Like much of the Asian American community, I was stunned and saddened to my core a couple of weeks ago to hear about the terrible murder of Sikh people in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Adding to the tragedy, there seems to be little empathy or coverage of this terrible event in the mainstream American press and consciousness. What little there has been in the mainstream press has been problematic.
Shortly after the incident, I received an email from Preeti Kaur with a poem about the hate crime. I was floored by it. I asked Preeti to write an artist's statement and her thoughts for this blog. Her response follows, with a link to her full poem at the end.
On August 5, 2012, while morning services were starting at the Sikh Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, a gunman barged into the place of worship with assault weapons. For over two hours, he terrorized the worshipers -- an innocent crowd consisting of faith scholars, elderly, women, and children. He ultimately shot six dead, seriously wounded three others including a police lieutenant, and ended his terror by fatally shooting himself to death. Posthumous investigations indicated the killer, Wade Michael Page, was a decades-long out-spoken member of white supremacist groups and bands.
As an American and a practicing Sikh, I was deeply aggrieved that this could happen in one of our places of worship. In times of grief, poetry can give us the space to connect our personal grief with external grief. Letters Home is a collection of poems which seek to connect the tragedy in Oak Creek with the larger narrative of violence in the name of a deep-seeded racial hatred in this country.
The Oak Creek shooting calls us to seek the guidance of Bhagat Singh Thind, a Sikh from Punjab, India, who fought for the United States in World War I, but was denied American citizenship because of xenophobic laws during his era.
The Oak Creek killings rekindle our American remorse for the heinous murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi, the first person killed in a hate crime after 9/11, for being an immigrant practicing his faith by visibly emphasizing his difference in wearing a turban. Practicing Sikh men, and some women, wear a turban to cover their long, unshorn hair, which they maintain as a commitment to acceptance, and to being a distinguishable beacon of sanctuary in times of danger. Yet in America, this difference exhibited by practicing Sikhs, especially in the post-9/11 years, has meant being subject to bullying in schools, being subject to racial epithets or violence in society, to the most extreme punishment: death.
Oak Creek calls on the Sikh community itself, again spotlighted in a time of tragedy, to respond with the dictates of our teachings: compassion, resilience, and a lived strength, especially in a time of loss.
Oak Creek re-awakens our historical amnesia and reminds us of the Bellingham Riots of 1907, where the Asiatic Exclusion League, a xenophobic organization of the time, violently ejected over 400 Sikh lumbermen from a Washington lumber-town.
Oak Creek brings alive Vincent Chin, a Chinese American who was killed in Detroit in 1982 in a hate crime which has been historically labeled a case of mistaken identity. One cannot help suggesting, in this era of extreme Islamophobia played out on the national policy and media theaters, that perhaps Sikhs, who might look like a version of the so-called 'enemy' to people with crude knowledge of the world, were 'mistaken' for an alternative target-- a Muslim target. No one deserves brutality for being stereotyped as an enemy, no matter what their faith. No one deserves a political climate which justifies racist collective punishment. In the last two weeks alone our nation has seen eight attacks against places of worship, most of them Muslim places of worship. America needs to address the political climates which give vigor to hate-based violence within our borders.
Oak Creek also calls us to question collective punishment and supremacist ideologies around the world, from the 1984 pogroms against the Sikhs in Delhi, India, to the recent March 2012 massacre of villagers in Panjwai, Afghanistan.
Finally, Oak Creek should evoke a dirge of grief from all Americans. The symbolism of white supremacist violence against a place of worship inhabited by people of color is something our country witnessed in the 1963 bombing of a Black church in Birmingham, Alabama during the Civil Rights movement. We have moved mountains since then, yet mountains remain.
President Obama still has not visited the families of the Oak Creek victims, as he has done in other recent mass-shootings in our nation, leaving many to wonder why a tragedy against a minority racialized community does not deserve the dignity of a President's gesture of shared national grief. What happened in Oak Creek is an American tragedy. I grieve for America.
