International Souls in the Land of White-man’s Power: Dreamland Rhetoric and Racial Hierarchy

I often wonder how I arrived at this middle-of-the-cornfield campus with people who look vastly different from me, all the way from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. As indicated on the Knox College website, over 17% of the student body are those coming from outside the U.S. But what brought the first foreign student to Knox? 

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Portrait of Barnabas Root

I stumbled upon the archival files of Barnabas Root (Class of 1870), allegedly Knox’s first international and black student, and that of Dr. Charles A. Eastman, a Class of 1884 indigenous student. Both Root and Eastman were aliens to the “civilized” society of the whites.[1] Their stories hold narratives regarding the American dream and the racial hierarchy that explains U.S. fickle immigration policies. My essay attempts to find answers, albeit incompletely, to these questions: What prompted Root and Eastman’s studies at Knox? Was Knox an institution as welcoming to different nationalities as it aims to be now? If so, did Knox live up to its abolitionist reputation through Root and Eastman’s perspective? [2] Essentially, the overarching theme of my writing is the manifestation of freedom and equality, two qualities the U.S. advertises itself on, and their intersection with foreign identities over time. 

Like other college applicants, I submitted to CommonApp a story of grit, personal achievements, and a desire for advanced education. The U.S. appears as a land full of hope, opportunities, and development. Some were even surprised to hear that I would return to Vietnam post-graduation. This idolized view of America, or the dreamland rhetoric, is not strange to me, and definitely not to Barnabas Root. The late 1800s witnessed a stream of incoming foreign students hungry for knowledge, research, and “freedom of personal experience”. [3]  A little prior, though, it was missionaries who brought more diversity to American universities. Eastman enrolled in Beloit College with encouragement from Rev. Alfred Riggs, superintendent of Santee Training School. [4] Root studied at Mendi Mission School established by the American Missionary Society in Sierra Leone before joining Sarah G. McIntosh (Class of 1885) and her husband, Rev. Charles Finley Winship (Class of 1860), on their journey back to the States.[5, 6] Yung Wing (Yale Class of 1854) also came to America under the instruction of Rev. Brown, whose stories of the land beyond the Pacific stirred up dreams of education for the young student. In addition to being the first international student in the U.S., Yung Wing was the Deputy Commissioner of the 1872 Chinese Education Commission. He wrote in a diary published in 1912 “that through western education China might be regenerated, become enlightened and powerful.” [7] The 1871 Iwakura Mission was also founded on the desirability of American education, as Amherst College president Julius H. Seelye enrolled Japanese students to aid the building of “a modern nation.” [8] Root wrote in a letter exclaiming that he was “pleasant with the thought that I am thus preparing myself for future usefulness to my poor countrymen”. [9]

In a 1982 article, Spaulding and Colucci observed the trend for international students to become political leaders in their home country.[10] Indeed, many of the first wave of foreign students became policy-makers and diplomats. Yung Wing was appointed as the Associate Minister to the U.S. Niijima Jo (Amherst Class of 1870) established Doshisha University based on Western ideals and Christian moral teachings. Root also taught Christianity in Africa while Eastman became a physician for the U.S. government. Effortlessly it seems, the U.S. benefits from these students to promote their education and branch their influence globally; be it Christianity preaching in Eastman and Root’s times or economic and political views in my time. 

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Hennepin County History Bulletin featuring an article on Charles Eastman's life and his impactful works

One such person that had an opinion on the way America conducts itself was Eastman. He resigned from his post with the government as he did not join politicians to exploit his race. [11]  He even commented on the civilization that removed indigenous tribes, an observation that reveals the characteristics of settler colonialism in Christianity preaching: 

It must always be borne in mind that the first effect of association with the more advanced race was not improvement but degeneracy. [...] to gain honor for their society for saving the souls of the natives it was almost necessary to represent them as godless and murderous savages-otherwise there would be no one to convert! [12]

