Happy birthday to civil rights activist Yuri Kochiyama! She would have turned 102 today. We celebrate her as a powerhouse of the Asian American movement and as a key figure in the US’s timeline of Black and Asian American Solidarity. She joined Malcolm X’s pan-Africanist Organization for Afro-American Unity. Incidentally, Kochiyama and X had the same birthday. As Catherine Ceniza Choy writes in this passage from Asian American Histories of the United States, Black and Asian solidarity has a longer history than is acknowledged. It hasn’t been widely taught or white supremacist media has expressly pitted Asian and Black communities against each other. May Kochiyama rest in power.
November 6, 1968, at San Francisco State College was a watershed moment in United States history. It marked the beginning of the Black Student Union and Third World Liberation Front (TWLF) student strike, an action that would last five months and become the longest college strike in US history. The TWLF was a multiracial alliance of Black, Asian American, Latino, and American Indian students who demanded institutional change. Its constituent organizations included the Black Student Union, Latin American Student Organization, Mexican American Student Coalition, Philippine American Collegiate Endeavor, Asian American Political Alliance, and Intercollegiate Chinese for Social Action. Their activism led to the establishment of the College of Ethnic Studies.
The 1968 TWLF strike was not the first time that Blacks and Asian Americans had expressed solidarity with one another. Rather, this historical event is part of a long history of mutual support between these two groups that spans over 150 years. This support took shape in many forms including advocacy for immigration, union organizing, friendship in times of national crisis, and activism for civil rights.
Tragically, this history is not well known because both groups have been pitted against one another, an egregious example of which is the way that news stories in the late 1960s and early 1970s presented Asian Americans as model minorities at the expense of Blacks. In 1966, a U.S. News & World Report story titled “Success Story of One Minority Group in U.S.” depicted Chinese and “other Orientals” as successful immigrants who suffered prejudice, but who did not complain, achieving success through hard work alone. This seemingly positive branding was set in contrast to Black Americans, who were used as the example of an unsuccessful minority who protested hardship and relied on the government for help.
Asian American studies scholars have long argued that the model minority is a harmful stereotype, emphasizing that one of its most pernicious impacts is its construction of a Black and Asian American divide. Yet the association of Asian Americans as docile, model minorities persists, as does the perception of Black and Asian American enmity.
We can learn lessons from histories of Black and Asian American solidarity.
After moving to Harlem in 1960, human rights activist Yuri Kochiyama met Malcolm X, and their friendship transformed both of them. She was moved by his calls for Black liberation and began working with Black nationalist organizations in Harlem. As the FBI and police surveilled and repressed Black activists, Kochiyama dedicated herself to supporting political prisoners, “providing non-stop letter writing—often at two or three in the morning,” and linking the plight of imprisoned political activists to her own internment in Jerome, Arkansas, during World War II. In 1964, Malcolm X visited the Kochiyamas to meet Japanese hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors) and journalists on a world peace tour. He also sent the Kochiyamas postcards from his travels to Africa and other parts of the world. One of them, mailed from Kuwait on September 27, 1964, read: “Still trying to travel and broaden my scope since I’ve learned what a mess can be made by narrow-minded people. Bro. Malcolm X.”
In February 1965, when Malcolm X was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan, Yuri Kochiyama was there. She had been in the audience waiting to hear him address the Organization of Afro-American Unity, which he had recently founded. After the burst of gunfire, she rushed to the stage, cradled his head on her lap, pleading with him to stay alive. Although a photograph of Kochiyama comforting Malcolm X was published in Life magazine, there was no mention of her by name, and only in recent years has there been mention of an Asian American in attendance at Malcolm’s final speech.
Black and Asian American solidarity existed well before the TWLF strike at San Francisco State College in 1968. As this brief history shows, some of these examples of mutual support continued after the 1960s, weaving together personal and collective time lines, and overlapping in ways that may surprise us because we never knew about them. In May 2021, a survey commissioned by the nonprofit organization LAAUNCH (Leading Asian Americans to Unite for Change) found that 42 percent of people in the US could not name one well-known Asian American. Not one Asian American name.
What’s in the names: Frederick Douglass, David Fagen, Cipriano Samonte, Takashi Hoshizaki, the Marshalls, Kiyoshi Kuromiya, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Cecilia Suyat Marshall, Thurgood Marshall, Grace Lee Boggs, James Boggs, Yuri Kochiyama, Malcolm X? Histories of Black and Asian American solidarity that many of us did not know. Histories that we could not know because we never learned about them.
As a result, we find ourselves grappling with one-dimensional, tired and tiring stories that emphasize the animosity between us. In the age of COVID-19, we bear witness to the intense circulation of videos and images of Blacks committing violence against Asian Americans on social media, creating the notion that the surges in anti-Asian hate crimes and incidents are primarily a problem of Black-on-Asian violence. But, like the model minority, this too is a myth.
About the Author
Catherine Ceniza Choy is professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Before that, she was an assistant professor of American studies at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. She is the author of the books Empire of Care and Global Families and the co-editor of the anthology Gendering the Trans-Pacific World. An engaged public scholar, she has been interviewed in many media outlets, including ABC 2020, The Atlantic, CNN, the Los Angeles Times, NBC News, the New York Times, ProPublica, the San Francisco Chronicle, Time, and Vox. Connect with her on Twitter @CCenizaChoy.