Excerpt of poem Letters Home:
please forward to the 50 states/ the white house/ all territories/ the flagged patch on the moon
the gurdwara door is open
our bare feet like cracked glass
our covered heads bulletproof from ego
we turn our backs on bellingham
build our gurdwaras from post traumatic cinder
of bombed birmingham black church
nina simone sings tera bhaana meetha laage*
to tune of mississippi goddamn
gunpowder lines noses of children
left behind wailing mummy papa we will never forget you
‘the love that forgives’ a lullaby
which sears obedient
into a bittering lemon
i stand half mast, america
i grieve for my future son, america
i grieve for all nights, america
i grieve for all nights
*A Sikh prayer invoking acceptance of sacrifice. Literally, it means “May I experience Your will as sweet to me.”
For complete poem, please see here.
Preeti Kaur attended Gurdwara at the local Sikh center in Minneapolis for years as a student. She currently lives in California. Her poetry can be found at Qarrtsiluni Literary Magazine, The Loft's ¿ Nation of Immigrants? spoken word CD, the South Asian Magazine for Action and Reflection, and The Sikh Review.
A few years ago, there was buzz about an Asian American basketball player from Harvard named Jeremy Lin. His name bounced around mostly Asian American pop culture and news sites, including my very own blog:
I remember thinking, I hope he’s able to fulfill his dream and play some minutes on an NBA team.
Fast-forward to now, the Summer after Linsanity when he electrified the Nation, with terrific gutsy gameplay and one hell of an underdog story, while earning the league minimum. This summer, as Lin became a free agent, an unexpected fiasco emerged around what team and what contract he would be offered, and in the recent weeks Lin has become the most debated and visible Asian American public figure in my adult life.
During the height of Linsanity in February and March, when those of us basketball fans and Lin fans could scarcely believe what was happening, Boston-based spoken word artist and activist (and father of a darling set of twins) Giles Li contacted myself and Beau Sia, with an idea for the three of us to collaborate on poetry about Jeremy Lin. Since the three of us live in separate cities spread out across
Lin’s knee injury put our plans on hold, and we had planned to release the videos when the Knicks offered Lin a contract. Well, anyone who has been following the news knows what’s unfolded in the last two weeks. Giles has recently released his video, a hit amongst many Asian Americans and basketball fans.
I spoke to Giles about the video and his feelings on Lin, as an artist, as a lifelong Celtics fan, as an Asian American, and as a father.
How long have you been a Jeremy Lin fan? When did you first hear about him?
I live in
By the time he had that great summer league game where he outplayed John Wall, Jeremy Lin was on a lot of people's mock draft boards, some even had him as a late first-round pick. Alas, he wasn't drafted and I figured he'd missed his shot. At that point, it didn't even register as a disappointment for me. A lot of talented players don't make it to the NBA.
There was a great high school player in
What was it like for you during Linsanity?
First and foremost, it was weird to root for a Knicks player because I'm a lifelong Celtics fan and they're in the same conference. I don't have that problem anymore.
But as much as I was excited and energized by Jeremy Lin and his story. I could feel myself subconsciously bracing myself for the inevitable backlash, which would have more than a little to do with his race. There were plenty of Asian Americans who were prematurely trying to cut him down to size too, probably because they didn't want to be seen as Jeremy Lin fanboys.
But what was joyous about that moment in sports history is that his story was so familiar to so many of us. Scouts and coaches and players took one look at his face and assumed he was not on their level, and that was his biggest obstacle. It wasn't lack of hard work or talent or practice or connections or even luck that stalled his career, it was primarily the fact that people looked at him and couldn't imagine that guy actually being competitive enough to make it at the highest level. And he proved so many people wrong and still couldn't shake all the doubters.
And that's common for us as Asian Americans isn't it? People are more comfortable assuming from the jump that you're not good enough than actually assessing you as a person and deciding for themselves based on evidence.
Beautiful poem, and Ash did a great job with the video. How did you two end up working together?
We've been friends for a long time, and we have been planning to work together for at least five years, but we never found the right project that we both could be invested in the right way. Actually, Ash did that amazing video for your "No Offense" poem last year before he and I could figure out how to work together. But because for the last 10 years, many of our conversations have been about basketball, this just seemed like the right time to finally get it going. I think the piece I wrote is pretty strong and honest, but Ash's work on the visuals was really flawless - that's why it's started to catch on with people online.
