Study Guide

A Different Mirror

by Ronald Takaki

A Different Mirror Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Near the end of this multicultural history of the United States, historian Ronald Takaki articulates the thesis and the goal of his book. Citing Gloria Anzaldua’s concept of a borderland, “a place where ’two or more cultures edge each other,”’ he concurs with her that an “inner struggle” to understand the American cultural heritage must take place before Americans can change their troubled society. This understanding “must ultimately be ground in ’unlearning’ much of what we have been told about America’s past and substituting a more inclusive and accurate history of all the peoples of America.” Takaki’s contribution to this goal is a retelling of American history from the point of view of the various ethnic and racial groups who settled here, attempting to see all the “different shores” from which they came as “equal points of departure” in the building of American culture.

What could have become a loose, baggy monster of a project is given form by several structuring elements. The first is an extended metaphor that compares the New World to the wilderness in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a play that opened in 1611 and was based on a contemporary incident involving an English ship that was heading for Virginia but ran aground in the Bermudas. Takaki speculates that the play represented English expansion into the Americas. Caliban, the quasi-human native of the island to which Prospero is exiled and over which he claims sovereignty, becomes a figure for the natives of the New World and later for the Africans brought as slaves. Takaki uses this image to illustrate what he refers to as the “racialization of savagery,” the tendency on the part of white Americans to associate barbarism with dark skin, an attitude that would determine the treatment of black slaves as well as Native American tribes. The image of Caliban is used throughout Takaki’s study to describe the struggles especially of those immigrant groups, including the Chinese as well as African Americans and Native Americans, that could not assimilate into mainstream American society because of racial differences. They were often denigrated in the same terms (savage, lazy, dirty, inferior, treacherous) in order to justify harsh policies toward them, whether of slavery, removal from their land, or restrictions of their immigration and civil rights. This pattern, first established when the English met the Indians, thus repeated itself throughout the next two centuries.

A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America is also structured, though loosely, in a rough historical sequence consisting of four main sections: “Boundlessness,” from discovery through slavery; “Borders,” covering the Market Revolution and western expansion; “Distances,” treating European and Asian immigration; and “Crossings,” a contemplation of America’s dilemmas in the twenty-first century, with the changes in the racial composition of U.S. population and the accompanying questions about who is “American.”

Who is American? In the book’s first section, to trace the English colonists’ attempts to grapple with this question Takaki examines the policies they developed to deal with blacks and indigenous peoples during a time when the country seemed boundless. Questions of race and racism were particularly acute at this time, as the English tried to define themselves in contrast to the indigenous peoples they found in the New World. Yet much of the rhetoric used against the Indians, Takaki shows, was not based on color, at least not initially; it was similar to that being used against the Irish in the period when the English were colonizing Ireland, and for similar reasons of land acquisition. The pattern Takaki establishes in this first section has social, political, and economic ramifications for the rest of the book, for the pattern repeated itself in different forms with each new immigrant group that arrived in the new country.

Takaki cites letters and contemporary English accounts that found parallels between the Indians and the Irish. Both groups were seen as uncivilized because they were unchristian and unlettered and failed to bring their land under cultivation and make it more productive. Capitalist patterns of ownership and productivity were integrated into the English definitions of civility and morality, as Takaki has shown in an earlier work, Iron Cages: Race and Culture in Nineteenth-Century America (1979). The English idea that the Irish and the Indians...

(The entire section is 1845 words.)