The Triumphant Colored Races: Poetry, Migration and the Bondage of Empire

Bondage of Empire

This post was originally published on as part of Poetry & Democracy, a collaboration with The Poetry Coalition.

“[T]he supreme crisis of the ages…. The White race and with it a million years of human evolution might soon be irretrievably lost, swamped by the triumphant colored races, who will obliterate the white man by elimination or absorption”

— Lothrop Stoddard, The Rising Tide of Color (1920)

I grew up in Queens, New York, where immigrants speak 800+ languages, including Garifuna, an Arawakan language nearly extinguished by the British in the late 1700s. Some of my neighbors are from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador — places from which thousands have fled for safety and been met instead with brutality. Beyond triumphant diversity narratives, language and migration reveal the connection between past and present, here and there, us and them. Poetry, like all diasporic languages, is a singular record of human hybridity, migration and war of Gramscian accuracy, capturing not only a language, but all its interstices and flyways. It is in this language that Asian American poetry speaks.

Our favorite stories paint America as a land of immigrants, though immigration policy was from its inception, like slavery, banking, education, etc., designed to benefit those considered White by contemporary standards. Nearly all immigration mechanisms–border patrol, greencards, “Muslim bans” and quotas–can be traced to the Asian Exclusion era since which the U.S. continues to define White and American while vying for global hegemony. Whitman and Emerson helped forge these identities, refashioning American values from unabashedly appropriated historic Asian texts and thought. Whitman was loved by White nationalists, economic nativists, and settler colonialists with poems like Pioneer! O Pioneer! and passionate diatribes against the world’s majority. As settlers expanded the southwestern border atop Native land and blood, Whitman helped stoke anti-Asian hate, expressed through mass lynchings, mutilation, arson and mob violence under the slogan of the day: “The Chinese must go…[e]ven the soldiers themselves curse the duty which compels them to sustain the Alien against the American.” For a land of immigrants, the Whitman contradiction is as American as apple pie.

“Praise the trafficked body, the one that is excised. On smartphones, with hashtags, we lament the phantom part.”
— Barbara Jane Reyes

miss universe gloria diaz magazine cover in 1970, smiling woman with long black hair and lashes wearing yellow and blue sash

Asians arrived in the Americas as miners, railroad workers; as coolies, sailors or slaves on 16th century Spanish ships; as visa overstays or part of the “brain drain.” Some became as part of a booming wartime adoption industry; as camptown “war brides,” refugees, sex workers or domestic workers from over half a century of U.S. bombings that leveled the Asia Pacific. In lockstep with trade and military interests, whether laborer, Celestial, Mongoloid, Malay, or Oriental, race for Asian Americans continues to be a work-in-progress. As Southeast Asian American poet Bao Phi writes, “Rough immigrant, or/ free refugee–/ floating flagless,/ fading border,/ stamped with words but not your name.”

Barbara Jane Reyes writes of the converging bondage of colonialism, global capitalism, racism and misogyny — and the indefatigable resistance of Pinay and other Asian Pacific Islander American women: “Praise the trafficked body, the one that is excised. On smartphones, with hashtags, we lament the phantom part.” Perhaps it was Lee Puey You, deported after 20 months of detention, “embarrassing and shameful” sexual examination and interrogation, who etched the question into Angel Island’s walls: “Will I always be a secret?” Morality and sexual deviance were codified as criteria for Chinese women immigrants since before the Page Act 1875, banning them for almost a decade prior to the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Wikipedia. Indian coolie laborers in British Trinidad and Tobago; taken around 1890.

Rajiv Mohabir tells another defiant tale of the “despised minority” hidden along trade routes: “I was born a crab-dog devotee of the silent/ god, the jungle god, the god crosser-of-seas…. Now/ Stateside, Americans erase my slave story;/ call me Indian. Can’t they hear kalapani/ in my voice, my breath’s marine layer when I say?” Slave codes were updated with the word “coolie,” and hundreds of thousands of Indian and Chinese men arrived on the same or updated slave ships to Trinidad, Guayana, Canada, Peru, Cuba, and California. These would be sites of expulsion, violence against Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Filipino, Hmong, Korean and others identified as Asian, including an interhemispheric roundup that incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese of the Americas during World War II and an ongoing century of invasion, carnage, militarization, colonialism, exploitation and erasure from North Africa to West Asia.

“What’s/ the difference between memory told and memory burned?” Tiana Nobile asks us this fundamental question as we continue to refashion and reiterate who is the other to our us and the great myths that bind us. But whether spurred by imagination, violence, longing or resistance, ask we must. To borrow from Sahar Muradi and Zohra Saed: ”And the whisper started, the itch spread, and grew and ballooned, and before I knew it — I leapt in — with everything on and with all abandon.”

One Story, Thirty Stories. Eds. Zohra Saed and Sahar Muradi


Writing Prompts

Prompt 1: Write 10 lines that begin with “I am from.” On another page, write 10 lines that begin with “Because of this I am.” See what poetic combinations emerge. Bonus Prompt: Use a combination as the first line of a new poem.

Prompt 2: At your next friends or family gathering, do an exquisite corpse of sayings. Pass around a piece of paper. Each person writes a saying they remember from their youth and folds it over before passing it to the next person. Read all the sayings as a group poem, see what collective beliefs emerge.