What is kind of interesting to me is that this piece was written and mostly shot when Linsanity was still a thing. It was written from the point of view that mainstream American was finally able to attach something "Asian American" to a universally positive feeling. That was a first in my lifetime, and it made me happy that it was happening while my kids were still little, that maybe the world they grow up in will be more informed by that positivity.
But unsurprisingly, time has proven me wrong - and this American culture fell back into treating Asian Americans the way it prefers - as targets of vitriol and hatred. And now that the cultural context and media landscape has changed, it has become a much more sad piece to me. My kids growing up as Asian Americans may feel every bit as invisible and devalued as I often did.
As a parent that hurts a lot.
A lot of people, especially Asian Americans, seem to really be resonating with your poem and video. I've been reading a lot about Jeremy Lin, and one thing that strikes me, is that a lot of people's mindset and vocabulary are still stuck in very white-Black paradigms when I feel like this is a phenomenon very specifically informed by Lin being an Asian American. I feel like your poem is a much more nuanced exploration of race and identity. Care to comment?
Even at the height of his popularity, when there wasn't much backlash against him yet, there was already a backlash against all the "new" fans he was bringing into the fold.
There was an idiotic assumption among some non-Asian folks that Asians and Asian Americans never paid attention to basketball until Jeremy Lin hit. As I said, I've been an NBA fan my whole life, and the reason is that both my father and mother raised me that way. The mainstream narrative was about how unusual it was that the American-born child of Asian immigrants played basketball; that's not unusual. What is unusual is that he kept going for it after countless people took one look at his face and told him he wasn't tough enough, or wasn't athletic enough, or wasn't competitive enough.
And as spoken word performers, we both know this, but there are very few fields in which Asian Americans can start making a name for themselves and not be met with some surprise. And again, we both have experience with this: sometimes that surprise is tinged with doubt, anger, or disbelief.
And during the height of Linsanity, a lot of the commentary was tinged with the same stuff. There was a widespread assumption he would fall to earth, that he'd eventually reveal himself as a so-so player, but if you look at his history as a basketball player, he has produced at every level. He was a legitimate top-tier college player, he was a successful summer league player, there was actually more evidence of him being better than average than there was of him being worse than average. The assertion that he was a below-average guard was based almost solely on his race.
I read Devin Gordon's piece on the GQ blog about race and how it's not being named as a factor in mainstream discourse around Jeremy Lin, even though it's affecting everyone's perceptions of him. I appreciated that he did that; at the same time, it took a well-known mainstream white journalist to give that point of view legitimacy. As Asian Americans, we almost aren't allowed to talk about race politics because we're met with that same doubt, anger, and disbelief that our experiences with racism carry any water.
But anyway, I'm not trying to prove anything to anyone. Mainly, I believe Jeremy Lin is important to the world in which Asian American parents are raising Asian American kids. That's the main reason why he matters to me.
Watch Giles' video here:
Giles Li is a father of two who serves the immigrant community in
On June 19, 1982, Vincent Chin was at his bachelor party at Fancy Pants, a strip club in suburban
At the time, anti-Japanese sentiment was high. Many blamed the decline of the
After the altercation, Chin and his friends parted ways, but Ebens and Nitz weren’t done. They went looking for Chin, reportedly paying a friend $20 to help look for him. They found him at a McDonalds, dragged him outside, and one of them held Chin down while the other brutally beat him with a baseball bat. Four days later, Chin died – five days before his wedding.
Both Ebens and Nitz got three years' probation, a $3,000 fine, and $780 in court costs. To this day, neither of them have spent a day in jail.
I will repeat that: Ebens and Nitz sought out an unarmed man, held him down, and beat him to death in front of witnesses, and to this day they haven’t spent a single day in jail.
How does one make sense of that. In a few days, it will be the 30 year anniversary of his murder, and still, thinking about Vincent Chin is like ripping open an old, raw wound. Even after years of struggling for change, of witnessing terrible injustice after injustice, of trying to educate yourself about institutional racism, how do you make sense of this.
