The Korean American Centennial Commemoration
Educators say that for students, the experience of not seeing themselves portrayed in textbooks and other teaching materials is akin to looking into a mirror and seeing nothing. Historically, Asian Americans – as well as other minorities – have peered into that looking glass and found either a blank space or, more damagingly, been confronted with predominantly negative images.
Indeed, since much of the educational curriculum in the United States tends to be Western/European-focused, the Asian Pacific American experience is rarely represented. What makes an impact in the American consciousness is often through the media. That translates to a barrage of degrading depictions of people of Asian origin: the silent servant, the exotic geisha, the evil warlord, the prostitute with a heart of gold, the sexless geek.
As a reflection of the so-called general American public, the venerable Smithsonian Institution, often referred to as “America’s attic,” has rarely focused upon the Asian American experience.
But in 2003, the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program changed all that.
Just over a hundred years ago, on January 13, 1903, the S.S. Gaelic arrived in Honolulu Harbor, carrying the first significant group of Korean immigrants to the New World. Most would become laborers on Hawaii’s large sugar cane plantations.
A century later, the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program honored those original immigrants, along with the pioneers that followed throughout the last century. The Korean American Centennial Commemoration (KACC) brought together leading Korean Americans from the fields of journalism, theater, film, literature, politics, and academia over 12 months throughout the Smithsonian complex, and even featured a highly successful program in Los Angeles.
We began the year with a look at Korean Americans in the media – because it’s the media that drives many of the public perceptions of who we are. No panel would be complete without the venerable K.W. Lee, the leading voice of Korean America, many would say, with his half-century-plus of journalism experience. Lee was joined by Jeannie Park, undoubtedly one of the most powerful Korean Americans in the publishing industry as the executive editor of People magazine, and the up-and-coming Alice Rhee, national producer for CNBC’s The News with Brian Williams [Williams is heir to Tom Brokaw’s NBC Nightly News.]
In the months that followed, we continued to have amazing programs. We presented a sneak preview of Better Luck Tomorrow, long before it hit your neighborhood screens. We screened the acclaimed two-part documentary Arirang: The Korean American Experience in full, of which Part II was a world premiere. Filmmaker Tom Coffman, did a remarkable job of bringing together most of his subjects from Part II to join us for a most memorable evening.
We had some of the best writers – regardless of ethnicity – read and present from their works, including Linda Sue Park, who is the first Korean American (and only second Asian American) to win a Newbery Medal, the most important of literary prizes for children’s books. She was joined by the sisters, Frances and Ginger Park, who are the authors of both award-winning children’s books as well as adult fiction, and Yangsook Choi, an award-winning author and illustrator.
In the fall, we presented the world premiere of Tracings, a dance program by Dana Tai Soon Burgess, in conjunction with The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, which proved so successful that it toured at least five cities in 2004. And, as the holidays fast approached, we concluded the year with a look at the next 100 years ahead.
By year’s end, we made history: Not only was the Centennial Commemoration the first sustained focus ever on Korean Americans throughout the Smithsonian, but it was also the first sustained focus of this scope highlighting any group, regardless of ethnicity. We hope that the success of this year-long Commemoration will continue to open doors for more diverse programming throughout the Smithsonian and beyond.
To see highlights from KACC throughout the year, go to www.si.apa.edu/kacc.html and click on the corresponding Photo Gallery buttons from the Events page to see what happened each month.