From uncertain student to Asian American Studies pioneer: Franklin Odo ’61 GS ’75and Regina Wang | Nov 4, 2013
When Franklin Odo ’61 GS ’75 bickered the Ivy Club, he alluded to the beaches in his native Hawaii and hinted that he had surfed its waves.
He got into Ivy but had never really surfed. To impress the club members, Odo said in an interview, he had exoticized his background as a working-class student. At the time, Odo was one of a handful of minority students, and he soon made it a personal challenge to try to fit in with the white students, who were the absolute majority.
Odo has since become one of the most prominent scholars devoted to understanding the Asian American experience. He has also aggressively promoted the creation of Asian American Studies programs at institutions throughout the United States.While Odo was teaching at Princeton in 1995, 17 students staged a protest at Nassau Hall demanding an increase in Asian American Studies courses, a protest that has become iconic among the students and alumni who have lobbied for the creation of a program for decades. Seven of the student protesters were enrolled in Odo’s class.
Odo has been a visiting lecturer at a number of universities. His presence has frequently coincided with student protests demanding the creation of Asian American studies, including protests at Columbia, Cal State Long Beach, UCLA, and San Francisco State.
He is currently back at Princeton where, earlier this year, the Asian American Students Association and Asian American Studies Committee submitted a formal proposal for the creation of an Asian American Studies certificate program by fall 2015, exactly 20 years after the release of a similar report by the Asian American Student Task Force. This is the latest in a decades-long effort by Princeton students and alumni to establish a formal program.In response to the report, then-University Provost Christopher Eisgruber ’83 — now University President — said that the willingness of individual faculty members to teach additional courses was necessary for such a program.
This fall, Odo is on campus teaching the only Asian American Studies course offered this term.
Although Odo is arguably one of the most influential scholars in the movement for Asian American Studies at American universities, his trajectory was far from evident when he left his working-class household in Hawaii for Princeton in 1957. As one of the few minority students on campus at the time, Odo did not come with any intention to study his Asian American background, but both chance and the racial climate around him motivated his efforts to build the field both as a scholar and public employee.
From working class kid to 'creme de la creme'
Odo grew up in Hawaii in a working-class household. His parents ran a small grocery store and began a small vegetable farm during World War II.
Growing up, he said he had always expected to attend the University of Hawaii. His public high school, Kaimuki High School, “was not a wonderful school,” Odo said.
But in the class ahead of Odo, one boy went to Harvard.
“I said, ‘Boy, that’s really interesting. I’d never thought about that,’” he said.
The following year, Odo applied to Harvard, Princeton and the University of Hawaii, expecting to attend his hometown school.“My parents had no money … but Princeton gave me just enough money to make it work,” he explained.
Odo was one of the few minority students on campus at the time. He explained that he then understood that the logical next step was to “fit in with a whole bunch of white guys.” Eventually, he came to think of fitting in as a challenge.
He bickered Ivy, which he saw as “the apex” of the Princeton experience.“If I can eat with these guys, I can eat with anybody,” he explained of his thinking at the time, describing Ivy members’ reputation as “the creme de la creme.”
At the beginning of his Princeton career, he said he did not think too much about his identity as an Asian American. But when he bickered Ivy, he said he romanticized his background to get in. For example, he alluded to surfing back in Hawaii, even though he didn’t surf.
He said he disapproves now of the way he portrayed himself, but he still had a good time as a member.
Fellow Ivy alumnus Frank Deford ’61 described the club as consisting of two groups, a very “New England preppy” group and a group of more unusual guys, himself included. Deford said he thoughtOdo was the first Asian American in Ivy, at least as far as he knew.
Deford is a former chairman of The Daily Princetonian.
Jim Adams ’61, Odo's teammate on varsity fencing, noted his surprise that Odo received an invitation to join Ivy since he considered Odo to be very different from the typical Ivy member.
“It just seemed that he would not be a good fit with the rest of the Ivy people,” Adams said. “I once asked him how he managed to get to join Ivy, but he assured me that he had no idea.”
Deford said that Odo “was just very, very well-liked.” He added that, after a while, he and his fellow Ivy members “didn’t see an Asian American, just a guy named Frank Odo.”
Indeed, Deford credited Odo’s popularity with paving the way for other Asian Americans to join Ivy. Although Deford is officially part of the class of 1961, he actually graduated in 1962 after taking a gap year. Deford recalled Ivy taking in another Asian American after Odo graduated in 1961.
“Nobody said, ‘Well gee, I don’t know, he’s an Asian American,’” Deford recalled. “And I think that a lot of that had to do with the fact that Frank Odo had already been there.”
