Ron Takaki: a Pioneer, a Scholar, a Friend

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It is with a heavy heart that I read the news of Prof. Takaki’s passing this morning. And I feel it is my duty as a former student and a representative of the next generation of Asian-American scholars to write to in celebration of a true pioneer and a brilliant man.
I first encountered Professor Takaki during my freshman summer at Cal. He was just an iconic name to me at that point, someone whom all the grad students spoke of with revery. Since he wasn’t teaching the summer term, he was in his office cleaning and was carting out a giant box of books to his car downstairs. There must have been fifteen boxes of books stacked inside that tiny office in Barrows Hall! As he walked by students in the hallway, he beamed his huge smile and my instructor said that with his long, white hair, Professor Takaki looked like a sage old lion to her! So, of course, we laughed ten minutes later when we saw him driving out of the faculty parking lot in an old Honda Civic with books piled up to the ceiling of his backseat.
The next year, a friend of mine recommended that I sit in on his introductory Asian-American Studies class. On that day, Prof. Takaki was explaining the Frontier Thesis of historian Frederick Jackson Turner. But rather than blandly recite to us exactly what the thesis was, he was using Turner’s century-old thesis to drive home his point of “pedagogy” – that we must question what it is that we learn, challenge orthodox ideas, and examine their repercussions today. He asked us all what the Turner thesis was and, being a history major and armed with the confidence of a high AP US History score, I was the only one in class to answer the question. I thought I gave him the “correct” answer he wanted. But then Professor Takaki asked me, “Is that all? Was Turner right? Did he look at both sides? And where exactly is the frontier?” Looking back, I realize that Professor Takaki wasn’t questioning my grasp of the thesis, but was in fact asking me to think critically and ask, “So what? And how does that apply to the world we live in today?”
It’s been nine years since I sat in Professor Takaki’s classroom. These days, I’m a graduate student myself lucky enough to continue asking the questions about Asian-American immigration that Professor Takaki first posed so many years ago. But as I write this message from a research library in Manila, I can’t help but look back to that day in Berkeley when Professor Takaki challenged me to always question what you know and to always think about the repercussions of teaching. For the doctoral candidate that I am now, and the clueless undergraduate that I was then, the lessons of Prof. Takaki will always be a compass for my life.
Alex Orquiza is US Fulbright Scholar, and Doctoral Candidate in History at the Johns Hopkins University.
One of my favorite classes at Berkeley was Asian American Studies 20A, which was a survey course on Asian American history. It was a great course to kick off my undergraduate career during my freshmen year. A big reason why I enjoyed the course is that I learned so much about the Asian American experience that I never heard or knew about growing up and taking your typical US history courses. A paragraph in a typical US history book was blown up into several books and academic talks in this class. I loved it.A big component of the course was this book called Strangers from a Different Shore, a really epic book describing the different immigration experiences of the communities that make up Asian America. I soon discovered that this book as well as other readings about ethnic studies and Asian American studies were linked to Ronald Takaki, a scholar and leader among Ethnic/Asian American studies.
During my senior year of college, I took an Ethnic Studies course with Professor Takaki as the professor. I must admit – it was a bit surreal taking a course with him and I couldn’t help but notice that my expectations for his lectures were sky high. I mean, the guy was so inspirational in his readings and books. He HAD to have lectures that would blow me away. And while he did provoke and pose many questions to us students that made us critically think about race relations in the United States, I must admit that it was not really standing ovation worthy as I thought and expected his lectures would be.

There was a stretch of time when he had guest lecturers take his place. Rumors spread that he was sick. Eventually, he came back and announced his immediate retirement. The last class of the semester became his last lecture he would give as a course professor. We gave him a standing ovation. It was the least we could do to honor his great work.

Obviously, Asian American issues have had an important impact on my life since leaving Berkeley. I became involved and interested in API health issues, arts and media, and of course the film festival after taking these courses. I worked at the cultural center here at Yale. I have tried my best to continue having that discourse and conversations from the API
perspective.

I found out today, from Facebook out of all places, that Professor Takaki passed away. While it is sad to hear about his passing, his body of work and vision will continue living on. I do hope his readings and research continue to inspire others just as it has for me.

Garett Ng, MPH
I first met Ron Takaki when he was interviewed by Elizabeth Farnsworth, a journalist for the Jim Lehrer News Hour on PBS. On the broadcast, Elizabeth and Ron discussed his new book ‘Double Victory’ about women and minorities who fought during World War 2 against fascism abroad and sexism and racism at home. I contacted Ron after the interview, because I was interested in turning his book into a TV documentary. Ron instead pointed me in the direction of his epic masterpiece on multiculturalism, “A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America.” I quickly read that wonderful book, and answered Ron’s call; indeed it was the perfect book to transform into a television history of multicultural America. We formed a board, and set about seeking support and funding for the project. Alas, neither PBS nor private funding was forthcoming, and over time the project took a back seat to our busy lives. But in the meantime I had made a friend, and looked up to a remarkable human being who lived his principles. Ron was one of the most open and inclusive human beings I have ever met, and I will forever cherish the time we had together. He taught me what it means to understand and interpret history into my daily life. He taught me to reflect on important historical events in the formation of my own political views. He taught me to stand firm against the repressive hand of hatred and bigotry. He taught me how to love peoples from all walks of life. As I said to Ron once, as we sat outside of Black Oak Books in Berkeley, awaiting another talk he was to give there, Multiculturalism is certainly America’s Manifest Destiny. It is because of Ron’s enlightenment, and his guiding hand, that millions of citizens will more easily embrace this destiny, understand it, and live it. He will be sorely missed by us all, but has given voice to so many. It is up to us now to continue to live by the ideals he has enlivened in us. My condolences go out to his wife Carol and family at this time.
David O’Dell is a documentary writer and producer.
Professor Takaki is one of my heroes. As a young person with a strong interest in the “why” people do what they do and believe what they believe, he pestered me with hard questions that set me on a path of study, expertise and discovery. I am a Diversity professional and the reason I am is because Professor Takaki told me I had a culture as an African-American female that I needed to study, discover and catalogue. He also pushed me into comparative studies and the joy of learning and understanding other people’s cultures. He was a joy to learn from and a joy to know. Blessings to his family and honor always to his name.
Terri Lyons, Cal, class of 1985

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