Beth Lew-Williams testifies to Congress about Asian Pacific American history and culture

Written by
Sarah Malone, Program in American Studies
March 4, 2020

On Wednesday, February 5, 2020, the Committee on House Administration heard Associate Professor of History Beth Lew-Williams describe the centrality of Asian Pacific Americans in America’s formation, and their omission in presentations of American history and culture.

Only three percent of National Register of Historic Places sites are associated with Asian Pacific Americans, Lew-Williams said. “And history is not the only area of neglect. A 2019 study of major U.S. art museums found that Asian Americans represent only .06% of showcased artists.”

The hearing considered House of Representatives bill H.R.4132, which would create a commission to study the possibility of establishing a national museum of Asian Pacific American history and culture, possibly as part of the Smithsonian Institution. The Committee on House Administration oversees the management of the Smithsonian, the world’s largest museum and research complex. The hearing considered the results of a similar commission on the possibility of a museum of American Latina/o/x history and culture.

Lew-Williams traced how Asian immigrants have shaped America’s landscape and legal foundations, from the first Chinese immigrants in the 1820s, through Chinese workers blasting tunnels through the Sierra Nevada for the transcontinental railroad; Japanese, Korean, and Sikh immigrants laboring in fields and factories; and Asian immigrants bringing cases to the Supreme Court “which helped to define core concepts of citizenship and equal protection.”

Lew-Williams said that recognizing the richness of American culture means talking about Asian Pacific American food, music, architecture, art, and literature.

But, she said, “we must also remember that America built this community by its actions in the world. The Spanish-American War brought Filipinos, Native Hawaiians, Guamanians, and Samoans into the nation’s fold. The Vietnam War brought waves of Vietnamese, Cambodian, Lao, and Hmong refugees.”

“If we fail to include Asian Pacific Americans in our historical memory, we emerge with a distorted understanding of our nation. If you ignore the history of Chinese exclusion, you can imagine that America once welcomed ‘the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.’ If you dismiss the Philippines and Pacific Islands, you can pretend that America was never an empire. If you omit Japanese confinement during World War II, you can forget how quickly wartime hysteria can undermine our constitutional principles.”

Further testimony came from Lonnie Burch III, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution; Henry Munoz, chair of the National Museum of the American Latino Commission; Eric Petersen, specialist in American national government with the Congressional Research Service; Lisa Sasaki, director of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center; and members of Congress Will Hurd, José Serrano, and Grace Meng. Meng serves as vice chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, and introduced the bill.

Lew-Williams said that by creating an Asian Pacific American museum as part of the Smithsonian, Congress could bring “a historically marginalized group” closer “to their rightful role in American society and American memory.”

“People go to the Smithsonian to learn about America, who we are as a people and a nation,” Lew-Williams said. “Our national museums capture the stories we tell about ourselves, our past and our future.”