America in a Different Mirror: Revisioning Our Nation’s Past by Ronald Takaki: Review

Though this book doesn’t have anything to do with plants, I believe that our food and medicine is so wrapped up in our culture, and understanding where the people who make up this country have come from in important in understand the role plants play in our lives. This book really helps illuminate some of the struggles of race and culture in America’s past, and it’s an excellent addition to any bookshelf.

Dr. Ronald Takaki, in his speech given at Sonoma State University in 2004, explains the idea of the master narrative to us through a series of stories. A narrative is, after all, many stories combined to tell us about something, so his methods in conveying meaning are not only effective, but interesting and entertaining as well. He first tells us briefly of his own story as a Japanese American from Hawaii, followed by his experience in higher education in Ohio and Boston. He explains how he came to teach the first Black history course, and how the events of the civil rights movement shaped him. He realized early on in his teaching career that more of the story of American history needed to be told. 

The American master narrative, he explains, is “pervasive and powerful but mistaken.” It is the history of the United States from only one perspective. One which excludes many of the events and people that helped shape major parts of our history. He uses a comparative, multicultural approach in examining history. By giving us a quick history lecture about the Irish and Chinese immigrants that came to the United States in the nineteenth century, he effectively demonstrates how interconnected our story truly is. 

It begins with the influx of Irish immigrants to the East coast, followed by Chinese immigrants, primarily men, to the West coast. Many of the Irish women found work in the textile factories of the area, processing cotton, which came from African slave labor on land purchased or taken from the Mexican government driving native americans from their homes. The Chinese, were brought here as labourers to build the transcontinental railway, and met the Irish men who were building the railroad from the east in the middle of the country. As this demonstration makes clear, there is no way the American story would be the same without any of these groups of people, and we cannot tell in in its entirety without including multiple perspectives. 

People from many different places are woven so deeply into our histories, that is it necessary to change our master narrative to include them. To look at the history of this country from the perspective that the master narrative dictates, is to miss the bigger picture. That is what our education system has been teaching; only a very small piece of the puzzle of a complete American narrative. Dr. Takaki teaches us to remember that we don’t know everything about our history, and that it is not our fault, but that it is important to seek the answers to see the whole.


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