A Little Racist Knife: The AAA Challenges the Pudding

​As dusk descended on the Ides of March, 1980, Michael T. Hsieh ’80 distributed leaflets outside the neo-Georgian façade of the New College Theater, now known as Farkas Hall. He and other members of Harvard’s Asian-American Association gathered to protest the Hasty Pudding Theatricals’ use of a perceived racist character, Edgar Foo Yung, in their 1980 production, “A Little Knife Music.”
By Aisha Y. Bhoori and Henry S. U. Shah

As dusk descended on the Ides of March, 1980, Michael T. Hsieh ’80 distributed leaflets outside the neo-Georgian façade of the New College Theater, now known as Farkas Hall. He and other members of Harvard’s Asian-American Association gathered to protest the Hasty Pudding Theatricals’ use of a perceived racist character, Edgar Foo Yung, in their 1980 production, “A Little Knife Music.” Over 50 students from the Black Students Association and La Raza Organizacion joined them in chanting a resounding refrain: “Racism isn’t funny.”

Each leaflet the protesters handed out displayed a different caricature. One included a grotesquely exaggerated representation of Edgar Foo Yung, a stereotypical Asian poisoned by the play’s end because of his romantic interest in Mea, the white heroine. In the image, Edgar has a demonic, lustful grin on his face, complete with a thin mustache, buck teeth, arched eyebrows, narrow eyes, a flat nose, and long, pointy nails. His sketched visage looms large over a frightened Mea—daintily portrayed with shoulder-length curls tied with a bow—who gapes in horror. “The slimy Asian man mustn’t touch white lady syndrome,” the caption reads, borrowing a line from the play.

When asked about these racialized representations at the time, the musical’s script writer, Andrew W. Sellon ’81, told The Crimson that he didn’t anticipate the images affecting the audience’s reception of the play. “Basically, that’s something they’re [the AAA] reading in,” he wrote.

Hasty Pudding president David I. Levi ’80 reinforced this innocuous take on the play’s racist undertones. “In no way can any character in the show be likened to any individual living or dead,” he wrote in a letter to The Crimson, which was published hours before the play opened on March 15, 1980. “Edgar Foo Yung is such a character. He bears no resemblance to any Asian person past or present.”

Yet where the Hasty Pudding, which has been performing since 1844, saw jest, the AAA saw malice.

Led by Florence Houn ’80, the student organization’s two-month-long poster campaign against “A Little Knife Music” galvanized campus-wide discussions about the Harvard “establishment” and its treatment of minority students.

“At the founding of AAA, many of us were not previously exposed to racial and societal issues facing Asian-Americans,” recalls Hsieh, one of the major campaign organizers against the Pudding, in a recent phone interview. “But we embarked on our journey of political awakening and started to work together as a unified group.”

And indeed, this awakening produced results. Though the Pudding ultimately rejected removing Edgar’s character, the theater group agreed to include the AAA’s letter of protest in its playbill.

Members continued to dissent after the play had ended, too, writing editorial after editorial to highlight what they described as the theatrical group’s complacency as symptomatic of the campus’s underlying racist humor that tried to “elicit a nervous laugh or two.”

The Crimson itself garnered criticism for what was considered biased coverage of the play among other events, prompting 43 affinity group leaders—including members of the Harvard-Radcliffe Black Students Association, Asian-American Association, Raza, La Organizacion, Harvard African Students Association, and American Indians at Harvard—to present a set of grievances to the newspaper’s executive board. The representatives included demands that The Crimson “present greater articulation of student protests in its coverage” and “allow Third World students to cover Third World events.”

Two days after the opening night of “A Little Knife Music,” Crimson editors published an apologetic but firm response to these allegations of “unconscious racism.”

“We understand this term to mean an insensitivity to Third World perspectives in the speed and bustle of daily journalism that can reinforce stereotypes,” the staff wrote. “Because of the very meaning of ‘unconscious’ such acts will occur, here at The Crimson and everywhere else, at Harvard and in the world outside.”

Do not enter: The AAA’s Political Beginnings

For Renee Tajima-Peña ’80, the AAA’s advocacy and collaborations across affinity groups during the Pudding incident only continued to build on its highly political beginnings.

As a first-year student at Radcliffe College, Tajima-Peña’s personal experience of exclusion spurred the AAA’s formation. She, along with Florence Houn ’80, attempted to attend a Minority Freshman Banquet sponsored by the University during orientation week in 1976. The banquet, instituted by one of Harvard’s first African American administrators, Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III, admitted only Black and Latino students.

“We were denied entry,” Tajima-Peña said of the University’s reaction in a recent phone interview. “We weren’t considered a minority.”

What followed next foreshadowed the consolidated efforts among affinity groups in response to the Hasty Pudding’s play. Twenty-seven students from 12 different affinity groups submitted a letter to Epps later that month, expressing outrage at Harvard’s discrimination and social prejudice. Although he had decided to include Asian-Americans in minority programs, Epps ultimately rejected the claim that Asians were “oppressed.”

It was this rejection, says Tajima-Peña, that caused students to create the AAA. Many Asian-American students found themselves in “limbo,” she explains; they were both unable to identify with the white majority of students on campus, and separated from other minorities by the University’s definition. “Lots of Asians on campus suppressed this part of their identity,” she recollects.

It was then that the AAA grew from the Coalition of Asian-American Students, a group formed during the Vietnam War to oppose U.S. involvement.

In its early years, the AAA retained its explicitly political leanings, participating in the occupation of The Holyoke Center as part of a campus-wide protest against apartheid. “We shut it down,” Tajima-Peña recalls with a laugh.

