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Celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage month with Milner Library

Asian children with barbells

Five Asian children holding up small barbells, between 1890 and 1910. Photo Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) have both shaped the history and society of America and had their lives dramatically influenced by moments in the country’s history. Today, over 24 million people of the population identify as Asian or Pacific Islander in the United States.

According to the U.S. Census, Asians are defined as people whose backgrounds are from East, South, and Southeast Asia. These countries include China, Cambodia, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam among many others. Pacific Islanders encompass people native to Pacific islands of Melanesia (New Guinea, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Fiji, and the Soloman Islands), Micronesia (Marianas, Guam, Wake Island, Palau, Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Nauru, and the Federated States of Micronesia) and Polynesia (New Zealand, Hawaiian Islands, Rotuma, Midway Islands, Samoa, American Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, Cook Islands, French Polynesia, and Easter Island). Americans of Asian and/or Pacific Islander descent come from over 40 racial and ethnic subgroups and represent hundreds of languages. These communities form the fastest-growing major racial or ethnic group in the United States.

Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month is celebrated in May to recognize the contributions and achievements of generations of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who have enriched America’s history and culture. The month of May marks two important occasions: the immigration of the first Japanese immigrant to the United States on May 7, 1843, and the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad on May 10, 1869. Chinese immigrant laborers were a vital part of building the western section of the transcontinental railroad, the Central Pacific Railroad. More than 20,000 Chinese workers contributed to the construction, composing as much as 90 percent of the workforce. They worked under difficult and dangerous conditions, including explosives and tunneling. It is estimated Chinese deaths occurred in the hundreds possibly more than a thousand. This railroad, going through the mountains, was the largest engineering undertaking in the country at the time. Despite Chinese workers’ contributions to building America’s historic infrastructure project, their history is often forgotten.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have experienced an influx of verbal and physical racist attacks. In March 2020, the STOP AAPI HATE reporting center, founded by the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council (A3PCON), Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA) and San Francisco State University’s Asian American Studies Department, has received almost 1,500 reports of COVID-19 discrimination from Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders across the country within a month.

Unfortunately, this anti-AAPI sentiment story is not anything new. Asian Americans have been the target of discriminatory immigration laws dating back to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which was not completely repealed until the 1960s civil rights movement. During World War II, 110,000 Japanese Americans were removed from their homes and incarcerated in America’s concentration camps. This serves as a reminder for the necessary inclusion of AAPI narratives in the classrooms. It is more important than ever for the teaching, learning, and celebration of the historical contributions of AAPI communities throughout the year, not just in May. During this defining moment for the country, it is critical to recognize Asian American and Pacific Islander history parallels and intersects with the experiences that shaped America’s rich history and national identity. This May’s celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month is both timely and even more significant as the country continues to face challenges of the pandemic.

Milner Library is pleased to invite you to celebrate virtually. Here are some wonderful resources, including some highlights from Milner Library’s collections (electronic books and streaming video are available to ISU faculty, staff, and students): 

Online Programs, Museum Collections and Exhibitions

  • Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month: This Web portal is a collaborative project of the Library of Congress and the National Archives and Records Administration, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Gallery of Art, National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution, and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The contents of this site highlight only a small portion of the physical and digital holdings of the participating partners.

Other dedicated sites on portal

Chinese railroad crew

Chinese railroad construction crew. Photo Denver Public Library

  • Geography of Chinese Workers Building the Transcontinental Railroad: Virtual reconstruction of the key historic sites from the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford University. The exhibit includes visualizations and maps to to help us understand how Chinese railroad workers contributed to shaping not just the physical but the social landscape of the West.
  • Densho Archives: The Densho Archives contain primary sources that document the Japanese American experience from immigration in the early 1900s through redress in the 1980s, with a strong focus on the World War II mass incarceration. The archives are growing as Densho continues to record life histories and collect images and records.
  • SAADA: South Asian American Digital Archive: SAADA gives voice to South Asian Americans through documenting, preserving, and sharing stories that represent their unique and diverse experiences.
  • SLAYSIAN: SLAYSIAN is an online exhibit featuring contemporary Asian American artists. Curated by independent curator Jenny Lam, the exhibit features the work of 39 different artists, many for whom this is their first showing. It was originally planned to be a physical show in Chicago, but due to the pandemic, the artists moved to this virtual space.


Asian American and Pacific Islander Streaming Films from Kanopy

  • The Farewell on Kanopy: In this funny, heartfelt story, Billi’s (Awkwafina) family returns to China under the guise of a fake wedding to stealthily say goodbye to their beloved matriarch—the only person that doesn’t know she only has a few weeks to live.
  • Chan is Missing: Acclaimed filmmaker Wayne Wang’s first feature film follows the adventures of two cabbies on their search through San Francisco’s Chinatown for a mysterious character who has disappeared with $4,000 of their money. Their quest to figure out what happened to Chan and their missing cash leads them on a humorous journey that illuminates the pitfalls of Chinese Americans trying to assimilate into contemporary American society.
  • Legacy: Film created by the U.S. Forest Service that chronicles Chinese Railroad Workers’ contribution to the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad.
  • Turbans: A lyrical short drama set in the lush, green Oregon of 1918. It explores the conflict within an Asian Indian immigrant family torn between cultural traditions and a strong desire for social acceptance. Based on the memoirs of the filmmaker’s grandmother, Turbans illuminates issues of assimilation faced by all immigrants. The compelling story concerns the young Singh boys who, although born in the U.S., are attacked for being different. The turbans they wear, a tradition sacred to their Sikh ancestors, identify them as outsiders in the prejudiced landscape of their time and place. Their father makes a tough, heart-breaking decision that brings us face-to-face with the harsh realities of racial intolerance. Based on the memoirs of Kartar Dhillon.


