We Are Not American!: Teaching and Learning the 19th Century from Hawai’i

There’s a problem with teaching 19th-century American literature in Hawai’i. The problem arises from the fact that during the 19th century, Hawai’i was not, and, according to many Kanaka Maoli still is not, part of America. In 1893, the US overthrew the Hawaiian Kingdom and its sovereign Queen Lili’uokalani, and in 1898 illegally annexed the Hawaiian islands, despite massive resistance from Hawaiian people. Hawai’i’s specific history is a particularly glaring and relatively recent example of the colonial situation under which 19th-century American literature is taught throughout the U.S.: it is all taught on stolen land. Hawai’i’s history and location, and how this place makes it impossible to forget about colonialism, present an opportunity for thinking about the challenges and paradoxes of teaching 19th-century American literature both in the islands and throughout the territories now known as the US. How might the problem of teaching this curriculum-mandated field of literary studies in an explicitly colonized place offer possibilities for teaching and writing with 19th-century American literature more broadly? How might contemplating this question from Hawai’i offer ways to think through how teachers and scholars on the continent could account for the distinct histories of the people Native to the lands on which they teach? And how might it help teachers both in Hawai’i and on the continent frame C19 Am Lit explicitly as literature of colonization? 

In the conversation that follows, Keahi Coria, one of the students in the “American Literature: Mid 19th-Mid 20th Century” course that I taught at the University of Hawai’i Mānoa in Fall 2020, and I grapple with some of these questions. Our conversation focuses on the unit about the Pacific, in which we read Herman Melvilleʻs Typee (1846) and Queen Lili’uokalani’s Hawai’i’s Story by Hawai’i’s Queen (1898) alongside some episodes of the season of Survivor that takes place in the Marquesas, where Typee is set.

This conversation took place through writing, from O’ahu, Hawai’i which is Kanaka Maoli land. 

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Hannah Manshel: First of all, do you want to introduce yourself? 

Keahi Coria: My name is Keahi Coria. I’m currently an English major at UH. I was born in Modesto, California, but I grew up in Hawai’i, specifically Kaneohe, my whole life. I identify as Kanaka Maoli but I always had difficulty accepting this. I think that for a long time I felt confused because I am mixed-race and there were so many messages, both explicit and implicit, that influenced and inhibited my identity. I did not start to embrace my identity until I got to college and started educating myself on these matters. While I identify as Kanaka Maoli, I also realize that I have been extremely privileged. Moving forward I want to advocate for the demarginalization of Kanaka Maoli, as well as people of color more broadly.the broader people of color communities. This is important to me since, as I stated before, I come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. 

HM: One of the texts we read in this class was Typee (1846), by one of the most canonical white 19th-century American authors, Herman Melville. One way to read this text is to see Melville as critical of American colonialism in the Pacific. But despite his lambasting of white missionaries, the book’s characterizations of the Typee people, as well as of Native Hawaiians (mostly delivered through the perspective of the narrator, Tommo) rely on exoticizing stereotypes, and are shot through with racialized degradation. What were your impressions of Typee when you read it in class? How did you respond to the ways Melville characterized Hawai’i and King Kamehameha? What, if any, do you think is the value of reading a text like this?

KC: Typee reminded me a lot of another text I read this semester in my 18th century literature class: Rowlandson’s The Sovereignty and Goodness of God (1682). I think that these texts are quite similar in the sense that they both enforce and critique colonialism. It is hard to say whether or not they are irredeemably racist because there is this duality to them. I believe that both of these texts show us a shift in perspective towards Indigenous peoples and cultures, and the blurred lines between savagery and civility. Within them, we can also observe the stronghold on identity that the narrators have. Both works begin with apprehension from the narrators towards Indigenous peoples. The speakers in both narratives open their minds to aspects of Native cultures and people (which was very different from the times in which these works were written). However, they still favor their own identities over that of Native cultures. In Typee, colorism is used to marginalize people within their own race. The closer the natives resemble the Eurocentric standard of beauty, the more accepted they are, whereas the darker the natives’ complexion, the more they are subjected to labels of “savagery.” Even as he tries to critique colonialism, Tommo (or maybe even Melville) still fetishizes and discriminates against Indigenous peoples. 

