I have read most of Frank Wu's popular columns and legal articles over the years, so I thought I knew what to expect when I opened the covers of his new book, "Yellow."
Instead of the lawyer, raconteur, social critic, and historian I had thought I knew, however, I met a philosopher poet on par with an Emerson or Thoreau. Weaving back and forth between legal decisions, Shakespearean dramas, SAT scores, and recollections from his childhood, he has produced a masterwork that will shape discussions of race for years to come.
Right from the first chapter, Professor Wu lays out the dilemma of being Asian in America in terms that are spare but evocative: "I remain not only a stranger in a familiar land, but also a sojourner through my own life....I alternate between being conspicuous and vanishing, being stared at or looked through. Although the conditions may seem contradictory, they have in common the loss of control. I am who others perceive me to be rather than how I perceive myself to be."
Not content to be an idle observer or a pawn in someone else's social drama, however, he draws on a lifetime of involvement in the great issues of our times to write thought-provoking and well-researched analyses of affirmative action, racial profiling, immigration restrictions, anti-Asian violence, interracial marriage, and much more. The beauty of Wu's writing, like Stephen Jay Gould's celebrated "This View of Life" column in Natural History magazine, is that a person who is at once a leader in his field and a person with a strong point of view can take the time to explain how he got to his position by bringing in history, statistics, biography, current events, and popular culture.
Despite his mastery of many bodies of knowledge, Professor Wu brings a humility to his endeavor that is refreshing in this era of the know-it-all television pundits. "I am a fraud," he says on page 37. "I am unqualified, because I cannot speak for all Asian Americans." Behind this humility, however, also lies an awareness of the enormity of his task as a person who will be called upon by the media to speak "for the race." Later in the same paragraph, he says, "I doubt that any imposter could do any better or would desire to try that impossible task. I suspect, however, that at every appearance after I give my usual disclaimer, my audience continues to see and hear me as a spokesperson on behalf of Asian Americans."
"Yellow" is worth the price simply for its cyclopedic reviews of the model minority myth, the perpetual foreigner myth, and the myths of merit and colorblindness in the debates over affirmative action. Not content with rehashing the same tired sources that appear in many scholarly and popular works on the topics, he has delved into out-of-print treatises, vintage Hollywood films, and speeches by Samuel Gompers, John Adams, and other historical figures. The Notes and Index sections of his book take up almost 50 pages, with the Notes providing avenues of scholarship for future writers on these topics.
Like the law professor he is--the first Asian American at historically-Black Howard University Law School-- Wu leaves us with more questions than answers. But, as he points out in several places in his book, that is precisely the point. "I aspire to provoke people to think for themselves rather than persuade them to agree with me," he says on page 16. Twenty-two pages later, he expands on that theme: "Each of us who has the opportunity to make an appearance at the podium or to see a byline in print should remember that if we do not speak for ourselves, someone else will speak for us--or worse, we will be ignored. We must give voice to our many views."
Building on the work of Helen Zia, Gary Okihiro, Ron Takaki, and others who have placed the Asian American experience in the context of a broader racial dilemma, Professor Wu challenges Asian Americans and the broader society to cast aside a simplistic two-part model of race: "On each of these divisive topics, Asian American examples can enhance our awareness of the color line between black and white, rather than devalue the anguish of African Americans, because Asian Americans stand astride the very color line and flag its existence for all to see. If the color line runs between whites and people of color, Asian Americans are on one side; if the color line runs between blacks and everyone else, Asian Americans are on the other side. The line, however, is drawn in part by Asian Americans, and in turn can be erased by us. Asian Americans can be agents of our own destinies, insisting that we are ourselves and refusing to be either black or white."
While the dayglow yellow cover of Professor Wu's book is a gantlet thrown down to those who would hold onto a stagnant bi-polar view of race, he acknowledges inside the book that his purpose is to get us all to see shades of gray. By the end of the book, while exploring interracial marriage and the importance of multi-racial coalitions, he reminds us that "civil society either founders on factions or is founded on coalitions. We all share a stake in the healing of the body politic. We must keep the faith."
With Frank Wu's help, we can keep the faith--and start to make that faith a reality.