When I arrived in Iowa on a late summer night in the mid-nineties, with two suitcases and two hundred dollars in my pocket, I was the first person in my extended family of artisans to set foot on this continent. I had left behind friends and family, along with the leaking roof of my ancestral home and the invisible baggage of caste I had lugged around all my life.
It was a fresh start in a new land with a generous scholarship and work study opportunity at a liberal arts college. I was ecstatic. I did not yet know the debt I would incur in the pursuit of my dreams.
The U.S. was billed as the land of opportunities. By the time I arrived, genocide and forced relocation of Native Americans was a distant memory in most American minds. Slavery had been legally abolished. Jim Crow laws had officially been scrapped. Racism too, supposedly, was history.
Personally for me, other than minor roadblocks, the country has lived up to the advertisement. I was able to spread my wings, dream. I was able to build a comfortable life with all the trappings of a middle class living. In many ways, my immigration journey is not very different from that of other Asian, particularly South Asian, immigrants, who arrived riding the waves of the Civil Rights movement led by Black communities, in pursuit of education and the American Dream.
I ended up following a career path different from most first generation immigrants of my background. Instead of going into a technical field or academia as I had originally planned, I became an organizer, eventually starting and leading a social justice organization. I connected with other immigrants for whom the U.S. did not honor its promise. I worked with immigrants, mostly from South Asia, who were relegated to backbreaking jobs in restaurants and salons, as drivers and nannies, and paid a pittance, and at times not paid at all. Together, we fought bad employers, advocated to change laws, and held government agencies accountable to immigrant communities.
I had the freedom to pursue a social justice career because people long ago had lost their freedom, and their lives, and also stood up for their rights and dignity. My road to freedom was paved on the backs of enslaved and indentured labor in an occupied land that continues to stand on racist, classist structures that are the foundation of this country. My work, and even my life, is possible because Black and Native Americans had resisted for centuries at the face of constant assault, paving a way for those of us who came later. I owe deep gratitude to the freedom fighters. Elizabeth Wanamaker Peratrovich. Zitkala-Sa. Claudette Colvin. Rosa Parks. Angela Davis. Dorothy Bolden. The list goes on.
Along with millions of immigrants, I have benefited from the struggles for freedom and justice. I have also benefited directly from slave trade, even though I arrived in the U.S. more than a century after the last slave ship Clotilda landed in Mobile Bay.
My unearned benefit from slave trade came in the form of a full scholarship from Princeton University, an institution that benefited from slave trade profits. Granted at the time it was established in 1746, Princeton was not meant for someone like me. The student body was all white, and until 1960s, all male. But with the changing demographics, I was given a ticket to enter the elite club. Of course, I am not the sole beneficiary. Most of my classmates enjoyed full scholarships too. Princeton is known for its generous financial aid policy. Not well known is the fact that the source of generosity included large donations from Moses Taylor Pyne, whose family earned their fortune transporting sugar produced by enslaved workers in Cuba.
Princeton is a story I know well because it is my alma mater, and also because it has undertaken the ‘Princeton and Slavery Project’. These stories have been repeated in educational institutions all across the United States, but only a handful have come to light. Millions of us immigrants have climbed the socio-economic ladders and gone on to bigger things and better lives on the bases of the opportunities we have received at these institutions.
For those whose ancestors have paid the price with their bodies and their lives, having opportunities like the ones we have enjoyed may be one form of reparation. For the rest of us, it is a debt — a debt that obligates us to actively participate in righting the historic wrongs.
Unfortunately, it is a debt many in the Asian American community have chosen to not remember. Craving White acceptance, we look down on Black people to feel superior. Indigenous communities do not even enter our consciousness. We recount stories about self-made immigrants and their contributions to the economy and to the country. We hold up the half-truth of an immigrant nation as the only truth.
Some of us have even gone as far as to try to claw back the progress made by Black community, while using civil rights language, as in the case of Students for Fair Admissions against Harvard University. Nikole Hannah-Jones reminded us in The New York Times’ 1619 Project, commemorating 400th anniversary of slavery in America, “It is a truly American irony that some Asian-Americans, among the groups able to immigrate to the United States because of the black civil rights struggle, are now suing universities to end programs designed to help the descendants of the enslaved.” While the first round of verdict has been on the side of justice, the fight is far from over as the Students for Fair Admission has filed an appeal and is preparing to take the battle all the way to the highest level of judiciary.
While I would like to claim I am better because I have chosen to remember, the truth is that it has taken me a long time to develop a deeper understanding of U.S. histories and even longer to trace it back to myself and fully acknowledge my debt. In spite of having spent four years in Grinnell, my other alma mater, and multiple visits since graduation, only recently I have learned that Ioway people gave name to Iowa, a state that is now more than 90 percent White and less than one percent Native American. I knew about the Underground Railroad and celebrated Grinnell being a stop on it, but it took a popular television show to teach me about the Black Wall Street.
I still have much to learn, and probably quite a few lies to unlearn as well. I am grateful for the patient generosity of friends and mentors who have helped me expand my knowledge and understanding, and for the many people taking on the persona of citizen journalists and public educators, often unpaid. I am learning from books and essays and poems and podcasts, and more recently, twitter threads. I realize that there are things I may never fully understand, not having shared history and experiences. But I am committed to continue walking on the road of solidarity paved by the likes of Grace Lee Boggs and Yuri Kochiyama in the U.S., as well as the international Afro-Asian solidarity movement that my father had once helped build in Nepal.
As Arundhati Roy says, “once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out.”
I choose to speak.