How do you reason with people who *still* don’t think racism exists.
Sure, there have been many much less visible incidents of horrific racist violence against Asians before Chin. And unfortunately, many after him. That just makes it worse. It is a reminder to all of us, that our lives simply aren’t worth as much as a white person’s.
The race of the perpetrator is important, absolutely. But so is the race of the victim. Statistics show that in the
But still, even armed with this disappointing knowledge: no jail time served for the brutal murder of an Asian American man.
I’m not even a vindictive person. Punishing Ebens and Nitz won’t bring Chin back. Nor will it even the scales for all of the people of color who have suffered from the racism in our legal and penal system.
You can talk about how this all started at a strip club, and how we should be critical of all men and their patronage of such places. Just as long as you ask yourself, do all men regardless of their race fear death by baseball bat by going to a strip club. Is that a reason to murder anyone.
The fact that he was Chinese American and had nothing to do with the auto industry – it still would have been horrible if he had been Japanese and worked for Honda.
And still – Fong Lee was killed in 2006, in a case that is highly suspect, by a police officer with a history of violence both while on duty and at home in his personal life – he was given a Medal of Valor for shooting and killing Lee, a teenager.
Lili Wang was murdered in 2002 by her classmate, Richard Anderson, who had stated he had a “preference” for Asian women. Richard shot and killed Lili, a married woman, after he was allegedly frustrated that she had turned down his advances.
In 1992, 10 years after the murder of Vincent Chin, 16 year-old High School student Yoshi Hattori was looking for a Halloween party with his friend. They knocked on the door of 30 year old Rodney Peairs and his family. No one answered so they began to walk away. Bonnie Peairs, Rodney’s wife, looked out her window, spotted “an Oriental person,” and called out to her husband, “Honey, get your gun.” Rodney Peairs shot Yoshi Hattori point blank in the chest, killing him. His defense was that Yoshi, a Japanese exchange student, had an "extremely unusual manner of moving", one which any reasonable person would find "scary”.
Peairs has also never spent time in jail for the murder of Yoshi Hattori.
There are also the countless Arab, Muslim, and South Asians who have been harassed, beaten, and murdered, both prior to 9/11 and afterwards, including 78-year-old Gurmej Atwal and 67-year-old Surinder Singh, gunned down and killed while on an afternoon walk in Sacramento.
It’s not just us Asians. 25 year old Mexican immigrant Luis Ramirez was brutally beaten and killed by two white teenagers – who were acquitted of all serious charges and face 7 to 23 month sentences. Trayvon Martin, a teenager, was killed by George Zimmerman – it was a long time before Zimmerman saw the inside of a jail cell.
Justice is not even on our side when we act in self defense. CeCe McDonald, a local transgender African American, defended herself when she and her friends were verbally and physically assaulted outside Schooner’s in
I’m not saying that I like the prison-industrial complex of this country. However, I do believe it is worthwhile to look at the inequalities. Koua Fong Lee was driving a car that malfunctioned, and another family was killed in the accident. He did not flee the scene – and his own family was in his car – and yet no one believed him when he insisted it was an accident. His own family was in his car – why would he endanger their lives as well? He spent three years in jail before the
Contrast that to Amy Senser, who killed Anousone Phanthavong in a hit-and-run, knocking him nearly 50 feet, fled the scene, and did not turn herself in until days later, after she had consulted her lawyers. She was not jailed during the trial, and though she is convicted of two counts of vehicular homicide, and though there was expert testimony that Phanthavong was flung onto her car and there was no way she could not have known she hit a person, the jury inexplicably sent her a note saying they believed her.
Who you believe says a lot about you.
And the list goes on. John T. Williams. Oscar Grant. Chonburi Xiong. Michael Cho. Cau Thi Bich Tran. Tycel Nelson. And these are just the more well-known names. How many more dozens, or hundreds, of nameless brown people are killed twice: once by murder, and again by a racist judicial system.
30 years later, and we can’t forget Vincent Chin. And we shouldn’t.
