… more.. okay like 10 more feet.” As we know it was more like they threw some derogatory remarks to the Asian workers to get out of the shot or something else horrifying.

To not go down the road of my sarcastic conjecturing and enraged flippancy too far, I will redraw back to the harm of excluding these workers and a process of repair. In a quick Google search I found this heart-warming 2014 NPR piece, as they are known to produce when it comes to “fixing” racial tension. This is where the “heritage” shows up for me in “heritage month.” In 2002, a Chinese-American student led a project to recreate this photo with decedents of the Asian laborers, 130 years after the “golden spike” was set in the ground. That is badass. Then in 2014, the U.S. Department of Labor inducted the Asian laborers into its Hall of Honor. That part is great, but more annoying because of all the ways that the millions of other Black and Brown people who built this country are not respected in such ways.

Yet, I digress — this is an interesting case study for the importance of critiquing how we are told and shown history from the oppressor’s perspective, and strategies to repair those harms.

The most famous photograph associated with the first transcontinental railroad is Andrew J. Russell’s “East and West Shaking Hands at Laying of Last Rail,” commonly known as “The Champagne Photo.” (May 10, 1869)

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