HM: On the continent, Indigenous histories and literatures are so rarely taught in high schools, and I can say personally, I never was taught about Hawaiian history or the relationship between Hawai’i and the U.S. Can you talk a little bit about the way you were taught about 19th century American history when you were in high school? What did you learn about the annexation of Hawai’i? Did you talk at all about Kanaka resistance to the overthrow, or about Hawaiian culture outside of the context of American colonialism? 

KC: When it comes to learning about 19th-century American history in high school, I felt like a lot of the material was whitewashed. I learned from the colonizers’ perspectives- the missionaries, Europeans, or generally white people with power writing for white audiences. In my education, we were never required to read the Queen’s memoir or assigned any work about it. We didn’t even really learn about it in my Hawaiian history classes. If it did come up, it was summarized, usually nonchalantly. Hawaiian history was always its own class, separated from American history. The most prominent Hawaiian History event I do remember learning about was Pearl Harbor and World War II. So we studied Hawaii’s history, but only when it had already been illegally occupied. While these things are essential to learn, it is interesting to see how America’s Hawai’i is uplifted, but Hawai’i’s Hawai’i is taken for granted, glossed over, and marginalized. It sends the message of patriotism, even though Hawai’i doesn’t belong to America, then and now.

HM: In the class we also read Lili’uokalani’s Hawai’i’s Story by Hawai’i’s Queen (1893), which is a foundational work of English-language Hawaiian literature. The memoir documents the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom and fiercely denounces American colonialism. When did you first read this text? What did you learn about it then, and what were your impressions of it? What were your impressions of the text now? How did reading it in the context of everything going on in 2020, and even in the context of this 19th century American lit class change those impressions? 

KC: My first time reading Queen Lili’uokalani’s memoir was for this class. I appreciated the approach Professor Manshel took with this unit: She let the class take the lead with the discussion and encouraged us to talk about our personal experience with the text, our education, and our location. 

When I read the Queen’s memoir, I took in every photograph and every experience Queen Lili’uokalani conveyed. It was all incredibly eye-opening to me. I used to be one of those people who believed Hawai’i was probably better off being a part of the United States. I reflected on the many factors that played into this ideology: my education, my family, my father’s involvement in the military, and our socio-economic status. 

In the context of 2020 and a 19th-century literature class, the Queen’s memoir opened my eyes to the oppressive forces of colonialism and imperialism that impact Kanaka Maoli to this day. Today, we still face blatant disregard for our voices, our lands, and our culture. The most recent examples that come to mind are the TMT (Thirty Meter Telescope) protests. Many of the people in favor of the telescope (including Kanaka Maoli) failed to recognize or empathize with the strong spiritual connection to the land and the continuous pattern of marginalization inflicted upon Native Hawaiians by outside forces. While construction has been halted, this is not the first or last time that Native Hawaiians will have to defend their land or culture. My mind was changed because I realized that Hawaii was a prosperous and thriving nation. We didn’t require any intervention. The missionary, the colonizer, the money, the “need” to civilize and indoctrinate tore everything apart, and continues to separate the native people from their land and their culture. 

The feelings that arose within me were overwhelming. On the one hand, I felt angry: Angry that this even happened, the way it happened, Angry that I had been living my life without this crucial piece of my people’s history. I felt like I had, in a sense, turned my back on my own heritage. On the other hand, I felt a sense of pride. I had never felt so connected with my Hawaiian heritage. Educating myself and empathizing with Lili’uokalani and the treatment of the broader people of color communities could not have come at a better time. Since Trump has been in office, there has been a rise in racial justice activism and Indigenous/Black pride. After this class as a whole, I finally feel like I can be a part of that conversation and make a change.

HM: The role of the U.S. in Hawai’i and the issue of Hawaiian sovereignty are contentious here, even among Native Hawaiians. Can you share a little bit about the conversations you’ve had with your grandma and other family members about the annexation and colonialism? How do they feel, think, and talk about it? 

KC: It is interesting to see the way that my family responds to this topic. As the semester progressed, I began having conversations about what I was learning across all of my classes. When the overthrow and colonization came up, I could see that I hit a nerve. Since many of my family members benefit from the military or their socio-economic status here in Hawai’i, there is a disconnect. They do not seem to realize the layered privileges that accompany their perspective and experience.