There is no way for me to make sense of this case. I try to write intelligently about it, and all I have is unbridled, bottomless anger. I feel provoked, to my core. That one of my earliest memories is that kids were calling me chink and I had to ask my dad what it meant. To have a lifetime of micro-aggressions and not-so-micro aggressions directed at you, stacked on top of people telling you your experience and insisting that racism doesn’t exist towards your people, and to top it all off, that people can murder you in the street in front of McDonalds and get a slap on the wrist for it. And though Vincent Chin’s tragic murder is relatively invisible, it’s horrifying to think his case is actually one of the more visible, known cases of anti-Asian violence. I feel that there is no room for love, or reason, in a world like this. I feel tired, and defeated. Stupid and useless.
Of course, if there is any bright side at all to this, it is that the memory of Chin and the blatant injustice has galvanized many Asian Americans to activism. I asked some respected Asian American activists and community workers to talk about this case for my blog.
I asked them two questions: What do you remember about the first time you heard about Vincent Chin? Why do you think this case is still important, 30 years later? Their answers follow. I thank them for their time, and energy.
I do not remember how or where i first heard about Vincent Chin, the white men who murdered him, and the justice system that supported them to walk free -but it wasn't until my college years. I do remember feeling awful that so many years of my life had passed before his story made its way to me. This was something i should have learned in elementary school and discussed throughout my adolescence along with Emmett Till's case.
This case will be forever important and forever relevant. Here I offer questions. What is acceptable for this country to mourn and permissible to bury? What is convenient about the collective unconsciousness surrounding Vincent Chin's case? Asian Americans are still seen as perpetual foreigners, another axis in how People of Color are racialized. How have devastating instances of brutality and injustice upon Asian Americans been confined? How even our struggles are "outsiders within"? How in celebrating our strength and power we are welcomed?
Eva Song Margolis is a Minneapolis-based activist.
The gruesome Chin murder forced us to ask deeper questions and seek more complicated answers. It is elementary to answer the question “Who Killed Vincent Chin;” Ron Ebens and Mike Nitz killed him. But a more complicated answer is white
In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, have we failed to ask the deeper and broader questions that the Chin murder case taught us to ask? Where was the massive public outrage over the 1,400+ Arab, Arab Americans, Middle Easterners and other “non-whites” being detained without regard to their civil rights? How critical have we been to the steady flow of legislation being passed in the name of “homeland security” that violates our basic civil rights?
Daren Rikio Mooko is an activist and Associate Dean of Students at
The first time I heard about Vincent Chin was in 1995. Ping Chong's company presented a performance piece that included baseball bats and a dramatization of Vincent Chin's murder. I was shocked, especially because I grew up in
The case is still important because these kind of hate crimes still exist today, in our own backyards: in
Sun Mee Chomet is an actor, playwright and collaborator who lives in the country of St. Paul,
The first time I learned about Vincent Chin to any great extent, was when I first watched the film "Who Killed Vincent Chin?" directed by Christine Choy and Renee Tajima-Pena. I had been invited to perform in an Artist Exchange event at the Asian Arts Initiative in
I believe the Vincent Chin case is still important because it reminds us that racial violence continues to be perpetrated against members of our community, particularly young Asian American men, as was the case in Fong Lee's murder in
Michelle Myers is spoken word poet, activist, and educator in Philadelphia, PA.
Pan-Asian Voices for Equity,
Happy National Poetry Month!
Chaun Webster, a local writer, activist and proud father, puts action behind his words. Born in Saint Paul, and raised Northside, Chaun has been mentored for many years by the powerfully talented poet and activist Ewuare X. Osayande. The recipient of a Verve Grant, he has released his own book of poems, performs frequently, and has taught writing workshops. He started his own press, Free Poets Press, and recently published the ambitious HaiCOUP: a fieldguide in guerrilla (po)ethic, featuring work by Marisa Carr, IBé Kaba, Jake Virden, and himself. I spoke to Chaun recently about this dazzling new book, the challenges of running your own press, and whether Minnesota’s specific demographic diversities have an impact on the work.
Tell us about your press, and how it came to be.