Though Tajima-Peña acknowledges the inevitability of the cultural fractioning, she points to the enduring impact of the organization’s origins.

“Even those who were not political people became politicized in the process,” she says, echoing Hsieh’s sentiments. “They’re still involved, which wouldn’t have happened without AAA.”

Today

Today, some students report that cultural and affinity groups have not just been political rallying points, but also spaces to meet new friends.

Josh E. Stallings ’17 joined the Queer Students Association because his roommate urged him to attend an introductory meeting. He now considers himself “highly active in the queer community.”

“There are events all the time,” he says, discussing the group’s ample opportunities for involvement. “The barrier for entry into QSA is very low, just in terms of being able to participate in their events.”

Event attendance and making friends can serve as gateways to further involvement. Now, as a junior, Stallings is the social chair of the group.

Like Stallings, current AAA President Alex J. Pong ’16, first joined AAA for social reasons.

AAA has institutionalized the social aspect of their mission. The current leadership organizes groups of “sib-fams,” or “sibling-families,” which are small groups of students across class years who meet frequently to talk about the group, or more often, to just hang out.

Although ABHW, the Association for Black Harvard Women, doesn’t have a similarly institutionalized mentorship program, current President Eni O. Popoola ’17 found important guides in her older peers. “I saw it as a space to make friends and also make mentors,” she says. “As a freshman, it makes you really excited to know people on this campus.”

The Black Students Association has a “Freshman Black Table”—a mini-board for the freshman class that can serve as an important trial run for further involvement and leadership positions. Popoola didn’t run, but knew she wanted to keep ABHW at the center of her on-campus life.

“There are lots of spaces on this campus where there aren’t many black women,” she says. “If you want it to be, this can be your home base.”

Affinity groups may no longer be the primary space for radical action. Yet they continue to be a forum for heated and topical political discussion.

Vinod E. Nambudiri ’05 was the South Asian Association’s president in 2003 and 2004 during the longer-term aftermath of 9/11 and the 2003 tsunami; both headlines turned the public’s attention toward South Asia.

“There was a lot of geopolitical awareness with events that overlapped with our regional and cultural activities,” Nambudiri recalls in a recent phone interview. “As a result, we had a pretty high level of engagement [with SAA] throughout my time at the College.”

Under Nambudiri’s direction, the group consistently held lectures and panels concerning current events. SAA’s annual dance and cultural pageant, Ghungroo, benefitted the most from the accelerated pace of activity.

That increased attention hasn’t always resulted in increased political engagement. Pong speaks of the difficulty of rallying the Asian-American students currently on-campus about the affirmative action debate.

“You just can’t protest for a lot of this stuff anymore. It’s not super effective in terms of how Harvard works,” Pong says, speaking of the issue as one of law and structure rather than student perception and organization.

For Popoola, it’s an issue not of scale, but of inclusivity and solidarity within the group.

“We give people the room to engage with different levels of discussion and activism,” she says of her own affinity group. “We’re not forcing all black women on this campus to engage in a certain type of dialogue.”

AAA has responded to events seen as most pertinent to its community. In the wake of the 2014 email death threat scandal, which targeted Asian students and included racist language, the group worked with other Asian-American organizations to hold discussions about Asian-American identity; it also started a viral Facebook profile photo campaign to raise outside awareness. The BSA also participated, urging its own members to respond and “stand in solidarity with the Asian and Asian-American Women at Harvard.”

Indeed, the Asian-American community alone is now made up of a more than just AAA. Since the founding of a few initial groups in the 1960s and ’70s, there have been waves of new groups with an almost endless variety of identities.

Some of the organizations had gone defunct— the Harvard Caribbean Club was active in the ’80s, went unregistered, and is now again a functioning organization.The South Asian Women’s Collective is active again after a shuttered decade. A member of the South Asian Association has the option of being not only a part of SAA, but also affiliated groups for women, men, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Indians, Hindus, and students interested in an annual conference, among others. AAA works in a similar environment—there are gender groups, nationality-based groups, and ethnicity-based group that all could be seen as competing with AAA’s mission.

Nambudiri doesn’t see the diverse set of groups as competition. “I think that there’s a lot of enrichment that comes from having multiple organizations that all have a link to each other in terms of scope and focus,” he says. “You get a lot of people who are very focused on issues that inevitably overlap. It’s hard to find a women’s issue that won’t affect other parts of the community.”

Student leaders have noticed a move toward this broader engagement, and some recognize their group as a smaller part of a larger conversation.

“We’re becoming more of a group interested in collaboration,” Popoola says. She points to collaboration with Latina and Asian women’s groups as part of an emerging trend.

Stallings has made efforts towards raising awareness around what he calls “intersectionality” as a response to past perceptions of QSA. “[Other students] saw it as a space predominantly dominated by white gay male voices and advanced that perspective, either consciously or unconsciously through their programming,” Stallings says. Stallings spoke of successful partnerships with AAWA, AAA, and BSA as part of a longer trend.

“There are a lot of different efforts to seek out and amplify the voices of queer people of color,” Stallings says.

Pong acknowledges that these attempts to stretch the conversation can be seen as an overreach. Although the group may be about all Asian-Americans, at least in name, Pong isn’t so sure that the group’s mission is that flexible.

“Are we supposed to be an umbrella organization?” Pong asks of the current goals of the AAA.

“We’re not in a good position to represent all of these different groups,” he answers.

However contentious or broad many of their beginnings may have been, affinity groups on campus have continually played a flexible role according to the political and social pressures within groups and in their broader contexts.

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