Much like the late African American historian John Hope Franklin, Ronald Takaki’s intellectual and social contributions across disciplines is one that cannot be measured on a blog, in a NYT column, or in any other conventional way. He was instrumental in establishing Ethnic Studies, providing key texts in Asian American and multi-cultural history, mentoring students and inspiring colleagues. He died at just 70 years old, based on a decision to stop living with multiple sclerosis. His loss is heartbreaking.
Takaki’s book Strangers from a Different Shore is still quintessential reading. For many it provided the first indepth discussion of the Asian American experience they have ever gotten in school. His research for that book was as groundbreaking as Andy Smith’s work on Conquest, both books reshaped the ways we looked at oft poorly researched or erased populations or histories.
His Textbook A Different Mirror is standard intro reading material here at Pov U and dared to interweave the experiences of various people of color and ethnic white people to expose how race and racism work to create a supposed binary system of white and privileged vs. non-white (ethnic or white poor) and poc. I remember reading it in one sitting having waited excitedly for it to arrive. I’ve linked the first chapter in that book here, I often use the first paragraph to establish perceptions of citizenship and difference in my courses.
He was also an essential presence for students of color in general. He taught the first African American History course offered at UCLA. And he mentored black, Latino, and Asian students during his considerable career in the UC system. Takaki spoke about the need for multicultural requirements in education, the importance of mentors of color, and the need for diversity in faculty ranks, at universities and colleges around the country. Before passing, he became a mentor and a touchstone to students everywhere because of this tireless commitment to their success. He inspired many of my colleagues and graduate students to continue in their educations, to see themselves as subjects and intellectuals, and to reach for their potential.
Below, is his discussion of how having met and then being mentored by a faculty member of color changed his own life and a discussion about race, academe, radical pedagogy, and N. America. (It’s long, but well worth it):
Whenever I think of Ethnic Studies, Ronald Takaki’s name is one of the first that springs to mind. He was an critical force behind the creation of the ES Department at Berkeley. And while others mock the import of ES or daring to have or try to build an ES PhD, Takaki and others worked tirelessly to not only make it a reality but a critical force in the training of academics that now teach around the world.
I cannot put into words how important his work was for me to contextualize the Asian American experience for my students or to provide a broader socio-historical context for the memoirs and personal essays that so often typify the anthologized writing of Asian American feminists in the standard texts (when they are represented at all). All I can say is that Takaki challenged me to do better at filling in the blanks of my own education and making sure to honor all of the voices that make up our history. His talk above and much of his work provide critical context for the discussion surrounding the nomination of Sotomayor to the Supreme Court and the discussion about language requirements going on on many campuses and historiann’s blog right now. The sign of exceptional scholarship to me is always the ability to inspire, to change systems that needed changing, and to produce work that remains timeless. To lose two exceptional scholars in one year, is . . . words fail.
He will be missed.