Ronald Takaki was a teacher, historian, and extraodinary human being. He was a pioneer in ethnic studies and a faculty member at UCLA and Berkeley. Ron Takaki died at the age of 70 this past May.
Ron was also my teacher and easily one of the 2 -3 greatest and most inspiring professors I had as an undergraduate at the University of California. He is one of the main reasons I chose to spend a lifetime in higher education. Remembering his brilliant and packed lectures, and thinking back to his influence on so many students, I am yet again reminded of the incredible responsibilities, challenges and opportunities we all have as faculty members.
In the spring of 1970, I can’t say I had ever heard the term “globalization.” National, ethnic, religious, and racial borders, especially in a place like California, could not have been more closely guarded. White middle class suburbs — even ones directly adjoining Chicano or African American or Asian neighborhoods — were social and cultural fortresses. Many of us who came directly from those fortresses to UCLA or Berkeley had never been in close proximity to any ethnic diversity. None. It was shameful. We lived in a well armored comfort zone that neither challenged us nor expanded our world view beyond the San Bernardino Freeway.
But there we were as freshmen, looking over the schedule of classes, trying to figure out who was responsible for the typo that had listed some professor with a Japanese surname as the professor for intro to African American history.
When we showed up at class, imagine how baffled we were to see this soft-spoken Asian American professor speaking with a quiet yet furious indignation about the shame of slavery. I vividly remember thinking almost immediately that nothing I thought knew about how the world worked, about the fortresses that were our ethnic and racial and religious enclaves, would ever be the same. Something was happening, and — if we didn’t fully understand all the complex forces — Professor Takaki would be there as a guide to the perplexed. And believe me, in the spring 1970 quarter we needed guiding — Kent State, Cambodia, the Moratorium, and violent confrontations with campus police. Even a fatal shooting on campus. As I look back and calculate the chronology, I am stunned to realize that this gentle and powerful man was then only in his early 30s.
There has never been a time in the intervening 40 years when, seeing someone trying to persuade with bluster and arrogance, I haven’t remembered Ron Takaki in the spring of 1970 and thought: Rage born and nurtured in gentle soul can burn with even greater intensity.
It was an extraordinary time at UCLA, full of fury and passion. Across campus, another great and inspiring professor, Angela Davis, was approaching these issues of inequality from another perspective. And it was a loud time – a time of rage and grievance. How extraordinary it was to have Ron Takaki there amidst the ferment, showing us that even rage could be expressed with civility, that scholarship could reveal layers of barbarity and fuel the kind of anger that can lead to social change.
Sometime later he brought to campus some of the great figures of the infamous WW II relocation of Japanese Americans, people like Fred Korematsu and Joe Grant Masaoka. For many of us in 1969, this shameful episode was still virtually invisible in the exclusionist and triumphal narrative of California history.
He never minimized the conflicts and inequalities and injustices that fueled the growing rage. There was nothing “feel good” about these classes. But simply by explaining these forces, by struggling to help us understand the fires that were starting to burn in urban America, he helped us see that — through understanding and rigorous scholarship — a peaceful future just might be possible.
Really a teacher for the ages.