Remembering Ron Takaki, the man who put Asian Pacific Americans into historical context for the academy

In the future, we will know why May is Asian Pacific American Month.  It isn’t just because of the arrival of the first Japanese immigrant (May 7,1843). Or the sweat equity earned by Chinese workers who helped complete the transcontinental railroad (May 10,1869).

Sadly, it is now the month that marks the passing of Ronald Takaki, Professor Emeritus, UC Berkeley, who in the last 50 years became the pre-eminent advocate for the inclusion of Asian American history in the American academy.

Takaki died the night of May 26 after a long illness, according to his family.  He leaves a wife, Carol Takaki, three children, Dana, Troy, and Todd, and several grandchildren.

It’s hard to imagine what we read before Takaki’s  seminal work,”Strangers from a Different Shore”?  What did we have to read? The answer. Not much. You might have Asian Americans from a white perspective, but mostly it was considered  history on the margins, not seen worthy of serious study. When I was an undergraduate at Harvard in the ’70s,  I recall how I hungered for information that would explain to me what happened to the Chinese, the Japanese, and the Filipinos who came to America.  Deep in the library stacks I found a few unpublished dissertations from Asian Americans that opened my eyes, but were mostly ignored by others.  It wasn’t until Takaki came out with “Strangers” did the sense of the American experience of Asians take place. There was nothing that had the scope, nor success of Takaki’s “Strangers…” I remember when I first saw it, I thought this was it. The most comprehensive telling of our story. I have at least three editions, two hardbound, and one paper back. I keep lending off all my dog-eared copies. Maybe that’s why I never thought to ask Ron to sign a copy for me. His book was a working tool.

So no autograph. But I did get a blurb. I called him up and I was flattered when he said he read my columns. He said he would be happy to blurb my book, a collection called “Amok:Essays from an Asian American Perspective.” For me it was like getting a blessing from on high.

Takaki’s “Strangers…” gave our community a context that brought us together as Americans.

And it gave me an informed sense of the importance to go amok.

By giving our past real meaning, Takaki lifted us up, made us relevant to others,  and gave us hope for a better future for our community. That is, if we learn from history.

In the hallowed halls of learning, it was Ron who made people respect our stories.