The passage of the Hart-Celler Act in 1965 reversed more than half-a-century of state policies restricting the immigration restricting entry to migrants from across the Asian continent including South Asia, China, Japan, and Korea. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century, discourses of race and racial desirability governed US immigration policies. These discourses simultaneously welcomed immigrants from Western Europe while limiting means of entry for those considered deemed racially Other and incompatible with the nation.
The restrictions on Asian migration to the US began to slowly loosen after World War II and at the start of the Cold War when the US the US sought to export its political and cultural ideologies abroad, particularly to those non-aligned countries–including those in South Asia—who refused to claim allegiance to any major power bloc. In 1946, the Luce-Celler Act created provisions expand the immigration quotas to allow 100 people from India and the Philippines to arrive in the US each year, and granted Filipino and Indian Americans the right to citizenship. Two decades later, the Hart-Celler Act dissolved the race-based national immigration quotas and restructured US immigration policy to welcome immigrants based on professional status and family reunification, facilitating a massive migration of people from the global South—Asia, Africa, and Latin America—to the United States.
In the context of Asian and South Asian migration to the US, the provisions for family reunification in the Hart-Celler Act are particularly significant. Prior to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century legislations—including the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Immigration Act of 1917, which expanded the exclusions of the Chinese Exclusion Act to all immigrants in the “Asiatic Barred Zone–that prohibited the immigration of Asian laborers to the US, Asian migration to the US largely consisted of male laborers who left their families behind to take up jobs as railroad or agricultural laborers. The specific restrictions imposed on Asian immigration to the US—and especially those surrounding the question of family migration—are particularly stark given the central place of the family in the construction of American nationhood and national identity.
Drawing on the work of Benedict Anderson—whose theorization of the nation as an “imagined community” mediated by print capitalism has offered scholars in the social sciences and humanities a critical vocabulary for understanding the global phenomenon of nationalism and nationalism—Laura Wexler-Gordon argues that photography, alongside daily newspapers created a visual regime that worked “as an ideological vehicle for national self-fashioning” (1999: 367). Whereas Benedict Anderson is primarily interested in the ways in which the newspaper facilitated a sense of national communion, Laura Wexler-Gordon argues that family portrait was an equally vital social practice through which the idea of the American nation was constructed along lines of race, gender, and class. In this context, we might think of the exclusion of Asian families prior to 1965 as simultaneously the product of racist state ideologies by which Asians could never feel a full sense of belonging, and also a source of anxiety that troubled the notion of the nation as one build on a certain ideal-typical patriarchal family.
II. Photographs of Family Reunification
Historian Gary Okihiro defines a family album history as “an emphatically personal account that is often isolated from social context—an insularity that is both its attraction and its danger—but the events portrayed invariably take place amid poverty and plenty, powerless and control, continuity and change.” Taking Okihiro’s definition of the family album history alongside Laura Wexler-Gordon’s conceptualization of the family portrait as central to creating the idea of American nationhood, we can see that immigrant family photographs tell immensely interesting and complicated narratives.
The photographs I have collected of my family’s life in the US spanning from the early 1990s into the present, have left me with something of an interpretative puzzle. Neither my immediate nor extended families have systematically archived their photographs. Each family seems to have a similar collection of albums, probably purchased at a big-box store during the 1990s—packed photographs of birthdays, baby showers, weddings, and graduations—tucked away in drawers or bookshelves. As we moved away from film cameras to digital images during the early twenty-first century, the physical albums have been replaced with computer files. I imagine that like me, my cousins have an eclectic collection of family photos stored on their computers and phones. But what can I say about them? The haphazard method of their collection does not offer a systematic narrative in any way, nor am I easily willing to put my family into a framework of social theory.
Literary theorist Marianne Hirsch defines the familial gaze as “the powerful gaze of familiarity which imposes and perpetuates certain conventional images of the familial and which “frames” the family in both senses of the term. The particular nature of the familial gaze, the ideal of the family and of acceptable family relations, may differ culturally and evolve historically, but every culture and historical moment can identify its own familial gaze” (1997: 11). The family portrait is one such manifestation of the familial gaze, and more importantly, according to Hirsch, it is a kind of self-portrait that is “constituted by multiple and heteronomous relations.” In other words, I am not in this picture, yet I see myself in it. The family portrait as a kind of convention—whether they be of parents with their children, of cousins, or siblings—emerged as a pervasive trope even in my seemingly haphazard collection.
