Cosmopolitan San Francisco in 1855

Beginning in 1849, the lure of gold made San Francisco into an “instant city,” and a cosmopolitan one at that, with more than half of its population born somewhere other than the United States.

This quality almost certainly added to its mystery and exceptionalism, while also shaping both the need and the contours of its version of “white supremacy.”   For many accustomed to life amidst a more racially and culturally homogenous population, assumptions of racial difference and fitness proved invaluable tools in an almost natural effort to grapple with newness by “rationally” organizing daily, multiracial interactions marked by difference.   At the same time, life in San Francisco helped to further solidify such assumptions, providing a detailed observer with an avalanche of new “evidence” and expertise.

One early account ( from the The Annals of San Francisco, published in 1855) communicates the combination of exoticism and informed certainty that could result:

The every-day aspect of the plaza and streets was of the most curious and interesting kind. Take the plaza, on a fine day, for a picture of the people. All races were represented. There were hordes of long pig-tailed, blear-eyed, rank-smelling Chinese, with their yellow faces and blue garbs; single dandy black fellows, of nearly as bad an odor, who strutted as only the negro can strut, in holiday clothes and clean white shirt; a few diminutive fiery-eyes Malays, from the western archipelago, and some handsome Kanakas from the Sandwich Islands; jet-black, straight-featured, Abyssinians; hideously tattooed New Zealanders; Feejee sailors and even the secluded Japanese, short, thick, clumsy, ever-bowing, jacketed fellows; the people of the many races of Hindoo land; Russians with furs and sables; a stray, turbaned, stately Turk or two, and occasionally a half naked shivering Indian…

[The] multitudes of the Spanish race from every country of the Americas, partly pure, partly crossed with red blood—Chilians, Peruvians and Mexicans, all with different shades of the same swarthy complexion, black-eyed and well-featured, proud of their beards and moustaches, their grease, dirt, and eternal gaudy serapes or darker cloaks; Spaniards from the mother country, more dignified, polite and pompous than even their old colonial brethren; “greasers,” too, like them; great numbers of tall, goat-chinned, smooth-cheeked, oily-locked, lank-visaged, tobacco-chewing, large-limbed and featured, rough, care-worn, careless Americans from every State of the Union, dressed independently in every variety of garb, not caring a fig what people thought of them, but determined to “do the thing handsomely,” and “go ahead”…

Scholar and Teacher Ronald Takaki (1939-2009)

Ron Takaki has passed away.  He died Tuesday, May 26, 2009, at his home in Berkeley.


If you don’t know who he was and what he contributed to the world of academia, there are ample ways for you to learn.  This graduation address he delivered toward the end of his life gives you more than a few of the details of his personal life. The basics of his professional life are as impressive.  Born and raised in a the working-class environment of Hawai’i, he went on to become one of the most distinguished historians of race and ethnicity in the modern era.  As an Asian American he served as the founding faculty member of UCLA’s Black Studies program, and then went on to help develop the Department of Comparative Ethnic Studies at Cal, where he taught for almost 40 years.  In addition to teaching well over 20,000 students in his career, he is responsible for an assortment of scholarly literature, pioneering works in Asian American history, and the multicultural U.S. past.

But all that falls short of telling you what you need to know about the man.  As a person who was privileged to call him “mentor” during my graduate career at Berkeley, I was always impressed by his down-to-earth personality, warmth, and caring.  He was a rare combination of strengths: a cutting edge and world-renowned scholar who was also as good a teacher as you will ever see.

He wasn’t a humble man, but he wasn’t out of line with his lack of humility either.  He knew the value of his work and his place in letters.  In the classroom, he taught by connecting you to the vibrancy of a field of knowledge that was alive and in development.  He appropriately made his work part of that field.  In graduate seminars on research, he made his own process visible, showing you how he went from idea to book in record time.  He worked from the belief that you could learn something from hearing and seeing how a “master” performed his art.  He was right.

As a scholar, he produced pertinent, cutting-edge work for four decades.  His work was the perfect embodiment of the conception academia has of itself.  It spoke to our present conditions as much as our past and provided road maps for how we could become a more whole, more equitable, and more just society. While other academics pretend their work is important and necessary, Ron had the brilliance of never having to pretend. His best-selling book, A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America, recently premiered in a new and updated edition.  It will be the effort for which he is most remembered.  His best, and the one of which he spoke most fondly, was 1979’s Iron Cages : Race and Culture in 19th-Century America.

Ron had a tremendous impact on my work and on the work of my friends at Berkeley.  Those of us who had his advice (and signature) as part of our dissertations would be forever branded as “Takaki-ites.”  It is a badge I wear proudly, for you see, for Ron it was all about the “voices.”  His work represented the voices and experiences of those silenced and forgotten.  He did that, not for a present-day class of people who had the power to remember and to be remembered, but for those of whom he wrote, and those like them in our present.  He was a humanist in the fullest and most meaningful sense of that word, a model of public intellectual behavior to which we should all aspire.

While I am saddened by his death, I also am left with a sense of pride and appreciation.  This is not only for having the chance to know him and work with him, but more for the fact that I get to work in the profession of which he was a part; for living in a world that has benefited from his work and will continue to do so for generations to come.  In so many ways, and in untold ways we have yet to see, Ron Takaki left this world better than he found it.

We are all the better for his life, and the lesser for his passing.  The official campus announcement of his death can be found on the UC Berkeley website, along with a more in-depth obituary.

UPDATE (5/28/09): Various obituaries are now also appearing in newspapers around the nation, such as the Los Angeles Times, the Oakland Tribune, and the Honolulu Advertiser.