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Academic Community Mourns Trailblazing Professor

JENNIFER LUDDEN, Host:

Now a moment to remember one of the country's most-influential Asian-American intellectuals, Professor Ronald Takaki. He died Tuesday at age 70, leaving behind a legacy of scholarship that helped define the field of ethnic studies. Last year on NPR, Takaki explained his vision as a scholar and teacher.

RONALD TAKAKI: Multiculturalism is not a fad, it's not going to go away. And multiculturalism is not political correctness. Multiculturalism is a serious effort to redefine who is an American.

LUDDEN: Larry Shinagawa teaches Asian-American studies at the University of Maryland and considered Ronald Takaki a mentor and close friend. He spoke with us from Hiroshima, Japan.

LARRY HAJIME SHINAGAWA: Ron was a giant. He was a talent beyond compare. He exemplified what I considered as the activist scholar.

LUDDEN: Shinagawa says Takaki started his career at UCLA, where he taught that university's first courses on African-American studies.

HAJIME SHINAGAWA: He knew that if you wanted to study and understand American race relations, you had to go at it understanding the African-American experience. And so he was one of the pioneers, teaching about the history of African- Americans.

LUDDEN: Takaki was the child of Japanese immigrants and was born and raised in Hawaii. He eventually settled at the University of California Berkeley, where he taught ethnic studies for more than three decades.

HAJIME SHINAGAWA: There's a lot of professors out there that could do a good, straight lecture, but he was the kind of person that was not only a lecturer but a storyteller.

TAKAKI: It's a popular but mistaken story that this country was settled by European immigrants and that Americans are white or European in ancestry. But we can just look at our own faces right here in this room and know that not all of us came from Europe, and we are all Americans.

HAJIME SHINAGAWA: He was weaving a story that meant something for each and every one of us because we can relate to what he was going through. And he always asked us to do this, he says, how do you know what you know is what you truly know?

LUDDEN: Professor Ronald Takaki committed suicide on Tuesday at age 70. According to family members, he struggled with multiple sclerosis. He authored several books about race and ethnicity in America. His landmark work is "A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America," and the book remains a seminal work on ethnic studies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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