Reflecting on Irish and Asian American Historiographies

The first work in this analysis is “Twenty Years of Irish-American Historiography” by Kevin Kenny. In this article, Kenny discusses Kirby Miller’s “Emigrants and Exiles” as a keystone work on Irish Immigration. Miller argued that Irish immigrants felt they were involuntarily exiled and several scholars challenged his thesis for its pessimism. In particular, Donald Akenson used high social mobility in migratory locations outside the United States as a challenge to the lack of success within the U.S. and Malcolm Campbell agreed with his thesis challenging Miller’s pessimism and pre-modern ideas while also challenging Akenson. Campbell believed that due to the vast majority of Irish immigrants coming to the United States the situations were not comparable. Other works Kenny discusses involve focusing on mass migration from the perspective of profit, focusing on the immigrants’ lives as a whole, expanding and including women, the inclusion of the Protestant Irish, expansion of the scope to begin in the Colonial period, and elaborating on shifts in culture and political affiliations with time. He then spends a hefty amount of time wrapped up in the debate of the “whiteness” thesis, explaining the proponent and critic arguments as well as why the issue is so problematic. In his examination of the field, Kenny hopes that the next generation can expand the field and further explore the contexts of imperialism, class, race, ethnicity, and continue to depart from nation-state idealism. He then proposes a more global approach, focusing on transnational and cross-national perspectives. Additionally, Kenny proposed more work on ethnic nationalism as a means to adapt to their hostlands and its application to 20th-century migration.

“No Lamps Were Lit for Them: Angel Island and the Historiography of Asian American Immigration” by Roger Daniels is the second historiography in this analysis. Daniels, like Kenny, hopes that the field will expand; however, Asian Immigration and the narrative of Angel Island remains far sparser. Additionally, Daniel’s article is easier to navigate. He provides a comparison of Angel Island to Ellis Island, a history of the island before its activity as and immigration station from 1910 to 1940, its military use from 1863 to 1962, and its present use as a state park. The majority of the article discusses the plight of the immigrants who were held there, their wide variety, the particular discrimination to the Chinese. Upon describing the horrors of the building physically, the complaints, its career ending fire, and the establishment that led to its creation, Daniels moves into discussing the experience. With brief explanations of important legislation, Daniels explains what hurdles were placed on the immigrants and why some of them came, such as Picture Brides and Paper Sons. Then, he discusses the four admissible categories of Chinese, holding times at Angel Island, and resistance to laws that held them there or pushed them out. With a one in six deportation rate at Angel Island, it should be of no surprise that they resisted through courts and false documents- with rates as high as ninety percent. Daniels closes with the fact that Angel Island is a symbol of the Asian American experience and that despite erasure and the labeling of these immigrants as perpetual immigrants and foreigners within, the Angel Island poems and the field are working, and should continue, to expand the field, exposing not only their narrative but a global perspective that includes other countries views on Asian migrant workers.

Both pieces are very different, both in subject and content available. Irish Immigration is heavily studied and an ever expanding field filled with various layers of analysis. Meanwhile, Asian Americans have experienced little attention, the generalization of their various ethnic groups, and erasure of their immigration story; particularly of their experience with Angel Island. While Kenny incorporates text after text of sources and their meaning to each point he makes about Irish American Historiography, Daniels leaves the vast majority of sources for his conclusion. In comparison, both methods are effective, it simply is a matter of the amount of source material available to the topic. While there is no doubt that there will always be an interest in certain topics’ historiography such as Irish diaspora and the Holocaust, the current college-aged students are surrounded by racial tension and new types of Civil Rights movements. It will be interesting to see if these raise interest in topics like Angel Island and other groups that lack material.

One thought on “Reflecting on Irish and Asian American Historiographies

  1. Good job! I’m glad you noticed the major difference between the two historiographies–one has a literature to work with and the other has a very, very limited one.

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