But Odo recalled a few instances on campus when he was called out for his race. In particular, Odo recalled an incident on one of his first days of class, when an upperclassman approached him and asked him if he was in a particular professor’s class.
“I said, ‘No. Why?’” Odo recalled. “He said, ‘Because he gives Jap quizzes,’” a racially charged euphemism for “sneak attacks,” or pop quizzes.
Odo also said that he was “sure there were lots of folks running around who were Ivy legacies who said, ‘What the fuck is that guy doing here?’”
While Odo said he does not hold any grudges, his relationship with his identity as an Asian American was complicated.
As his time at Princeton progressed, Odo became more aware of his identity. A summer trip he took between his sophomore and junior years was the first time he considered studying his heritage, Odo said. He went with a group of students to Italy, where he noticed that maybe seven out of the 10 young people in that group were Italian-Americans.
The trip made him realize that it was okay for Italian Americans to be interested in their own heritage, Odo explained. He wondered why he personally had not gone to Japan or China. After his trip to Italy, he started studying Chinese at Princeton.
After writing a junior paper on American imperialism, Odo wrote his senior thesis on a labor union in Hawaii. When he left Princeton, though, he still didn’t know that he wanted to pursue a career in Asian American Studies.
“I thought I would go to law school or something, because that’s what you do when you don’t know what you want to do,” he said.
In his last year at Princeton, Odo learned of the National Defense of Education Act, a foreign language training fellowship that allowed him to go to Harvard for two years and receive a Masters Degree in East Asian Studies while also teaching Chinese there.
Accidental academic, budding activist
Over the next 20 years, Odo transformed from a young scholar in a nascent field to an academic giant, leading the charge to institutionalize Asian American Studies.
Though he was unsure about staying in academia, Odo returned to Princeton in 1963 to study for a Ph.D in Japanese history. “And by that time, you’re sort of committed,” Odo said of his path to academia. “It sort of was a half-assed way of falling into it.”
From 1968-70, while still working on his dissertation, Odo taught at Occidental College in southern California. Meanwhile, he became increasingly involved in the anti-war, civil rights and black power movements. Odo said that he was drawn to the anti-war movement because of its racially conscious undertones and that this led him to his involvement in the civil rights movement. He and his wife participated in a number of rallies, demonstrations and hunger strikes in Los Angeles.
“By ’69, ’70, I was beginning to think, ‘I don’t know what’s going on in the world,’” Odo said, describing the Vietnam War and the American military. “There were these massacres —women, children, the whole thing. It didn’t seem right to me, especially since they looked like me.”
It was the anti-war movement that brought Odo from East Asian studies to Asian American Studies.
As Odo observed the racial tension in the political atmosphere throughout the 1960s and 1970s, he realized his years of education could not explain the chaotic events around him, from the racism taught to American troops in southeast Asia to the assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.
“All these cities were burning. People were being assassinated ... and I’m thinking, ‘I’ve had a hell of a good education, as good of an education as the United States has to offer, and I have no clue what’s going on,” Odo said. From his efforts to find an explanation through the study of class and race, Odo developed an interest in Asian American Studies.
“The resistance to Asian American Studies was … profound,” Odo said of the riots that occurred throughout academia that strove to bring Asian American programming to the curricula. “Universities weren’t ready for it.”
As Odo traveled and taught at a number of universities, including UCLA, Cal State Long Beach and the University of Hawaii, he continually attempted to institutionalize Asian American Studies.
Everywhere he went, Odo said he had to think about how to advance Asian American Studies by identifying potential allies as well as those who were fearful or angry about introducing such a program. Despite the controversy the reforms he supported provoked, Asian American Studies and ethnic studies programs thrived at the California schools where Odo taught.
Starting in 1997, Odo began to work for public institutions such as the Smithsonian, the National Park Service and the Library of Congress, spending less time in academia. He noted that such agencies were becoming increasingly aware of the growing Asian American demographic and the importance of understanding this swing vote in presidential elections as well as local and regional politics.
At the Smithsonian, where he worked from 1997 to 2010, Odo brought attention to the Asian American culture and movements he had studied. Smithsonian program assistant Krista Aniel, who worked with Odo when he served as the director for the Asian Pacific American Program, noted that his academic background clearly carried over into his work at the Smithsonian.
As director, Odo fundraised and provided scholarly content for a number of programs including Asian American and Latino American heritage initiatives, educational resources for teachers and public outreach programs.
Odo’s work outside of academia helped make Asian American Studies a more public force, said University of Maryland Director of Asian American Studies Janelle Wong.
