By Michael K. Smith, Ph.D.
I have just read A Different Mirror for Young People: A History of Multicultural America. Originally published by Ronald Takaki in 1993, this edition has been adapted for young readers by Rebecca Stefoff. Takaki chronicles the many waves of immigration that have defined America: from the first English immigrants in the 1600s to the Irish, Chinese, Japanese, Russian Jews, and Mexicans of the 1800s and 1900s. Takaki also records the sad history of forced immigration of Africans who become slaves and the forced relocation of native Indians. The first generation came (or was forced to come) for economic reasons. The second generation realized that the best path to economic success, and assimilation into American society, was through education. For education to succeed, schools and teachers had to change.
In the antebellum South, it was unlawful to teach slaves to read. Frederick Douglass recounts that the wife of the plantation owner violated this edict and taught Douglass his ABCs. Her husband, however, stopped her by saying “It would forever unfit him to be a slave.” Douglass said “these words sank deep into my heart” and sparked a revelation: “I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man…From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.” Douglass did escape and his many writings, including his 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, helped bring attention to the abuses of slavery. After the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, former slaves now became American citizens and could benefit from education. Takaki notes that the attempts at educating these former slaves were swept away after Reconstruction by the institution of Jim Crow laws. It would take many decades before the Civil Rights movement, and the Supreme Court decision in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education, made racial separation unconstitutional in American schools. African-Americans are now an integral part of American society.
“Our schools are now open to all, and the advantages offered by an American education are sought not only by its citizens but also by the latest generation of immigrants to this country.”
Many other ethnic groups have had to struggle against similar prejudices. The Chinese came to this country by the thousands in the 1800s and helped build America’s railroads. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 forbade these Chinese from becoming United States citizens. Second and third generation Chinese, born in this country, fought their way to citizenship through education. In the 1960s, Congress removed restrictions on Asian immigration. Now, Asian-Americans make up a significant part of our educational system. Russian Jews fled persecution at the turn of the 20th century. The first generation in America became an “army of garment workers.” Some of the second generation went to Harvard in the 1920s, only to encounter attempts to restrict Jewish enrollment. Mayor James Curley of Boston spoke against this discrimination: “All of us under the Constitution are guaranteed equality, without regard to race, creed, or color. If the Jew is barred today, the Italian will be tomorrow, then the Spaniard and the Pole, and at some future date the Irish.” Mexicans comprised a majority of farm laborers in the 1920s and 1930s. However, they lived in segregated neighborhoods and attended segregated schools. One student, according to Takaki, remembered his sixth grade teacher’s advice: “Your people are here to dig ditches, to do pick and shovel work. I don’t think any of you should plan to go to high school.” Fortunately, today, both Jewish-Americans and Mexican-Americans are guaranteed equal access to all levels of American education.
So Takaki’s record of immigrant struggles (the “different mirror that reflects everyone’s history”) also reveals the path to integration and acceptance of minority groups that has occurred in our schools. The more I read Takaki’s book, the more grateful I became for how schools have become our true melting pot. Our schools are now open to all, and the advantages offered by an American education are sought not only by its citizens but also by the latest generation of immigrants to this country. I became even more thankful for the nation’s teachers who, despite constant criticisms of their performance, labor daily to educate the myriad of multicultural children in their classrooms. There are many efforts underway to improve the quality of this American education. These reforms, however, should not hinder us from a heartfelt appreciation of all that our schools provide, a promise that generations of immigrants have desired.
Michael K. Smith, Ph.D., is owner of TESTPREP EXPERTS (www.testprepexperts.com ) which prepares students for standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT. He is also a consultant to Discovery Education Assessment. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.