Ronald Takaki - a Multicultural Life

New America Media, Commentary, Carol Rankin Takaki Posted: Jul 22, 2009

Editor’s Note: Ronald Takaki, often called the “father of multicultural studies,” who helped establish UC Berkeley’s undergraduate Ethnic Studies major and Ph.D. programs passed away this year. This Thursday a community memorial service in San Francisco will celebrate his life and launch a grassroots petition to rename the Ethnic Studies Library at UC Berkeley after him. Carol Rankin Takaki, his widow and long time editorial collaborator shares this remembrance of how both in work and in his personal life, Takaki crossed boundaries. Carol Rankin Takaki got her master's in Cross Cultural Studies with an emphasis on English as a Second Language from San Francisco State University.

We all know Ron Takaki as the scholar and teacher who challenged the Master Narrative of American History, the “powerful and popular but inaccurate story” declaring that “our country was settled by European immigrants, and Americans are white.”

We remember Ron for chronicling the hopes and struggles of immigrant men and women working and living in Hawaii and mainland America, dispelling the many negative stereotypes marginalized as the “Other.”

We have heard about Ron’s defiance of UCLA’s history department as he insisted on more multicultural courses and faculty, and we know about his untiring work at UC Berkeley to build an ethnic studies graduate program and help institute the American culture’s graduation requirement based on his comparative approach.

Before the teacher, the scholar, the activist, however, Ron and I were pioneers in interracial marriage. We met at the College of Wooster, Ohio, fifty years ago. Ron was from Hawaii, where his Chinese stepfather and his Japanese mother ran a plate lunch restaurant on Waikiki. My home was New Jersey, where my father owned a lumber business. My parents ardently opposed our relationship. But I knew I had a prize: a warm, funny, caring, creative, brilliant and vibrant person who loved me deeply.

After our wedding, we drove to Los Angeles, where my parents-in-law were living, and I finally met them. This was my first experience eating Chinese food and cooked by a father. My mother-in-law, who was born on a sugar plantation, spoke pidgin English, and Ron’s stepfather spoke heavily accented pidgin English and also Cantonese, especially to his brother who had arrived in Hawaii as a “paper son.”
In the fall, we moved to Berkeley, where Ron received his Ph.D. in American history and was drawn into the Free Speech and Civil Rights movements. His dissertation focused on the rationale for slavery, and became his first book, A Pro-Slavery Crusade: the Agitation to Reopen the African Slave Trade.

In 1967, after the Watts Riots shook Los Angeles, Ron was hired to teach UCLA’s first “Negro” history course. Many of you have heard how the students were surprised that the professor wasn’t black, but Ron soon gained their respect and helped organize the Black Student Union. At the time, little was written about the African-American experience, so Ron had to scramble to gather materials and stay one lecture ahead of the class. After mastering black history, Ron turned to Asian-American history and began teaching his comparative multicultural course. By now, he was with the newly instituted Ethnic Studies Department at Berkeley and writing Iron Cages: Race and Culture in Nineteenth Century America, an analytical study of racial attitudes toward Indians, Blacks and the Chinese, with substantial use of literature and emphasis on the policy-makers.

In 1978, Ron had a sabbatical, and we moved to Hawaii for a year so that our children could experience surfing, plate lunch, and the Asian-American community. Ron would often visit his uncle, Richard Okawa, who suggested that he write about the plantation workers of Hawaii. Uncle Richard meant the Japanese people, but Ron was already a multiculturalist, and in Pau Hana: Plantation Life and Labor in Hawaii, he studied the vast array of people brought to the islands to cultivate sugar, such as his grandfather who arrived in 1886. Wanting to make his book accessible to the Pau Hana (finished working) people like Uncle Richard, Ron began writing in a more narrative style, with voices of the every day people. Their stories, Ron believed, captured “the complexities of human emotions and thoughts” and provided “the authenticity of experience.” “Their stories burst in telling,” he declared. After Pau Hana would come Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans.

By now, Ron had been teaching his comparative multicultural course for many years. A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America covered seven groups: Americans from China, Japan, Africa, Mexico and Ireland, as well as Native Americans and Jews from Russia. This book was published in 1993, then revised and updated in 2008. Other books would follow Mirror, including Hiroshima, Double Victory and A Larger Memory. For all these books, I worked with Ron as his editor, suggesting reorganization, clarification, documentation and word choice, often reworking as many as nine or ten drafts. Lately, we had been going on writing retreats to Mendocino and Inverness.

Ours was a close and unique relationship. We had a fantastic time raising three remarkable children, traveling, gardening, drawing, going to concerts, exchanging ideas on long walks and playing with our seven grandchildren. I miss him terribly – his warmth, his laughter, his passion for social justice, his love of words and ideas, and his delight in Obama’s election.

In January, Ron sent a copy of his 2008 edition of Mirror to a friend inscribed, “Embedded in Barack Obama’s victory is a scintillating message: the time has come for a more inclusive and hence more accurate history. Ours is indeed a nation peopled by the world. Audaciously hopeful, Ron.” In his books and in his teaching Ron conveyed the message that “the task for us is not only to comprehend the world, but also to change the world. In our very comprehending, we are in fact changing the world.” Many of us believe Ron Takaki lived up to that challenge.

Always seeking “hopeful ties that bind,” Ron was our country’s multicultural hero, and his legacy will live on. He was my best friend, and I have amazing memories.

The event honoring Ronald Takaki is open to the public but space is limited. To attend this memorial service, please RSVP by contacting Angela Pang by phone 415- 321-5894, or by email to apang@asianweek.com.

Related Articles:

In Memory of Ronald Takaki

Why Do We Consider Obama to Be Black?

Barack Obama: A New Voice for Asian Americans




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