  • Asian American Drama on Alexander Street Press: Asian American Drama contains 252 plays by 42 playwrights, together with detailed, fielded information on related productions, theaters, production companies, and more. Some 50 percent of these plays have never been published before. The collection begins with the works of Sadakichi Hartmann in the late 19th century and progresses to the writings of contemporary playwrights, such as Philip Kan Gotanda, Elizabeth Wong, and Jeannie Barroga. The plays themselves have been selected using leading bibliographies and with the editorial advice of Josephine D. Lee, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities; Esther S. Kim, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; James S. Moy, University of New Mexico; and Karen Shimakawa, University of California, Davis.
  • The Making of Asian America: A History (reading/talk by author, Erika Lee, recording Youtube by the National Archives): In the past 50 years, Asian Americans have helped change the face of America and are now the fastest growing group in the United States. But as award-winning historian Erika Lee reminds us, Asian Americans also have deep roots in the country. The Making of Asian America tells the little-known history of Asian Americans and their role in American life, from the arrival of the first Asians in the Americas to the present-day.
  • Exiled: from the killing fields of Cambodia to California and back by Katya Cengel: In Exiled, Cengel follows the stories of four Cambodian families as they confront criminal deportation 40 years after their resettlement in the United States. Weaving together these stories into a single narrative, Cengel finds that violence comes in many forms and that trauma is passed down through generations. With no easy answers, Cengel reveals a cycle of violence followed by safety, and then loss.
  • Inscrutable belongings : Queer Asian North American fiction by Stephen Hong Sohn: In these texts, Asian North American queer people are often excluded from normative family structures and must contend with multiple histories of oppression, erasure, and physical violence, involving homophobia, racism, and social death. Sohn’s work makes clear that for such writers and their imagined communities, questions of survival, kinship, and narrative development are more than representational—they are directly tied to lived experience.
  • Yellow future : oriental style in Hollywood cinema by Jane Chi Hyun Park: Yellow Future examines the emergence and popularity of techno-oriental representations in Hollywood cinema since the 1980s, focusing on the collective fantasy of East Asia as the future. Jane Chi Hyun Park demonstrates how this fantasy is sustained through imagery, iconography, and performance that conflate East Asia with technology, constituting what Park calls oriental style.
  • Inhuman citizenship : traumatic enjoyment and Asian American literature by Juliana Chang: In Inhuman Citizenship, Juliana Chang claims that literary representations of Asian American domesticity may be understood as symptoms of America’s relationship to its national fantasies and to the “jouissance” that both overhangs and underlies those fantasies. Chang shows that by identifying with the nation’s psychic disturbance, Asian American characters ethically assume responsibility for a national unconscious that is often disclaimed.
  • Chang and Eng reconnected : the original Siamese twins in American culture by Cynthia Wu: Cynthia Wu traces the “Original Siamese Twins” through the terrain of American culture, showing how their inseparability underscored tensions between individuality and collectivity in the American popular imagination. Using letters, medical documents and exhibits, literature, art, film, and family lore, Wu provides a trans-historical analysis that presents the Bunkers as both a material presence and as metaphor. She also shows how the twins figure in representations of race, disability, and science in fictional narratives about nation building. As astute entrepreneurs, the twins managed their own lives; nonetheless, as Chang and Eng Reconnected shows, American culture has always viewed them through the multiple lenses of difference.
  • A different shade of justice : Asian Americans civil rights in the South by Stephanie Hinnershitz: In the Jim Crow South, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, and, later, Vietnamese and Indian Americans faced obstacles similar to those experienced by African Americans in their fight for civil and human rights. Although they were not black, Asian Americans generally were not considered white and thus were subject to school segregation, antimiscegenation laws, and discriminatory business practices. As Asian Americans attempted to establish themselves in the South, they found that institutionalized racism thwarted their efforts time and again. However, this book tells the story of their resistance and documents how Asian American political actors and civil rights activists challenged existing definitions of rights and justice in the South.

More fun things available

  • AsAmNews is a community of users interested in reading, learning and commenting on news, events, people & issues in the Asian Americans and Pacific Islander communities. Here you will find a full roundup of headlines and blogs about the Asian American community from both mainstream and ethnic media. Special emphasis is placed on featuring stories about Asian Americans breaking stereotypes and making contributions in both the mainstream and the Asian American community.
  • Joshua Luna Creations: webcomics and blog by Filipino American artist, Joshua Luna.
  • The Amplify: Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Month hub: Spotify will be updating the hub with exclusive content throughout May.
  • How did Polynesian wayfinders navigate the Pacific Ocean?: video by Alan Tamayose and Shantell De Silva from TEDEd
  • Cookies as a Form of Activism: video by Jasmine Cho from TEDxPittsburgh
  • Hyphen Magazine: a magazine covering a broad range of Asian American interests and issues, but they focus especially on providing a medium for Asian Americans to express themselves. From rap to poetry to accounts of growing up Asian American, Hyphen publishes many forms of personal and community expressions of being Asian American.