Matthai Kuruvila, Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, June 1, 2009
Ronald Takaki didn't just teach about race and ethnicity. He helped
When students in the 1960s demanded that universities start teaching
American history that went beyond the lives of white people,
Professor Takaki was one of the first to offer courses.
As courses about race and ethnicity began to take shape, Professor
Takaki elevated them to another level, creating the nation's first
doctoral-level ethnic studies department at UC Berkeley.
When he died Tuesday at his home in Berkeley, Professor Takaki had
created a legacy as one of the most influential scholars on race and
ethnicity in the nation. He was 70.
Professor Takaki wrote more than 20 books, including "Strangers from
a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans," "Iron Cages: Race
and Culture in 19th-century America," "Ethnic Islands: The Emergence
of Urban Chinese America," and "Double Victory: A Multicultural
History of America in World War II."
Professor Takaki grew up among Japanese plantation workers in Hawaii,
and went to the College of Wooster in Ohio. He came to UC Berkeley in
the 1960s to study history.
He told The Chronicle in 2003 that it altered him profoundly.
"I was born intellectually and politically in Berkeley in the 1960s,"
Professor Takaki said.
He was moved by the moral vision of Martin Luther King Jr. to join
the Free Speech Movement. The slaying of student activists
registering voters in Mississippi inspired Professor Takaki to do a
study of slavery for his doctoral dissertation.
The Watts Riots in 1965 helped push UCLA to develop the first course
in black history a year later, Professor Takaki told The Chronicle.
He was asked to teach it.
When Professor Takaki walked into the classroom for the first time,
students grew silent until one of them chirped, "Well, Professor
Takaki, what revolutionary tools are we going to learn in this
course?" Professor Takaki recounted in 2003.
"I said, 'We're going to study the history of the U.S. as it relates
to African Americans. We're going to strengthen our critical-thinking
skills and our writing skills. These can be revolutionary tools if we
make them so.' "
After five years at UCLA, Professor Takaki returned to UC Berkeley
and became the first full-time professor in the Department of Ethnic
Studies. In the 1980s, Professor Takaki had established the first
doctoral program in Ethnic Studies.
His book "Iron Cages" launched him into intellectual view - and drew
a scathing review from the New York Review of Books. Professor Takaki
said the reaction was to be expected.
"It challenged the master narrative of American history," Professor
Takaki said in 2003. "I was saying, 'Many of us didn't come from
Europe. Some were already here, some came up from Latin America or
from Asia.' "
When family members in Hawaii asked why he didn't write their history
- that of plantation workers - Professor Takaki knew that was another
history that needed to be recorded. That became "Pau Hana: Plantation
Life and Labor in Hawaii, 1835-1920."
Professor Takaki attracted and inspired a legion of students, earning
him the campus' Distinguished Teaching Award in 1981. Among his
students was Michael Omi.
Omi, himself now a professor of ethnic studies at UC Berkeley, said
Professor Takaki set himself apart by always looking to tell history
to popular audiences and not just limit himself to academics.
"He thought it was very important to chronicle the experience of
these groups in a way that would captivate a broader audience," said Omi.
Omi said Professor Takaki was also distinctive in emphasizing the
interplay between ethnic groups, rather than looking at one group in
Professor Takaki was an avid surfer since childhood, earning the name
"10 toes" for being able to surf with all 10 toes hanging over the
front edge of the board. Until his last years, Professor Takaki was
boogie boarding and jogging. He even snorkeled just over a year ago.
But multiple sclerosis was draining him of energy and rendering him
physically unable to do the things he loved, said his son, Troy
Takaki. He said it was the reason Professor Takaki took his own life
"He was a very energetic person, just not physically, but
emotionally," said Troy Takaki. "Not having that energy was extremely
hard on him."
Troy Takaki said his father would light up a room with his laughter
and was playful, reading books like "Walter the Farting Dog" with his
"He and the 4-year-old would laugh and laugh and laugh as they read
these books," Troy Takaki said.
Professor Takaki is survived by his wife, Carol; and his three
children, Todd of El Cerrito, Troy of Los Angeles and Dana of
Chester, Conn. The family asks that in lieu of flowers, donations be
made in Professor Takaki's name to the Asian Law Caucus, 55 Columbus
Ave., San Francisco, CA 94111. Plans for a campus memorial service are pending.