R.I.P. Ron Takaki and Ivan Van Sertima

Two important race scholars, Ron Takaki and Ivan Van Sertima, passed away this week.

Ivan Van Sertima was an anthropologist, linguist, literary critic, and the author of They Came Before Columbus (on Africans in ancient America) and Black Women in Antiquity, a history of real and mythical images of black women, from goddesses to queens to madonnas, presented in a powerful and respectful way. Watch Van Sertima discuss one of the themes that underlines his work:

Key quote: Human beings are equal. What makes human beings unequal is they can for example be forced to believe they are unequal. And then they start acting unequal. They could be forced into certain economic disadvantages that don’t make the fullest use of their capacity. Or they could be made to think they are inferior, therefore they behave inferior, they begin to think inferior. But those are passing things. As they begin to become aware of their capacity, that they are equal to all human beings, changes occur dramatically.

Van Sertima played a major role in the process of changing how we understand human beings’ equal capacity. His passing is a huge loss.

Ron Takaki was an activist and scholar who pioneered the field of ethnic studies. Did you talk about multiculturalism in your college classroom? Chances are you have Takaki to thank. Oiyan at the APAP blog (via Angry Asian Man) has a powerful personal take on the impact of Takaki’s work:

I first encountered his book Strangers from a Different Shore at the local public library in Springfield, Massachusetts. It had just been published, and I was 16. I’m not sure how I came across the book, but I found myself feeling like I needed to hide as I read the book. Each chapter detailed Asian American history, which until that point, I had no idea existed. With each chapter read, I began feeling more and more power. The knowledge the book presented almost felt illicit. Having grown up in a provincial, all-white, lower-middle class, mostly immigrant community, and being told over and over by the society in which I was growing up that my experience did not matter, the book was electrifying. I remember checking the book out, going straight home, and sitting in the corner of my bedroom on the floor, door closed, and the book lit by my desk lamp I had brought with me to the floor. I’m not sure why I read it like that, but I remember shaking as I devoured the book. You have to understand that in my experience, true relevant knowledge was made out to be illicit and dangerous. When I was 13, I wasn’t allowed to do a book report on the Autobiography of Malcolm X. Maybe that’s why I hid in a corner to read Takaki’s book when I was 16. I do remember that the book was critical in helping me make sense of the violently racist experiences I had and the historical contexts for these experiences, and my relationship to the rest of the world around me, as an Asian American. It was the first time I realized I was Asian American, and I began to develop a voice.

Both Van Sertima’s and Takaki’s scholarly contributions — their writing of the unwritten histories of people of color and of race in America — are testament to the idea that knowledge is a deeply powerful and often radical thing. I love this anecdote:

Takaki was hired and in 1967 taught the university’s first African American history class.

When the young Japanese American, sporting a crew cut, walked into the classroom for the first time, the students, some wearing Afros and dashikis, fell silent. One student finally spoke up.

“Well, Prof. Takaki,” the student said in a challenging tone, “what revolutionary tools are we going to learn in this course?” Takaki replied: “We’re going to study the history of the U.S. as it relates to African Americans. We’re going to strengthen our critical-thinking skills and our writing skills. These can be revolutionary tools if we make them so.’ “

I’m going to go out on a limb and say the best way to remember these scholars is to continue to use writing and critical thinking as revolutionary tools.

Hyphen has info on where to send memorial donations for Takaki. There is also a more informal memorial on Takaki’s Facebook page. No official word yet on memorials for Van Sertima.

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