Me Nigger Too

May 29, 2010 

In Kingston’s Norman Manley International Airport I spotted a group of twenty something dudes–or is it dawgs–dressed in that distinctive urban hip hop style– baggy slacks oversized shirts and baseball caps decidedly cocked or worn backwards.  Ordinarily I wouldn’t have given much attention except all were of Chinese descent.  They could have been Jamaicans or from the States, San Francisco, New York even London or Beijing.

They were reminders of an incident in DC during the ’68 riots following Martin Luther King’s assassination.  In the inner city inferno a fearful Chinese laundry proprietor placed a scribbled sign in his window pleading No Burn–Me Nigger Too.  However inartful his language it was nevertheless a striking acknowledgement of our common humanity.  African and Chinese first coming to America albeit under different circumstances shared a common experience facing the same hostile forces. 

 By the 1950’s and the advent of the Civil Rights movements the Chinese had achieved a tenuous integration throughout the South.  Too few to be regarded as a threat most owned their own businesses as grocers and shopkeepers relying on black customers and accommodating white neighbors.  It wasn’t until the 1960s after more than a century of racial injustice would they find their voice challenging the system.  Two American born Chinese, Grace Lee Boggs and Fred Ho, activists and writers both in their work borrowed heavily on the African American experience demonstrating, protesting, marching, and speaking out. 

Grace Lee Boggs the daughter of Chinese immigrants educated at Barnard College receiving a Ph.D from Bryn Mawr in 1940 worked with West Indian Marxist historian C.L.R. James using the pen name Ria Stone.  In 1953, she moved to Detroit where she married James Boggs, an African-American labor activist, writer and strategist.  The two worked together in grass roots groups and projects for 40 years until Boggs’ death in July 1993.  Their book, Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century was published in 1974.

American jazz baritone saxophonist, Fed Ho is also a composer, bandleader, playwright, writer and social activist though most often identified with the Asian American jazz or avant-garde jazz movements.  Many of his works fuse the melodies of indigenous and traditional Asian and African music.  The first to combine Chinese operas and African American music he is a prolific composer and writer with a third book in progress about African Americans and Asians working together in civil rights. 

 There is a common thread of oppression discrimination and violence against African and Chinese Americans throughout American history.  The word Nigger has come to symbolize that inhumanity.  As Langston Hughes declared I Too Sing America, and no doubt Americans Grace Lee Boggs and Fred Ho wouldn’t hesitate to claim Me Nigger Too.

As part of Asian Pacific American Heritage month this is the 2nd of a four part series.

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