COMMUNITY PROFILES

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Professor Franklin Odo

John J. McCloy Visiting Professor of American Institutions and International Diplomacy

Class of 2019 Graduation

© Amherst College 2019

How did you become involved in Asian American Studies?

 

In the early 60s, there was no such thing as Asian American Studies. My Ph.D was in Asian history. I went to Harvard graduate school to become a historian of China. However, while I was there, I started to study Japanese and eventually focused on Japanese feudalism. I was writing my dissertation in 1968 when I got my first teaching position at Occidental College in Los Angeles. And I finally completed my dissertation on Japanese feudalism at Princeton - it was a struggle to do this because I had become so fully invested in a completely new enterprise.

 

While we were at UCLA, my family and I got very involved in a lot of anti-Vietnam War and Black Power activities. My involvement in these activities led me to question who we — Asian Americans — were as a minority group in the United States. It also led me to question the role of the United States as an empire in the world. Through these questions, I realized that I didn’t know what was going on in my country nor  did I understand it. I decided to take a look at the whole history of the country and the internal dynamics of race. It sort of organically came together. I was studying Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders — what we considered to be an underserved demographic minority group. I stayed in Asian Studies for two years at Occidental College, and then when UCLA began its Asian American Studies Center, I moved over there and began looking at Asian American Studies.

You’re widely known as a pioneer of Asian American Studies. What was it like to push for something that did not exist? What were the challenges?

 

There were lots of challenges. When I left the History department at Occidental College, I initially asked for a leave of absence. I didn’t know what was going to happen at UCLA since there was no such field as Asian American Studies. My colleagues in the History department at Occidental refused to provide a leave. They told me that I should stay and not pursue Asian American Studies because it would not be good for my career.  But I left anyway, and luckily, it did work out. I was at UCLA for a year, and then I went to Cal State Long Beach where I stayed for about 7 years. By that time, Asian American Studies had become semi-legitimate in a number of places, including at some of the UC campuses like Berkeley and at Columbia University and the University of Washington.

Still, it was very difficult trying to convince our colleagues and faculty in other departments that we were acceptable as colleagues and that our subject matter was needed. It was hard trying to find a home, but we were a pretty arrogant group. We thought we knew what was wrong with the world, [chuckles], or at least the country. Of course, one of the things we thought was wrong was that the country saw race as black and white. We were trying to intervene and introduce the whole multi-racial notion.

 

From very early on we effectively tried to create allies. We created ties with the Black Panther Party, Black Studies folk, Chicano activists, and Native Americans. We had people going to Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in 1970 and 1971. The FBI had surrounded the Sioux Reservation, so we had people bring residents supplies like food and medicine. We also helped occupy Alcatraz Island, which had just been abandoned as a federal penitentiary. Some of our Native American friends occupied it as a symbol of reclaiming the land.

 

We also worked with the Black Panther party, which was a revolutionary group. They were not engaged in violence from an aggressive point of view, but were aggressively defending themselves with arms. The FBI, we later found out, infiltrated the Panthers and had provocateurs — agents who deliberately created violent actions from within so law enforcement could “justify” killing Panthers. It was a very difficult time. At the same time, we were also working actively against the Vietnam War. We carried out all of these different movements, occupations, and demonstrations.

 

Our critique of the academy, including our primarily liberal friends, did not go down very well, because we were basically accusing them of not telling the truth, of not looking deeply enough into the causes of the war, the nature of American racism, and so on. So it was tough.


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What successes are you most proud of? What do you think are the important factors of these successes?

 

I don’t know if there is anything in particular to be proud of. I mean we were stubborn. You had to be stubborn to get through this. My family situation was a little different. A lot of the activist leaders were young students; not very many had families like me. My son David was born in ‘66, and by the time we became more involved in activism, he was probably 5. Rachel was born in 1970. When my wife, Enid, was pregnant, we were on a hunger strike. We didn’t know that if a pregnant woman is on a hunger strike, the fetus takes all the food it needs, and the woman is the one who suffers. But the reporters who talked to her accused her of hurting her baby. So she got really guilt-stricken and went off the hunger strike. Anyway, Jonathan was born in ‘73. My children all came during a really intense period of organizing.