The members of my family basically said that…  
– “The good outweights the bad”
– That they may not agree with colonization or the annexation but at the same time they (colonizers, missionaries, plantation owners) brought us to “civilization” and “modernity.”
– Without all of that, we would be nothing: there wouldn’t be protection, jobs, financial support, comfort.
– Overall, “it was for the best” and “this was the best option.”

It was a bit upsetting because it was a very personal example of how colonialism and imperialism are working to remove Native people from their culture and each other. This enforced how important it is to continue to remember, and challenge the systems that have marginalized Native Hawaiian people and all Indigenous peoples.

HM: Can you reflect a little on what it means to you to be studying 19th century American literature in Hawai’i, a place that wasn’t America in the 19th century, and, arguably, still is not? What do you think are the ethics of teaching this subject matter here?

KC: It is important to include Hawai’i in this context, although it is not American (then and now). Throughout the semester, we have been discussing texts and authors that try to change the narrative that has been ingrained into the American culture and psychology. To be more specific, we have been focusing on decolonizing Native peoples across the board. When I look back on my experience before and after this class, I realize that education and decolonization go hand in hand: This isn’t to say that you need to go to college in order to do this. But we have to really look into our history, be mindful of who is conveying this history, and understand the way that the past can influence today. What we perceive as normal, what we take for granted, has had its roots in history. While we cannot change the past, by understanding it, we can change the future and gain the justice that has been a long time coming. 

When we look at the treatment of Native Hawaiians along with other types of Native oppression and even, Black oppression, we begin to see the racist and hypocritical patterns of the colonizers, enslavers, and missionaries (you know, the foundations/founders of the United States). These aspects bleed into our lives today. Although Queen Lili’uokalani is not American and probably would have been furious at this suggestion, it is a crucial piece of both Hawaiian and, unfortunately, American history. To begin to take back our culture, our land, and our people, I think we have to have this conversation in this context. 

HM: Any other comments you want to share about your own experiences of learning about Hawai’i and its history, reading for this class, contemporary freedom and decolonization struggles…? 

KC: Here, representation is so crucial because the voices of those who have been marginalized continue to be silenced and taken for granted. It is also imperative to recognize and remember the historical injustice that has occurred. Without representing, retaining, and identifying, we risk losing more than just our lands or people, but our culture too. I have had so many real-life examples of this now that I have educated myself. I realized that when I was told Hawai’i’s history through the perspective of those who aimed to conquer and civilize, I took on a narrative that was detached from my roots. As much as I hate to admit it, I became an oppressor myself. I remember refusing to sit in the sun so I could be as pale as possible, even though my paleness would never equate to whiteness. It didn’t help that there were other influences in my life who enforced this belief. I rejected people who I deemed as “moke” or “tita” because I was always told that they were “uneducated” or “hoodlums.” I was told not to speak pidgin and punished if I did because I sounded “stupid.” All of this pulled me further and further away from my culture and I realize now that it was internalized racism. I have unlearned and learned so much, and I am grateful for the opportunity to have this newfound voice. There is so much work to be done within the larger and smaller systems we live in. Many people accept the reality that is placed in front of them, and hey, I was one of those people too. One of the biggest decolonization struggles is changing the minds of Kanaka Maoli, who have benefited from the systems that oppress their own people.  But you know, there is always a different way to do things, this cannot be the best and only way. While we cannot change the past, we can reclaim our voices, culture, and lands.

Questions for Hannah: 

KC: Did you have any expectations or anxieties about teaching this subject matter in Hawai’i?

HM: I’m a complete newcomer to Hawai’i, so one of the things I expected was that the students would know a lot more about this text and this history than I would. I was ready and excited to learn from you all. And as for anxieties, as a teacher, I’m always working to navigate the position of my own whiteness, especially when teaching texts by Indigenous & Black writers, and when talking about decolonization and abolition. I never want students, and particularly students of color, to think that I’m claiming any kind of expertise about the lived experiences of being, in this case, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander. 