Yes, the promised land had a price: internalized racial inferiority, or xenophobia if we want to go down that rabbit hole. Eastman’s father declared: “Here is one Sioux who will sacrifice everything to win the wisdom of the white man!” based on a firm belief in the ability of an Indian man to “be equal to [the white man] in the ways of the mind” as he sent Eastman away to Beloit College.[13, 14] After more Sioux students were sent to Beloit, Eastman transferred to Knox College because, in his own words, “I might progress faster where I was not surrounded by my tribesmen.”[15] But even after “mastering the secret of the white man’s power”, Eastman found himself at the center of the paradox that is “a society both revered and destroyed the Indian.”[16, 17] The world that Eastman lived in was one that feast their eyes on his traditional garments during speeches, but all the while implemented the Indian Removal Act and massacred his own blood at Wounded Knee. It was with Eastman that I found a frustrating intersection between the American dream and manifest destiny, to be someone who believed in God but whose blood was displaced by the white savior sentiment masked with the “righteous” colonial practice of Christianity. It was the same society where the public perception of Root’s studies at Knox was captured in a news article: “A pioneer local project was to prove that an African boy could be educated in an American college."[18] A much more straightforward implication of racial superiority would be a Minneapolis Journal’s commentary on a pamphlet “celebrating” the achievements of Eastman: “Dr. Eastman would be an exceptional man were he of Caucasian race. He is the bright and shining man of his race today.” [19]

Sadly, Root and Eastman both experienced racism worse than what was written in newspapers. Even on the “abolitionist” Knox campus, Root took note of the prejudice classmates threw his way. Long before his college enrollment, Root was declined a seat at dinner in a restaurant based on the color of his skin, which brought the young child to tears.[20] Nevertheless, in a September 23, 1868 letter, Root expressed his determination to accomplish what he came to the U.S. for: “...it will hardly look right for me to leave Galesburg merely on account of the feeling of prejudice.” [21] Eastman’s days at Beloit College were also hampered by racism on the streets, “by gangs of little white savages giving imitation war whoops”.[22]

Contextually, the public views of foreigners living on American land went through major shifts in the 1800s. The Chinese and Japanese education missions occurred in the years after the Civil War when Americans warmly received foreign youths.[23] That was until anti-Chinese sentiment grew in the States, putting pressure on Congress to limit Chinese immigration. Yung Wing’s plan came to a halt in 1881, and 1 year later came the Chinese Exclusion Act. Wing actually had his U.S. citizenship revoked, despite being granted the rights in 1852. It’s interesting to note that the “yellow peril” happened just 30 years earlier, a boom in Chinese immigration that provided workers for the transcontinental railroad.[24, 25] When the deed was done and many went out of work, Americans feared for their employment. My family talks in length about the “brain-drain” phenomenon in the beginning of the 21st century: professionals emigrated to America as the nation’s workforce welcomed their skills and knowledge. More recently, international students are traveling back to Vietnam instead of fighting tooth and nail to remain on foreign soil. I’ve heard commentaries along the lines of: “Going back home is way better than staying in a place where you’re just a second-place citizen or a last priority.” 

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Cover of a pamphlet advertising Charles Eastman's lectures

While quarantining in my dorm room at the height of the pandemic, I remembered reassuring my mom that I would be fine amidst news about Asian hatred-related deaths, that the U.S. government wouldn’t tell international students to go home like the Australian prime minister. Indeed a nation acts in its best interest, but if the U.S. hadn’t oversold the image of freedom, opportunity, and equality, Chenyu Wang wouldn’t have written about the instrumentalization of international students in the U.S: they “have long been a policy tool for U.S. leaders”

Don’t get me wrong: I am proud of being at Knox, probably because I survived a 30-hour journey flying from Vietnam to Galesburg every fall. Yung Wing must have been proud, too, boarding a ship that got him to America 89 days later.[26] Alas, what awaited those who traveled arduous distances was America capitalizing on their foreign statuses. Much can be said about settler colonialism and racial hierarchy as a tool those in power use to harness even more power. But the truth is clear, America promotes itself as a land of opportunity, freedom, and equality but is only accessible to those who it sees interest and values in attaining. However positive of an impression America has made on its international counterparts, prejudice emerged as a relentless theme in the stories of the first foreign students as much as in current times. 

Yet, this is not me talking trash about the Americans. I’m extremely grateful for the opportunities that my Knox education has given me, but that doesn’t mean I’m oblivious to the struggles and inequalities that so many others have written about. Uncovering a much less romanticized view of American education informs me of the progress that has taken place and the need for further improvement. I wish there had been more material on and produced by international students, that explores viewpoints Knox and its students held. But one can learn many things from this lack of representation: about the perspectives of history collectors and the framework that inspired me to explore what I could in 6-weeks' time. 

International Souls in the Land of White-man’s Power: Dreamland Rhetoric and Racial Hierarchy