Photographer Corky Lee, who died in late January at age 73, has captured images of some of the most pivotal moments in Asian-American history. Journalist David Ibata, who died two days earlier at age 66, has helped dozens of cash-strapped young Asian reporters coveted internships in Chicago newsrooms. And researcher Judy Yung, who died in December at age 74, chronicled the experiences of 19th-century Chinese women in San Francisco and launched one of the country’s first Asian American studies programs.
Yung, Lee, and Ibata were from a generation of activists who cemented the Asian-American movement in the late 1960s and, over the next half-century, ushered in an unprecedented level of representation in politics, the scholarship and culture. Over the past decade, many leaders of this pivotal era – from civil rights icon Yuri Kochiyama to actor Rodney Kageyama – have passed away.
The coronavirus pandemic is amplifying a trend that experts say has accelerated in recent years: the loss of the last living links with the American-Asian movement. At a time when Asian seniors face threats on multiple fronts, they say, it is even more important that their stories are taught in schools and other public institutions so that their legacy is not forgotten.
“We are at an important point in history where we need to record their stories,” said Karen Umemoto, director of the Asian American Studies Center at UCLA. “There are so many rich life lessons we can learn from their involvement in movements for social change.”
More than 50 years after the first Asian American Studies programs were established at some California colleges, only a handful of post-secondary institutions offer degrees in the field. Even within these programs, Umemoto said, the story of the Asian-American civil rights movement and the people who built it is often abandoned.
Outside of the realm of scholarship, it can be even more difficult for the story to find exposure.
While Lee’s legacy has been covered in national media like the New York Times and The New Yorker, the deaths of other Asian American activists have attracted much less media attention. Yung’s obituary has appeared in few places other than the San Francisco Chronicle, and Ibata’s did not even make the pages of the Chicago Tribune, where he worked as a reporter and editor for more than two decades. .
“We are constantly in a culture war where we have to fight even to see a performance,” said Marie Lee, co-founder of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, a nonprofit literary organization, who was a longtime friend. by Corky Lee. . “It is a doubly bittersweet idea that Covid is blamed on us, and yet our suffering and our losses go unrecognized.”
The recent wave of violence against older Asians is also a testament to the need for more education in Asian-American history, Marie Lee said, as anti-Asian hatred “goes in cycles.”
“The mainstream culture won’t pay attention until it has to pay attention to it,” she said. “Asian Americans must be their own advocates.”
In addition to exerting devastating financial consequences on the community, restrictions linked to the pandemic have also made it difficult to mourn their loved ones.
“It kept us from coming together, mourning and commemorating like we normally would,” said Erika Lee, director of the Center for Research on Immigration History at the University of Minnesota. She and Yung co-wrote “Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America”.
At the same time, she said, the community has made huge strides in preserving the legacy of past rulers, noting the many benchmarks, documentaries and award-winning books on the subject. On TikTok, Asian teens create hard-hitting videos to explain the roots of anti-Asian racism and amplify new incidents of hate. All of these sources, she said, could be powerful educational tools.
Some well-established community organizations have launched initiatives to raise awareness of the impact that Asian seniors have had in specific professions.
Michelle Lee, president of the Asian American Journalists Association, said the sudden passing of longtime member Corky Lee and Ibata, co-founder of the organization’s Chicago chapter, shows that it is “more important than ever to to enhance the careers of the pioneers “.
“We need to recognize that we are just one of many generations to pursue the mission of diversifying our industry, of ensuring that diverse communities are covered with precision and fairness,” she said, adding that the group had collected the memories of its members. Lee and Ibata to document their impact on journalism.
Umemoto said that a better understanding of the Asian American movement can also help activists build more inclusive and tactically effective campaigns. In 1971, Corky Lee took inspiration from the Black Panthers’ social service programs to help organize a health fair in Manhattan’s Chinatown, offering free tests for tuberculosis, lead poisoning, venereal disease and other conditions. The effort developed in the Chinatown Health Clinic.
But research on such campaigns, Umemoto said, has mostly been limited to university libraries and lecture halls.
In 2019, the UCLA Center sought to make this knowledge more accessible by releasing “Mountain Movers,” a book that features student activists who in the 1960s fought for ethnic studies programs at UCLA, at the University of California, Berkeley and San. Francisco State University. Umemoto, who co-edited the book, said she wanted to teach this story to K-12 students through free online programs that “integrate historical narratives with multimedia experiences.”
The goal, she said, is to encourage young people to take up the causes that their elders started.
“It’s hard to separate what we can do in honor of their lives from the struggle for social and racial justice in general,” she said. “I think they would be happy to see the younger generation continue the fight.”