My goal is to give students a historical and critical framework–a set of tools and concepts–with which to read these texts and come to their own analyses and interpretations. Often that means being extremely explicit in my critiques of whiteness and of the violent forces, including colonization, that whiteness engenders. My own whiteness–and this is true for other white teachers as well–gives me the privilege and credibility to be merciless in my critiques of whiteness. For example, this semester I’m teaching Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838), and I’ve been framing our class discussions around tracking the way the logic of white supremacy is unfolded throughout the novel. Students then can clearly make the connections between the actions of the fictional Pym and recent events. Though I would teach this way regardless of geographical location (and I hope other white teachers in the field will also explicitly critique whiteness), I’ve found that students in Hawai’i are particularly quick to understand, for example, the concept of whiteness’s mercilessness in its desire to consume and encompass everything it encounters.  

KC: What did you find the most interesting about the students’ interaction with the text? 

HM: There were a few things that I found really interesting and surprising–first of all, this may sound naive, but I wasn’t anticipating hearing about the kinds of reactions to annexation and colonization that you’ve described exist in your family. Most of the reading I’ve done and people I’ve talked to in preparation for and in the early months of living here have been so adamantly anti-colonial and pro-Kanaka sovereignty, that I hadn’t thought about the really complicated ways that empire works to make people feel that colonization was for the best, and to even provide the real economic basis–through the military or otherwise–to support that. 

In the case of Typee, I was really surprised and delighted by the way the majority of the class just had no patience for Tommo (the narrator) or for Melville and his attempted critiques of colonialism. I tend to think of the text as at least trying to be critical of American Empire, but the students found the language of the text and the portrayals of Native people and ways of life  truly abhorrent, and, well, I support that. I really appreciate the connection you made above to Mary Rowlandson, because I love that text and think it’s completely hilarious, but am always ready to say that Rowlandson, for all of her crush on her “master” and her trading him sewing for his “pork and ground nuts,” ultimately lands on the side of white Puritanism. You put this better than I will, but perhaps it’s because Rowlandson is ostensibly autobiographical whereas Typee is fiction, I was willing to grant Melville, if not Tommo, a little more grace than I usually grant Rowlandson. But you all have shown me a different way to read. 

And finally, a small thing, but I was so impressed when we read Charles Chesnutt’s Conjure Tales of the connections students in the class made between the dialect used in the stories and Hawaiin pidgin, and the way it works as a powerful “minor” language. That was something I, as an outsider, would never have thought of, and learned so much from reading about. 

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What lessons, then, can people teaching this period of literature on the continent take from the unique problems of teaching American literature in Hawai’i? And how might we use these problems to open up conversations about teaching 19th-century literature both of and on stolen land? The political and historical conditions that Kanaka Maoli face are distinct from those faced by Native peoples on the continent which are, in turn, distinct from each other, and I want to be careful not to elide these differences in attempting to draw some broader conclusions from this particular experience. But I do think that being deliberate about thinking about C19 texts in a long historical context that connects both back to the early days of colonization and forward to the present is something that everyone working in this field can and should do. We can and must ask: what does this historical moment teach us about our present? Later this semester, Iʻm teaching William Apess’s Eulogy on King Philip (1836) alongside Rowlandson (which takes place during King Philipʻs War), early 17th-century texts about the Pequot war, and contemporary podcasts and videos about the current struggle the Mashpee people are engaged in over their land. 

I encourage teachers to also incorporate the voices of contemporary people who are Indigenous to the lands on which we teach. It’s important for us to think about the way Indigenous histories and struggles are place-specific, as well as to consider the multitudes of stories and opinions within Indigenous groups. As Keahi has shown above, Kanaka Maoli disagree about numerous issues: the role of the U.S., federal recognition, the TMT. I think it would be disingenuous to say that a university classroom could be “decolonized” through this kind of intellectual work. True decolonization won’t happen until control of the land is back in the hands of Native people. But the classroom certainly presents an opportunity, if not an obligation, to address the structural issues of power surrounding both the texts we teach and the lands on which we teach them. 

Suggested Reading:
Candace Fujikane, Mapping Abundance for a Planetary Future (forthcoming)
Noelani Goodyear-Ka’opua (ed), A Nation Rising
J. Kēhaulani Kauanui, Hawaiian Blood
Jonathan Osorio, Dismembering Lahui
Noenoe Silva, Aloha Betrayed
Haunani-Kay Trask, From A Native Daughter

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