“How do we free ourselves from our past, if we do not even know this past?” These are the words of the late Professor Emritus Ron Takaki.
On May 26, 2009, the legendary Ron Takaki passed away at the age of 70. Takaki pioneered the first Ethnic Studies Ph.D program in the country and taught more than 20,000 students in his position as a professor emeritus of Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley.
After spending his childhood in Honolulu where he was nicknamed ‘Ten-toes Takaki’ for his surfing moves, Takaki attended College of Wooster in Ohio, then pursued a masters and a doctorate at UC Berkeley before teaching UCLA’s first black-history course in 1967. He returned to UC Berkeley as the first full-time professor in the Ethnic Studies Department in 1971, and retired more than four decades later, in 2003. Asian American Studies Program Lecturer Harvey Dong describes Professor Takaki as “a unique academic, an activist educator who challenged the master narrative, and who was and continues to be a model for a university tenured professor.”
A public memorial for Takaki was held at UC Berkeley on September 18. Put together by various staff and faculty of the Ethnic Studies department, the memorial took place in the auditorium of the International House, which was packed to standing-room only capacity as students, faculty, family members and friends filed in to pay their respects and reflect on the life of Ron Takaki. From the Hawaiian musical numbers, to the tributes from various students, and the picture slide show put together by his son, Troy Takaki, the program for the memorial was indicative of the full life that Takaki led, the thumbprints he left in the hearts and minds of the people who knew him, and the far-reaching impact of his works for ethnic people in America. Ethnic Studies professors, students, and family described a fun-loving and gregarious activist, committed both to his work and his family. Most strikingly, all spoke of Professor Takaki’s commitment and contributions to Ethnic Studies, of his ground-breaking work as an academic, a teacher, and a public figure who contributed tirelessly to the field of multiculturalism.
Professor Michael Omi, a professor of Asian American Studies at Cal and one of the creators of the racial formation theory, started his speech remembering Takaki with this quote from Isaac Newton: “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” Indeed, Takaki was, is, and will continue to be the giant of Ethnic Studies. His numerous books and his pedagogy will continue to be used, and while his death is a tremendous loss to the Asian American community, the legacy of his teachings will continue to educate and empower future generations.