For me, I knew a lot about Asia, but I didn’t know anything about Asians in America. I had to re-tool and learn about race and American history in a different kind of way. That was a major challenge. Stereotypes of Asian Americans were not that different from today. They emphasized docility, the fact that we were following orders, quiet and obedient. My knowledge of Asian Studies and the histories of Korea, Japan, and China, were replete with stories of resistance, revolts, and reactions against authoritarian rule. This knowledge helped us understand that Asian American stereotypes were not an inculcated DNA kind of thing and that we were not bound by a culture of obedience.

What was your path to Amherst?

 

I got to know Professor Robert Hayashi after I invited him to be on an advisory board for the National Park Service journal that eventually got published. After this, in 2015, I got a letter from the Dean inviting me to be the John J. McCloy visiting professor. At the time, I thought, “Oh man, I can’t take this job! That guy was terrible!"[1] But I decided that this is only a two-year teaching appointment, so I’ll do it.[2]

How do you see your role at Amherst?

 

It’s nice to see that something I’ve been spending my whole life developing is actually useful. It validates 50 years of work. So that’s good. But it’s really nice that at a small liberal arts college campus, I can have an  impact on individuals who can use a little bit of support. The model minority myth is so powerful. Faculty and support staff tend to think that Asian American students don’t need any assistance on issues of justice and identity. People don’t understand who Asian Americans are and what our needs are. I feel that a big part of my role is identifying the resources that Asian American students need and making them accessible. I’m grateful I can play this role.

There was not much student activism for Asian American studies until the second year you were here. Activism follows you — why do you think that is?

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Amherst Uprising was fortuitous in that it happened when I was on campus. I think the administration was really startled that Asian American students were involved in the Uprising. The administration really had bought into the model minority stereotype that Asian American students weren't going to make any noise and that they were successfully assimilated in Amherst College as well as American society. When the statements of misgivings came out, the fact that I was here was helpful so that it was not just Professor Robert Hayashi to back up what students were saying.

 

The thing about Amherst Uprising is that so many people were involved in the Frost Library occupation. Something like half the student body was at some point in the library. So Amherst did its thing. They did not kick students out or call security. They fed you. It was their way of enveloping discontent. They tried co-opting the whole thing. However, the thing that was unusual was that there was enough student leadership to prevent the Uprising from becoming  just a single instance of people resenting the fact that Amherst brought you here and didn’t care what happened. Students were able to transform the Uprising and the concerns brought up into a long-term project that the administration is still addressing.

What kind of program do you envision for Asian American Studies?

 

I don’t tend to think about majors quite so much. I think in my career, it has been about institutionalizing stuff. There needs to be some form of institutional response to people who have Asian heritage. They have intellectual, personal, psychological, and emotional needs to access information about themselves and their history. So to me, whether it’s a major or a program or a center, that’s not so critical.

 

My guess is that we need five or six faculty at a minimum focused on Asian American Studies. But Robert and I are Japanese American. We have Pawan and Sony Bolton here, but we need women, we need people who study gender issues, we need a variety of disciplines, and people from different backgrounds. Then, I think we’ll be okay.

 

 

What is your opinion on how alumni can support AAPI studies at Amherst?

 

They will be crucial. An alum has offered to support us financially. We’re trying to figure out how to use support like that. We need to further develop alumni funding. If we have 400 alumni give $100 a year, which is not a lot for some alumni, that would have the potential to provide so much. We could perhaps endow several positions with additional funding to support students for research and conferences. Moreover, alumni have a great deal of influence on the administration in terms of hiring and allocation of resources on campus. If there is nobody pushing the administration for this, nothing will get done. Without Asian American Studies, Asian American students will go through college without an understanding that there are bamboo ceilings that they will confront in any industry that they pursue beyond Amherst — whether it’s  business, academia, non-profit work, or financial consulting. There are real issues out there in the real world that require some kind of facility, some knowledge about navigating a world that is wrought with racism.

 

 

Any last thoughts?

 

I think it’s great that this small group of alumni has morphed into something that is worth a venture

 

 

 

 

[1] McCloy, an Amherst alumni, was Assistant Secretary of War during World War II and heavily involved in the decision to incarcerate over 100,000 Japanese Americans during the war.

[2] Professor Odo’s visiting professorship has been extended twice since. He will serve at the College for a total of 6 years.