March 25, 2009

Prof Explores Migration in Late 19th Century America

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A sizeable gathering of students and faculty assembled yesterday afternoon in Kaufman Auditorium for the annual Rabinor lecture, hosted by the American Studies Program. Prof. Derek Chang, history and American studies, spoke on the topic of migration and population dynamics in late nineteenth century America.
Chang outlined three major trends in migration that occurred during the late 1800s: the emancipation of slaves and their subsequent relocation to and convergence within major southern cities; the stream of immigrants from southern China and the transnational identity that grew out of their passage to and from the United States; and the amalgamation of African American and Chinese immigrant culture in port cities along the southern coast of the United States, as well as the role that Chinese Americans played in the post-bellum South.
Whereas popular discourse from the era did not acknowledge the contributions of these specific populations moving to, from and within the United States (the only hope being that these minorities would assimilated into mainstream “American” culture), Chang believes that they comprised the significant migratory trends of the period, while also contributing to the U.S. economy. His recent publications, including the forthcoming Converting Race, Transforming the Nation: Evangelical Christianity and the Problem of Difference in Late-Nineteenth Century America, address these issues of migration, diaspora and transnational identity.
Chang discussed the migration of African Americans after the Civil War, highlighting their tendency to relocate to metropolises in which they could gain access to state and federal government resources and begin to rally for equal political representation, access to education and labor rights.
This movement marked “a journey from the place of their enslavement to a place of possibility,” Chang said.
As ex-slaves relocated nationally, millions of Chinese emigrated internationally. Chang cited the 2.5 million people who left China between 1850 and 1900, emphasizing that many eventually returned to China after temporary terms of employment in the U.S.
“Migratory streams both surged toward America and ebbed toward home [in China],” Chang said.
Cultural and economic imperatives drove this immigration, but the Chinese fell prey to acts of humiliation, intimidation and general discrimination once they arrived in the U.S., Chang said. In response, immigrants established both district associations (assemblages of Chinese immigrants living within specific geographic boundaries in the U.S.), as well as familial associations based on common surnames. These alliances offered a sense of community to the new arrivals, who were often scared and homesick. The associations provided temporary housing, facilitated contact with family members in China, formed rotating credit associations and protested anti-Chinese discrimination.
Chang discussed the ways in which these Chinese immigrants replaced slave labor in the post-bellum south, as well as the labor they provided the cigar industry, which moved from Cuba to port cities in the U.S. between 1860 and 1880. An intermingling of Chinese, Cuban, African-American and Caribbean cultures occurred within these port cities, Chang said, noting that intermarriage was not uncommon.
A lively question and answer session followed Chang’s brief lecture. One audience member suggested that the cultural mélange was not as convivial as Chang described.
“You paint a very rosy picture of this mixed racial stream in cities like Key West and Tampa,” he said, arguing that most narratives from the period cite deep-rooted tensions between racial groups. “How do you deal with those [tensions]?”
“I think I deal with them by not dealing with them,” Chang replied. “The intimacies that you can infer — intermarriages, interethnic and interracial connections — it’s something that is not done justice in the historical [record.]”
Sarah Kennedy ’10 had a class in the auditorium just prior to the lecture and decided to stay for the hour.
“I’ve known from going to [the Rabinor series] in the past that they’re a great opportunity for professors to discuss their research.”
She said the main benefit of attending the lecture was to observe the student-professor interaction.
“I came as much to hear the dialogue between professors and students as to hear the content of [Chang’s] research … to hear how professors respond, how he might change his research path as a result.”