Thursday, May 28, 2009

R.I.P.: Him Mark Lai and Ronald Takaki

Two giants in the field of Asian American studies...two men who helped to create Asian American studies, who researched, recorded, wrote, taught, lectured, and talked about the importance of understanding the history and significance of Asians in American life over the last two centuries, passed away in the last week.

Him Mark Lai, known as the "dean" of Asian American history, died on May 21, 2009. Ronald Takaki, a pioneer in the field of not only Asian American history, but multicultural history and just plain old American history, died on May 26, 2009.

I chose this photo of Him Mark Lai because it is emblematic of the work that he did for the field of Asian American studies--behind him is a small fraction of the works he collected over his lifetime--works in both Chinese and English that documented the Chinese in America. Over time his research interests would broaden to include other Asian ethnic groups as well as understanding the roots of racial prejudice against Asians in American and his work to combat this prejudice. There are those in the academy who scoff at "independent scholars"; Him Mark Lai was trained as an engineer but his passion was history and he will be known as an archivist par excellence.

Click here for a Hyphen Magazine piece celebrating his life and here for an article on him on the National Archives website.

I had the pleasure of meeting Ronald Takaki at a book signing in Harvard Square when I was in grad school. It was the only time I've been at a book signing when we had to stop because there was a disturbed person who kept interrupting the author. Throughout the whole strange altercation, Dr. Takaki kept his cool--he even wanted to hear what the guy had to say (when it was clear that the guy was hostile and probably mentally ill). I'll never forget that talk, not only because it was the only talk I attended in which the police had to come and escort someone out of the building but because through it all, Ronald Takaki kept his composure, was gracious, and even funny after the fact, in a self-deprecating way (I think he made a quip about hoping the guy wasn't a reviewer from one of the major newspapers).

I have read, cover to cover, Strangers from a Different Shore. It is a work of both depth and breath, which is a hard feat to manage, especially in a field like Asian American history. He will be sorely missed for his many academic contributions, but he will be remembered as a historian who pushed others to really comprehend the important place of Asian Americans and other people of color as being a crucial but underrepresented slice of American history. Click here on a piece by Asian Week honoring Dr. Takaki's life--they will be running a series of pieces on him throughout the week.

[REMEMBER: If you post a comment during the month of May (which is APA heritage month) you will be automatically entered to win one of five books donated by Hachette Book Group. Read the May 14 post (scroll to the bottom) to see the details of the books and how to win]


Beverly said...

Both will be greatly missed.
Both helped define who the United States is and made sure that we were educated to understand the full history of the US.

Paved the path for others to follow.

T said...

Bless them both, they opened our eyes to how we weren't white, weren't black, weren't going to become white, weren't going to become black, and didn't need to be any of the above. Finally, our place in the story could begin to be heard, and make way for all the more recent immigrants of color to have their stories included, too.

Jennifer said...

Beverly & T,
Thanks for leaving a comment--I do think that May 2009 will be remembered as a month in which we lost two incredibly important people in the field of Asian American studies, but their legacy will make them live in our memories for generations to come.