  1. Take action against the record deportations to Southeast Asian Americans and end continued U.S. state violence against people of color — stand in power with communities of color and stop the next deportation flight! Follow posts on this Facebook Page..
  2. Support organizations who are led by people who live and fight for social justice for our communities — give to Asian American leadership organizations like KundimanMekong NYC and the Asian Prisoner Support Committee.
  3. Consider what it means to give in solidarity. Support arts and culture and community-led philanthropy — give local community funds where your gift will go directly to people who are changing the world from the ground up.

NAPAWF NYC issues Statement Coronavirus related racism and discrimination


The National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF) issued a statement today condemning racist acts of violence against Asian American related to the coronavirus.

“The recent anti-Asian attacks have come from the simplification of our diverse community into one singular entity, the wrongful suspicion that East Asian Americans are responsible for the pandemic and carriers of COVID-19, and the perpetual foreigner stereotype which deems Asians as outsiders. These long-held stereotypes are not only harmful to our community but are a distraction from responding to this public health crisis. We are here to remind the world that we are not your scapegoat. We are not a virus. We are not the problem. Though we may be physically distant from each other now, this pandemic cannot eclipse the collective power and resiliency we have built throughout history that we will continue to harness during this moment….

Read the full statement on NAPAWF NYC’s website

Today’s COVID19 related anti-Asian hate crimes have been a few centuries in the making and are directly related to reproductive justice and systemic racism for Asian American women of color, who were in fact banned on the basis of race, and for whom race was constructed specifically around the idea that they were social and public health contaminants. (Read Diana Lu’s article “Yang Song and the Long History of Targeting Asian American Sex Work”)

From “The Exclusion of Chinese Women, 1870–1943,” Sucheng Chan in Chinese Immigrants and American Law (Ed. Charles McClain)

The text of the Page Act itself reads:

“That it shall be unlawful for aliens of the following classes to immigrate into the United States, namely, persons who are undergoing sentence for conviction in their own country of felonious crimes other than political or growing out of or the result of such political offenses, and women “imported for the purposes of prostitution. Every vessel arriving in the United States may be inspected under the direction of the collector of the port at which it arrives, if he shall have reason to believe that such obnoxious persons are on board…[shall be] ascertained by him to be of either of the classes whose importation is hereby forbidden.”

Page Act, Approved, March 3, 1875

Asian American Journalists Association Calls for Anti Racism from News Organizations in Coronavirus Coverage

AAJA calls for “accurate and fair portrayals of Asians and Asian Americans”

This is excerpted from a statement by the AAJA MediaWatch Committee on February 13, 2020 and revised March 19, 2020. Read more on the AAJC website.

The Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) is urging journalists to exercise care in their coverage of the coronavirus outbreak in China to ensure accurate and fair portrayals of Asians and Asian Americans and to avoid fueling xenophobia and racism that have already emerged since the outbreak.

Some of the news and commentary that have raised concern include:

  • Use of images of people wearing face masks without providing the proper context: For many years prior to the coronavirus outbreak, face masks have been commonly used in East Asian countries, including for protection from pollution… (read more)
  • Use of generic images of Chinatown: Only include images of a local Chinatown if it is directly related to a news story… (read more)
  • Use of the term “Wuhan virus,” “China coronavirus,” or “Chinese coronavirus,” or any other term that uses geographic locations or refers to a population to describe the virus: The World Health Organization issued guidelines in 2015 discouraging the use of geographic locations… (read more)

Anti-Asian Violence Tops 100 Attacks Per Day, Lawmakers and Philanthropy Respond

On April 8, Alex Daniels of The Chronicle of Philanthropy details the response of funders who have played a critical role in reinvesting in divested communities. The determination of which communities exactly are divested from has unfortunately been part of the larger picture of how woefully underprepared, under-resourced and misunderstood Asian Americans and Asian as a socially constructed race actually are.

Patricia Eng and other Asian Americans and allies build consciousness among funders large and small to assess their own biases in who and what they fund

Quick Rose Garden Recap: President Trump — on the heels of the hearings calling for his impeachment — launched an immediate campaign to rebrand the novel virus COVID-19, one of several coronaviruses, as the “China Virus” or “Wuhan Virus.” One of his aides was said to have called it the “Kung Flu” to a Chinese American Washington Post reporter and then this whole conspiracy happened:

A close-up of President Trump’s notes shows where “Corona” was crossed out and replaced with “Chinese.” (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The Washington Post reports:

While the president recently read a statement asking Americans to protect Asian Americans from racist attacks, saying they’re not to blame for the virus, his son Donald Trump Jr. shortly thereafter posted a “Kung-Flu Kid” video of his father crane-kicking the coronavirus. And just last week, the Group of Seven could not reach an agreement on a joint statement about the pandemic because the Trump administration insisted on referring to covid-19 as the “Wuhan Virus” — a term other world leaders rejected as needlessly divisive.

These racial “dog whistles” — including linking outgroups with germs and disease — are part of a long political history of demonizing foreigners as threatening and dangerous. Anecdotally, these racial appeals appear to be having real social and political consequences. In the early stages of the pandemic, before the general lockdowns, the news media reported significant drops in visits to Chinese restaurants. More recently, Asian Americans are increasingly reporting being verbally or physically attacked.

Ironically, they also say “The U.S. has an ugly history of blaming foreigners for disease” and “xenophobia” (emphasis added) to describe hate crimes against Asian Americans. 🤦🏻‍♀️ Luckily, the day before Trump said “It’s going to disappear. One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear” at a White House meeting with African American leaders, the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC) tweeted this letter: