Beyond Black and White
Professor Leslie Bow’s work examines life for Asian Americans and others in the segregated South
PHOTO BY TODD MAUGHAN
The experiences of Leslie Bow’s parents have guided much of her work.
Leslie Bow traded her life in Miami for one in Madison twelve years ago, but that wasn’t the first time she crossed the country. Her interest in literature and Asian American studies began during her undergraduate years at the University of California–Berkeley, and much of her work stems from her parents’ experiences in the South.
Now a professor of English and Asian American Studies at UW–Madison, Bow has also authored two books as well as several articles and essays on related topics. Her contributions address a gap she perceived during her undergraduate days.
“At the time, there wasn’t much in terms of Asian American studies and Asian American literature being taught in the curriculum, and this is back in the 1980s,” recalls Bow. “When I went to graduate school that became my focus very quickly because it seemed very unexplored in contrast to African American literature, which had a very robust tradition and longer sense of interest among literary critics.”
Bow grew up as a third-generation Chinese American in the San Francisco Bay Area. Both her parents grew up in Arkansas during the Jim Crow era.
“There was a kind of prohibition against socializing with either whites or blacks and growing up under segregation,” says Bow, adding that, interestingly, her parents didn’t talk about the color line between them and other racial communities.
Bow saw shades of gray in the system and it inspired her book Partly Colored: Asian Americans and Racial Anomaly in the Segregated South, published in 2010.
“The conceptual question that I pose is: Where did the Asian Americans sit on the segregated bus? In the front? In the back? How do you know your ‘place’ if socially, culturally, legally the legislative identities were white and black?” says Bow.
Through her research, Bow learned the same questions applied to other communities, including Native Americans and Latino Americans, groups that did not fall under a definitive color category—black or white—and who, along with Asian Americans, came up with coping strategies.
“What I found was Asian Americans came up with strategies, or mental strategies in some cases, to save their dignity and to save their self-esteem in a context that was hostile to who they were, because who wants to think of themselves as somehow inferior?” explains Bow.
Bow is now exploring the connection between race and fantasy, specifically as it can be seen in contemporary movies.
“If you’ve noticed in contemporary movies, especially at the moment, we think of and graft the discourses of civil rights and indigenous rights and of social injury onto not people of color but their metaphorical substitutes in terms of aliens and vampires and mutants,” says Bow.
As a professor, Bow hopes her books and lectures teach her students to think critically about the rights, luxuries and experiences they take for granted, no matter their background or where they live.