Ronald Kim ’96, a former student of Odo’s from 1995, said he saw Odo as one in a special group of young radical Japanese-Americans from Hawaii who played an important role in establishing Asian American Studies as a field in the continental United States.
The push for Asian American Studies has not been an isolated effort, Wong said, explaining it as part of a larger movement to study race and ethnicity in the United States. Asian American Studies is moving to become more comparative across ethnic and racial groups as a window into larger race relations and how the Asian American experience is shaped by, and also has shaped, the experience of other groups in the United States, Wong said.
Currently, Odo is also publicizing his most recent book, “Voices from the Canefields,” which focuses on Japanese-American folk songs in Hawaii and the revelations they offer about gender relations and working conditions for Japanese immigrants in Hawaii during the plantation period. Aniel said the book included several decades of work and thus presented a very comprehensive look at the experience of Japanese-Americans.
"We'll get there, in time."
Odo has come back to Princeton twice, first in 1995 and again this year. Both times, he has taught courses on Asian American Studies.
When Odo first returned in February 1995 to teach a general Asian American history class, students were already advocating for an Asian American Studies program, but Odo’s class was the first to cover its subject matter.
That year, 17 students occupied Nassau Hall to protest in favor of the creation of Asian American and Latino American Studies programs. Although Odo said he had nothing to do with the movement, he noted that seven of the 17 students were in his seminar.
Although Odo said he did not see his class as directly responsible for the protest, he noted that there must be some overlap between students interested in his class and students interested in such a program.
“They must have thought the subject matter was worth something, since they were agitating for more classes,” Odo said. “Aside from that, they were very scrupulous about not letting me in on any of their planning.”
Kim, who was also involved in the protest, said Odo influenced students by getting them thinking about history, their personal identities and the structure of the curriculum and of the University.
“There’s something about Professor Odo and the way he inspired a few students and really got them thinking, and not just thinking, but also in terms of what they could do, and that’s not something easy to do in Princeton in the early ’90s, when there wasn’t that much activism going on,” Kim said.
Odo’s history class showed students how past movements had preceded and succeeded, according to April Chou ’96, who served as president of the Asian American Students' Association and was also a member of Odo’s class and the Nassau Hall protest. She credited Odo with helping students connect their personal experiences to previous movements in history.
Odo’s influence on student movements for Asian American Studies extended beyond the University. The year before he taught at Princeton, Odo was a visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania, a school Kim characterized as a very pre-professional environment where students don’t tend to protest.
During Odo’s time at Penn, the administration began to realize that students were interested in Asian American Studies, and a program was established in 1996, Kim said. After teaching at the University, Odo taught history courses at Columbia, and during that time, Columbia saw a large student protest for Asian American and Latino Studies, a widely-publicized demonstration that was covered by The New York Times.
Odo noted that after the Nassau Hall protest at Princeton, the students involved in the protest claimed that they had extracted a promise from the president that the University would provide resources to create an Asian American Studies program. At the time of the protest, the provost disputed protesters’ claims that they held a letter from the administration promising that their demands would be met, instead asserting that the note the University delivered to protesters outlined numerous steps the University had already taken toward expanding course offerings in Asian American and Latino American Studies.
“Well, it never did,” Odo said. “So, periodically I’d support students and alumni who were trying to get the University to live up to its promise.”
Odo returned to the University in 2013 to teach Asian Americans and Public History/Memory, after his work at the Smithsonian caught the attention of the history department, according to history professor Dirk Hartog.
Kim said he wasn’t sure students or the current University administration realized how fortunate they were to have Odo back at Princeton teaching an Asian American Studies class, because Odo is committed to a fair representation of Asian American Studies in Princeton’s curriculum.
“He’s coming up from Washington D.C. —that’s not that close. He did it because he really cares; he cares about the field, obviously, but he really cares about Princeton,” Kim said.
After the Asian American Students Association formed in 1971, Asian American students met with University President Harold Shapiro GS ’64 in 1988 to ask for an Asian American Studies program. From 1992-93, the Asian American Student Task Force published a 14-page report requesting an Asian American Studies program.
Since the 1995 protest, University professors submitted a proposal for an Asian American studies program in 2008, supported by an alumni petition, and in 2011 AASA formed a committee dedicate to the establishment of an Asian American Studies program.
“The process of bringing Asian American Studies to Princeton has been such a protracted affair, a bit of a marathon,” Chou said.
As for Asian American Studies at Princeton, the administration is “starting to get it,” Odo said. “It’s something that I think needs to be addressed, and not swept under the rug.”
Though he said he knows that the field is not prominent at many universities, Odo remains hopeful about the future of Asian American Studies. “People don’t think that the subject matter is valid,” he said. “But I think we’ll get there, in time.”