Free Poet's Press came out of a need that I saw in Minnesota's Black community particularly, and communities of color more generally, to control our own images. Whether that media be print, visual, digital etc. There are wide body of voices that were not and are not being heard due to a dominance of white publishing outfits through which people of color are marginally employed and furthermore marginally published. There are also mechanisms of legitimization for what is and is not art that I saw as alienating to a number of narratives and styles. It was like if you were not the one or two non-MFA holding persons of color to receive this or that grant then you had and have little chance at publication. Free Poet's Press then was me owning my power to produce and distribute art outside of the dominant model and to see that act as a legitimate process. Much inspired by the poets, librarians, publishers of the Black Arts Movement whose work was not determined by white patronage but empowered by a knowledge of their own value. This changed the discourse of that time in Black communities as well as the national discourse. I was and am determined to do my part locally through Free Poet's Press to open up the discourse in a way broader than we are often afforded.
How has your experience been so far with Free Poet’s Press? What are the challenges, and what are the rewards?
It’s constant learning. Anywhere from finding quality and yet affordable printing to learning how to do graphic and page layout work myself in order to have more control over the creative process as well as being able to develop more work in less time. This has been a profoundly enriching experience, not to mention that the politics that birthed this press have put me in the company of incredible artists who share similar aspirations of self-determining communities that have control over their own images. Challenges are very real as well in that we live in a time where 5 conglomerates control 80 percent of the publishing and where many independent and non-profit publishers as well as bookstores are operating out of the same playbook as those conglomerates only with far less monetary reward. This leaves very little room for presses like my own in that I can't afford distributors, or the cut that some independent bookstores (who shall remain unnamed, today) take which is no different than Barnes and Noble or Amazon. That just means that it takes more creativity, more drive to re-imagine the production of knowledge in ways that recognize that we are all a valid part of it.
What was the vision behind this project, HaiCoup? For this particular project, why haiku?
The HaiCOUP project was my effort to collapse the distance between the artist and the audience, the public and the private. I operate from the understanding that we are all creators of culture. If this is true then why all the esoteric posturing that doesn't connect with the lived experience of everyday people?
Those tactics seemed more like mechanisms of control to me and so I was working at writing more simply though not less meaningfully. The technical frame of the haiku lent itself to this in ways I am still growing in appreciation for. In the haiku every word matters, but so does that negative space of those things unsaid. In this way haiku have a subversive quality I've fallen in love with. I also wanted the message to come through in the type arrangement. Language is a visual experience, and I've always been frustrated with its static representation in most literature - but especially when it is represented this way in poetry. This project was a starting point for me to break from that.
Have you worked with haiku before or is this project your most extensive engagement with the form?
This is actually my first time engaging with the form. That's why this project took time. I needed to study, honor the art form and its point of departure as well as taking it to my own hands and rhythm and experience. I've a great deal left to learn, and that for me is exciting.
How did you choose the artists involved in the project?
As for the artists in the project, Marisa Carr, IBé Kaba, and Jake Virden; we had all known each other prior and they are young artists excelling at their craft. Their involvement also broadened the subject matter and brings a higher level of credibility to the kind of politics to which I subscribe. Interestingly enough even though we met together to talk about the idea of the project, we all wrote separately - yet there is this feel of dialogue happening among the HaiCOUP represented in the work. I feel honored to have worked in their company.
This specific group of writers is very diverse in terms of their cultural background as well as their poetic voices. How intentional was that?
It was very intentional.
And how do you think they reflect a particular strength of Minnesota arts communities?
Addressing the politics of space was at the heart of the project. The contracting of public space as the expense paid for private profit. The delegitimizing of artistic voices in communities of color by propping up convenient tokenisms that don't recognize our complexity. This required more than I could bring and even with the voices involved it is well understood that this is not an exhaustive approach. Rather, it’s a step in contributing to that dialogue in ways that hopefully bring more everyday people into it. Each artist represents an important piece of the conversation and as you said certainly represents the strength of Minnesota arts communities, as quiet as it's kept.
How can people purchase a copy?
HaiCOUP: a fieldguide in guerrilla (po)ethics, right now can only be purchased at featured performances or by emailing the name order amount, and sending address. The cost for the work is $6, $10 with shipping.