My family’s life in the US was made possible by a series of reunifications enabled by the Hart-Celler Immigration Act. My father arrived in Charlotte, North Carolina from Ahmedabad, India in September 1982 on an immigrant visa when he was eighteen years old. He was sponsored by one of his four older sisters who immigrated to the US with her husband—who had also been sponsored by one of his siblings—in February 1974. In a similar fashion, the remainder of my father’s family—three more of his sisters, their families, and my grandparents—emigrated to the American South between 1987 and 1990. Of my grandparents’ six children, only their eldest son forfeited his US immigrant visa—ultimately making the decision to remain in India rather than emigrating to the US, where his parents, five siblings, two children, and four grandchildren live. My uncle’s periodic visits to the US became occasions to capture “the whole family” together: my grandparents and their six children together in the same time and place (Figure 1).
My mother is a hinge between two family reunifications. arrived in the US in 1988, upon the arrangement of her marriage to my father, and soon after applied to sponsor her mother’s immigration to the US. After my grandmother arrived 1992, she began the process for family reunification with her two daughters living in India. The immigration proceedings of my aunts lasted throughout the better part of my childhood and adolescence. By the time they received the calls for their visa interviews—five to seven years after the initial application was filed—they were married, or had children. The changes in their marital status and the size of their families further complicated and extended the immigration process. The photograph below was taken in April 2017, at my parents’ home in Charlotte, North Carolina during lunch on a Sunday afternoon. My mother (left) is posing with her two sisters. All three live within a six-mile radius of one another. My grandmother (their mother) is behind the camera (Figure 2).
As an anthropologist, I claim membership to a discipline that has a long history of studying kinship and familial relations across the world. But to study kinship would be to interrogate my family, and so I have tended to keep my distance. Yet it turns out that situating the family—my family—within the context of US immigration proves to be less complicated than capturing our intimacy, as if these photos accompanied by this piece of writing is “expected to act out our relationship, project some of its depth, but the constraints of the occasion [make] it very difficult” (Hirsch 104). What are the stories that these photographs don’t tell? In visiting and revisiting these photographs, I am haunted by their temporality, and that they beg us to ask questions about what has passed outside of the specific time and space of the photograph.
In October 2015, while visiting a cousin in Los Angeles, we spoke to my grandfather on the phone. He told us that the week we spent by my grandmother’s bedside in July of the same year often “played in front of his eyes like a movie.” During this week, all six of my grandmother’s children and three of her grandchildren found their way to her bedside, in a manner than can only best be described as unwavering devotion. I cannot replay the movie, but in photographs I can catch a glimpse of its parts. Recently, the family portrait has taken on new significance. Both Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes—among the foremost theorists of photography—were preoccupied with the relationship between photography and our own mortality. Not only are family portraits laden with the presences and absences of family reunification, but also with the inevitability of time and death. In August 2016, we had a family reunion—the first time in more than a year that we were brought together by occasions other than my grandparents death. With our matching t-shirts, we mocked the kitsch of upward mobility in America. Our togetherness was laden with the absence, not only of a single uncle, but also of my grandparents.
Figure 3. Gatlinburg, Tennessee. August 2016.
Or, for example, where is my maternal grandfather, who is absent both from the photographs as well as from my family’s immigration narrative? His death in 1986, from complications related to brain aneurysms is a silent, but constant presence in the narratives of my mother’s marriage and immigration to the US. It is a silent but constant presence in our family photographs (Figure 4). Told as a story of arrival, family reunification fails to consider the departure. What was it like, and what did it mean to leave India—to be separated and then reunited? When did immigration to America become an inevitability? The notion of family reunification suggests continuity, but what about rupture?
Through the familial gaze—which relies on the construction of a “boundary between inside and outside”—this intimacy is not only a memory, but “fundamentally an interpretive and narrative gesture, a fabrication out of available pieces that acknowledges the fragmentary nature of the autobiographical act” (Hirsch 1997: 83). We cannot see everything in these photographs: neither of post-1965 South Asian immigration to the US, nor of specific familial intimacies. But family album histories do uniquely interweave glimpses of the historical and the personal.
Hirsch, Marianne. 1997. Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory. Cambrdige: Harvard University Press.
Okihiro, Gary. 1994. Family Album History. In Margins and Mainstreams: Asians in American History and Culture. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Wexler-Gordon, Laura. Techniques of the Imaginary Nation: Engendering Family Photography. In Looking for America, Ardis Cameron, ed., pp. 94-117. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing.