On May 26, 2009, the historical discipline lost Ronald Takaki, one of the most preeminent scholars of American multicultural history. His research and teaching foregrounded the experiences of racial and ethnic groups who had been excluded or marginalized in traditional historical accounts. His lyrical storytelling featured the lives of seemingly ordinary people who made extraordinary contributions to the US economy, politics, and culture. By highlighting their voices in songs, poetry, and oral history, Takaki made US history both readable and relatable.
The grandson of Japanese immigrant plantation laborers in Hawaii, Ronald Toshiyuki Takaki was born in Honolulu. During his youth, he was known as Ten-Toes Takaki for his hang-ten style of surfing. He was the first in his family to attend college, graduating from the College of Wooster, and he earned his PhD in American history from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1967. He taught at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), from 1966 to 1971; he then returned to UC Berkeley, where he remained until his retirement in 2003. Hawaii’s ethnically divided plantation system, the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, and civil rights struggles in the South were major influences on Takaki’s career. His dissertation and first book, A Pro-Slavery Crusade: The Agitation to Reopen the African Slave Trade (Free Press, 1971), examined efforts in the 1850s to reopen the slave trade.
A pioneering and prolific historian, Takaki authored almost a dozen books between the 1970s and 2000s, including Iron Cages: Race and Culture in 19th-Century America (Knopf, 1979); Pau Hana: Plantation Life and Labor in Hawaii, 1835–1920 (Univ. of Hawaii Press, 1983); Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans (Little, Brown, 1989); A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America (Little, Brown, 1993); and Double Victory: A Multicultural History of America in World War II (Little, Brown, 2000). Strangers from a Different Shore was selected by the New York Times as a Notable Book of the Year and by the San Francisco Chronicle as one of the 100 best nonfiction books of the 20th century, while A Different Mirror won the American Book Award.
Takaki was a popular teacher who emphasized the potential of critical thinking and writing skills as revolutionary tools. In 1966, he taught UCLA’s first Black history course, and in 1971, he became the first full-time teacher in UC Berkeley’s Department of Ethnic Studies. His self-effacing humor and down-to-earth laugh, as well as his comparative and relational approach to the study of race and racism, captivated students. He won Berkeley’s Distinguished Teaching Award in 1981. In the 1980s, Takaki also helped establish the nation’s first doctoral program in ethnic studies, and an undergraduate American cultures requirement to introduce students to the diverse cultures of the United States. Even after his retirement, he delivered guest lectures to standing-room-only audiences.
Takaki was also a formidable public intellectual. He shaped national conversations about multiculturalism, race, and education, appearing on television programs such as NBC’s Today, ABC’s This Week with David Brinkley, CNN’s International Hour and Crossfire, and PBS’s NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. In the 1980s and 1990s, he debated sociologist Nathan Glazer on the issue of affirmative action at American universities. He also advised President Bill Clinton on his major speech on race in 1997.
Takaki died at his home in Berkeley in 2009 after battling multiple sclerosis for years. Upon his death, Don T. Nakanishi, the director of UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center, recalled Takaki’s impact: “Ron Takaki elevated and popularized the study of America’s multiracial past and present like no other scholar, and in doing so had an indelible impact on a generation of students and researchers across the nation and world.”
Takaki is survived by his wife, Carol Takaki; their three children; and grandchildren. Before his death, he donated over 40 cartons of his papers, dating from the 1970s to the 1990s, to UC Berkeley’s Ethnic Studies Library. The Ronald T. Takaki Papers includes correspondence, teaching material, writing, research files, and personal papers that reflect his commitment to the study of America’s multicultural past, present, and future.
Catherine Ceniza Choy
University of California, Berkeley
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