UConn Reads: Maternal Activism and Racial Justice

Emmett and Mamie Till. (Source: The Mamie Till Mobley Foundation)
A daughter reflects on mothers who advocate tirelessly for racial justice for their children, despite their own suffering, including the mothers of Emmett Till (shown here), Vincent Chin, Matthew Shepard, and Michael Brown. (Source: The Mamie Till Mobley Foundation)

For the 2015-2016 academic year, the UConn Reads Steering Committee selected the theme “Race in America.” The theme is both provocative and poignant, especially in juxtaposition to various current events (such as Ferguson, Baltimore, and #blacklivesmatter) and several significant anniversaries, including the 50th anniversaries of the March on Selma and the subsequent passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The year 2015 is also the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which removed for the first time in U.S. history race-based, nation-based quotas from immigration law.

While many associate Mother’s Day with May, I actually connect such maternal celebrations to February, the month of my mother’s birth. This year, my mother – Ginko – celebrated her 82nd birthday. Born in 1930s Japan, my mother has clear memories of World War II, even though when it ended she was just 11 years old. Most of her teenage years were spent living under the U.S. occupation of Japan. As she entered adulthood, she found employment in a local cigarette factory that was constructed under the Marshall Plan. Nearby was Misawa Air Base, and it was along its edges that she met my father, an American Air Force man. After a three-year courtship, she and my father married and relocated to the United States.

My mother has not returned to Japan since that departure in the mid-1960s. She and my father spent the first decade of their marriage looking for children to adopt. It was near the end of the Vietnam War in Udon Thani, Thailand in 1975 that she happened upon me and my twin brother. Our biological father had been an American GI who had returned home to his family prior to our birth; our biological mother was an ethnic Cambodian who was at the time married to a Thai military man. Apparently, the two had had an affair. It was a matter of luck and an issue of circumstance that we became a family.

Cathy Schlund-Vials, center, at the age of 1, with her twin brother and her mother, Ginko. (Photo courtesy of Cathy Schlund-Vials)
Cathy Schlund-Vials, center, at the age of 1, with her twin brother and her mother, Ginko. (Photo courtesy of Cathy Schlund-Vials)

To be sure, my mother and I were – and remain – very different people: she was a first-generation immigrant who struggled with English and insisted on a traditional upbringing; I was a 1.5-generation Asian American who wanted nothing more than to be considered “American.”

Notwithstanding our profound differences, it is because of my mother that I would eventually focus my academic career in Asian American studies. I saw firsthand how she had to negotiate a racial stereotype that cast her as a perpetual foreigner, even though she was a naturalized U.S. citizen. I was often struck by the absolute grace she brought to these situations. She, unlike me, never let on how she felt by such dismissals, which often took the form of not being served by waiters, cashiers, salespeople, or professionals.

Yet, even though she remained silent in these instances, she would never abide such behavior toward her daughter. It was when such avoidances were generationally transferred that my mother used her very firm and unwaveringly stalwart voice, courageously insisting in these relatively minor and all-too-mundane instances that such behavior was unacceptable and deplorable. Whether it involved waiting for the right size shoes at a department store or asking for service at a restaurant, whether it meant asserting one’s place in a grocery store line or insisting that it was not okay to assume I was not an American, my mother proved an unstinting advocate.

Regretfully, I have not always appreciated these actions. I was more inclined then to be mildly embarrassed at best, and more often confessedly resentful. It was not until much later – when I encountered other mothers like Mamie Till, Lily Chin, Judy Shepard, and most recently, Lesley McSpadden – that I recognized what it took for my mother to take such a rights-oriented stance. Admittedly, in contrast to them, my mother was never faced with seeking justice for her children after unimaginable violence and equally unspeakable loss. But what unites all these mothers – despite differences in time and place – is that what their children suffered was directly attributable to the refusal of someone to see their humanity.

That refusal led directly to the Aug. 28, 1955 lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till by Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam. This personhood denial is at the core of what happened to Chinese American Vincent Chin – who incidentally was born the same year Emmett Till was murdered, 1955: on June 19, 1982, Chin was beaten almost to death by two out-of-work Detroit autoworkers armed with a baseball bat, who blamed him for Japanese trade deficits and outsourcing; he would succumb to his injuries four days later. It is sadly reiterated in the beating of Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student beaten by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson on Oct. 6, 1998; tied to a fence, Shepard was eventually discovered, although he too perished, six days later. And the theme played out again when, on Aug. 9, 2014, Lesley McSpadden’s son – unarmed teenager Michael Brown – was shot and killed by Ferguson, Mo. police officer Darren Wilson.

While each mother endured the overwhelming loss of a child, what is remarkably consistent is how Mamie Till, Lily Chin, Judy Shepard, and Lesley McSpadden advocated tirelessly – despite profound grief and in the face of overpowering sadness – for justice. As McSpadden stressed evocatively in a keynote address she delivered at UConn on Feb. 4, while it is at times impossible to “take it all in,” the struggle for racial justice is “far from over” and remains a “fight based on love.”