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Examining Multicultural Contributions to America

by Janet Gilmore, Public Affairs
posted November 4, 1998

For decades, history books have devoted much attention to Abraham Lincoln and his efforts to preserve the Union and win the Civil War.

But most of these books don't tell about the 186,000 African American soldiers who signed up for battle and made the decisive contribution to preserving the United States of America.

In his new book "A Larger Memory," Ethnic Studies Professor Ron Takaki explores the role that everyday people who are ethnic minorities or white immigrants have played in shaping American society.

A broader, more culturally diverse view of history is not only important to fully understand historical events, Takaki said, but reveals common struggles that can help unite racial groups.

"When we practice multiculturalism, it leads to the reuniting of America," Takaki said. "It helps to show how our paths intertwined with one another."

The book, told through the perspectives of ordinary Americans, touches on the experiences of individuals of various ethnic backgrounds as they struggled to provide for their families and live with dignity.

These individual stories are drawn from a variety of sources -- from old books and documents nestled in university archives, to personal stories found in government reports and magazine articles, to oral histories collected by ethnic studies students.

These are the stories of Native Americans, Japanese Americans, Puerto Rican Americans, Mexican Americans, Jewish Americans, Chinese Americans, African Americans and others. The book reveals lives of immigrants from Italy, Ireland, India, Poland and elsewhere. Some struggles are individual, others involve multicultural alliances, and still others chronicle a particular group's direct impact on American history.

While researching "A Larger Memory," Takaki said he learned for the first time of the pivotal role that African Americans played in the North's victory during the Civil War.

According to Takaki, in the spring of 1863, white Union soldiers had completed their military service and were going home. Lincoln was faced with the prospect of losing the war or allowing African Americans into battle. He chose the latter, and hundreds of thousands of African Americans -- many of them escaped slaves from the South -- enlisted, eager to free their families from slavery.

The efforts of those 180,000 men allowed the war to continue and, of course, the North proceeded on to victory.

"Today we should continue to be grateful to African Americans," Takaki said, "and do everything possible to help them achieve equality."

Takaki, a staunch supporter of affirmative action, hopes that his book will foster greater cultural awareness and contribute to a sense of community that transcends race. Such a perspective is especially useful now, he said, as the country moves closer to the year 2000 and to a society in which no single ethnic group forms a majority of the population.

Takaki, the author of several books including "A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America," has lectured in Japan, Russia, Armenia and South Africa. He has advised both President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore on race matters.

He helped found UC Berkeley's PhD program in ethnic studies, which was established in 1984 and is the first of its kind in the country. He was also instrumental in establishing the American Cultures requirement, which requires all undergraduates to complete a course designed to broaden understanding of racial and ethnic diversity.


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