Two History Books Offer A Path to Cultivating Empathy and Solidarity

by Linda Wing. Posted February 2, 2023.

Recently a friend of mine observed that I always seem to be reading history books. She couldn’t understand why, remarking “history is boring.” Perhaps the reason for such boredom lies in this 2020 finding of the American Historical Association: two-thirds of the respondents to its national survey defined history as a collection of raw facts such as names, dates, and events. An even higher percentage – slightly more than three-fourths – indicated their high school history courses focused only on basic facts. As a result, the comic, complicated, tragic, and turbulent human dynamic of history goes unseen by all too many people. Why is this important? Winston Churchill warned, “those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Catherine Ceniza Choy, whose book I review below, offers another point of view: history is an essential resource for “cultivating empathy and solidarity.”

California: An American History and Asian American Histories of the United States, both published in 2022, go far towards illuminating the human face of history. Written by historians with relevant lived experiences as well as deep, up-to-date knowledge and understanding of the evidentiary base for the histories they present, the books are intended to speak to the general public, to open possibilities for avoiding the divisive hazards of time and building much needed empathy and solidarity.

California: An American History by John Mack Faragher

When I was in fourth grade, the teacher asked us to make dioramas of Spanish missions as our culminating California history project. Fourth grade was the first and last time that California history was explicitly taught during my elementary-secondary schooling. My teacher followed the state’s curriculum standards, which at the time did not acknowledge the mission system as the keystone of Spanish colonization and oppression of indigenous people. When I reached high school, my US History class touched upon California only to mention that it was admitted to the Union as a free state. Thereafter I assumed that California was devoid of slavery and all its attendant inhumane and unjust practices and laws. It was a stunning surprise to learn recently, after I retired, that California enacted its own Fugitive Slave Law in 1852, rejected ratification of the 15thAmendment in 1870, and failed to ratify the 14th Amendment until 1959.

Illustration by Weshoyot Alvitre.

In stark contrast to the lopsided and incomplete views of the story of California that I was taught in school stands John Mack Faragher’s California: An American History. Faragher was invited by the Yale University Press to write a one-volume history for a general audience. It is a page-turner. The through-line is the story of Native Californians, the state’s indigenous peoples. The author emphasizes that he is essentially narrating the stories of ten generations of California families and asks the reader to take on that family mindset.

Faragher collaborated with Weshoyot Alvitre, who illustrated the book with 40 or so drawings. She is a member of the Tongva band in southern California. A Yale professor of the American West, Faragher was also born and raised in southern California. Both Faragher and Alvitre mined original source materials to vibrantly depict the history I wasn’t taught in school, both in words and pen-and-ink.

As one example, Faragher tells the story of the first military engagement between the Spanish and Native Californians. It took place in 1587. Pedro de Unamuno, the Spanish captain of a Manila galleon, sailed to California from the East Indies and landed in Chumash territory. He laid claim to the land. History books traditionally describe Native Californians as passive and obedient when first encountering the Spanish. In actuality, the Chumash tried to protect their home, in this case attacking Unamuno’s soldiers. The documentation lies in Spanish records written by Bartholomé de las Casas, a priest who participated in Spain’s colonization campaigns. Alvitre provides a drawing of the encounter, based on historical records of weaponry and military garb.

Faragher does not elide the complexity of the context. Unamuno’s soldiers were Mexican mestizos; his military scouts and sailors were Filipinos. Both Mexican mestizos and Filipinos were peoples already under Spanish colonial rule.

Asian American Histories of the United States by Catherine Ceniza Choy


Catherine Ceniza Choy offers an inspirational, actionable observation about history: it is a resource for “cultivating empathy and solidarity.” However, the harsh reality is that “so much of the general public knows so little” about history, especially Asian American histories. In Choy’s view, this absence of knowledge accounts, in part, for the re-emergence of anti-Asian hate and violence in 2020. She was urgently motivated to write Asian American Histories of the United States as a result.

Berkeley professor of ethnic studies and an associate dean in the Division of Computing, Data Science, and Society, Choy is the daughter of immigrants from the Philippines. Both personally and professionally invested in her field of history, she provides a distinctive history read in several ways.

Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee members picketing in front of Filipino Community Hall as part of the Delano Grape Strike on September 24, 1965. © Harvey Richards Media Archive.

First, Choy’s choice of title explicitly recognizes the diversity of the Asian American population. Each group – Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, Koreans, Indians, Hmong, to name a few — has its own history. That said, their histories intersect because “they wove their fates together” in common cause in a country where they faced the same or similar U.S. policies and practices. Second, Choy begins the book in our time – 2020 – and then proceeds backwards to the 19th century. Third, she recognizes young people as history makers. Choy highlights the efforts of students, whether in 1968 to coin the term “Asian American” and start a pan-Asian political movement or in 2016 to educate parents and grandparents about Why Black Lives Matter with thoughtful letters, each written in one of 26 different Asian languages, in order to start family conversations. Fourth, Choy puts a human face on Asian American histories, foregrounding the experiences of specific individuals and communities. For example, in “Interlude,” an innovative shoutout poem, she describes how the history of food in the US is interwoven with the histories of Asian American agricultural workers, food processors, farmers, and entrepreneurs ranging from Larry Itliong in 1965 to Hannah Dehradunwala in 2020. Itliong organized Filipino agricultural workers, initiated the Great Delano Grape Strike, and persuaded Cesar Chavez and Mexican workers to join the walkout from the fields, thus giving birth to the United Farm Workers. Dehradunwala developed a website and an app to enable restaurants with excess food to collaborate with service organizations that deliver food to food pantries and homeless shelters in a coordinated response to food insecurity and edible food waste.


The framework of Asian American Histories consists of three themes: 1) Anti-Asian hate and violence, 2) Erasure of Asian American histories, and 3) Resistance. Choy ends the book with a focus on Corky Lee, who addressed erasure with extraordinarily creative resistance.

As a child, Lee learned about the contributions of 15,000 Chinese men who constructed the Central Pacific Railroad. They comprised 90 percent of the workforce, risking their lives blasting tunnels through the Sierra Nevadas. Lee studied the photograph taken at Promontory Summit, Utah to commemorate the 1869 completion of the transcontinental railroad at the point where the Central Pacific coming from the west met the Union Pacific coming from the east. Upon a close examination of the image, he found not a single Chinese worker in it. Decades later, on the 145th anniversary of the transcontinental railroad’s completion, Lee took a photograph of the descendants of the Chinese railroad workers at Promontory Summit. “The joy was palpable,” Choy writes. Lee called the moment “photographic justice.”

The 145th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in Ogden, Utah with Chinese Americans and descendants of the Chinese railroad workers. Photo by Corky Lee. 2017. Posted on

Asian American Histories offers us an inspirational takeaway: Justice engenders joy. California reminds us that the state’s history is our history, the stories of ten generations of California families. Both books, purposefully written to capture the attention of the general public, are resources for “cultivating empathy and solidarity. That’s why I read history books.


Author’s Bio: A fifth-generation Chinese American, Linda Wing worked for 50 years to empower invisible, disenfranchised and underrepresented students by advancing equitable and excellent education at the PreK12 and postsecondary levels. She had the unique opportunity to pursue these goals in school systems and universities throughout the U.S. — the Bay Area, the Inland Empire, the South Side of Chicago, and Boston. Linda is glad to be back in the Bay where, as a beginning high school teacher, she joined Asian American parents to develop an Asian American Studies curriculum and gained their trust to teach their children Asian American History and Literature.

Featured Image:

Anti-Asian Hate rally in SF Portsmouth Square. 2021. Photo by Eddie Wong.

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