Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

John Hope Franklin: Race & the Meaning of America

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Drew Gilpin Faust has a good essay in the NY Review of Books, well worth reading:

. . . Defying, not crying. That captures John Hope Franklin’s life, and it captures the history he wrote, a history that would, in his words, “attempt to rehabilitate a whole people” and serve them as a weapon of collective defiance. Inspired by a brilliant teacher at Fisk University, Franklin came to see how “historical traditions have controlled…attitudes and conduct,” and how changing history, challenging the truth of the “hallowed past,” was the necessary condition for changing the present and future. In important ways, the study of history was for Franklin not a choice; it was an imperative. “The true scholar,” he wrote in 1963, “must pursue truth in his field; he must, as it were, ply his trade…. If one tried to escape,…he would be haunted;…he would be satisfied in no other pursuit.” History, in the many meanings of the term, chose him.

But the “Negro scholar,” Franklin wrote, should not imagine he could disappear into an ivory tower. The choice to “turn his back on the world” was not available. From Jonathan Edwards, to Thomas Jefferson, to Ralph Waldo Emerson, to John Kenneth Galbraith, Franklin observed, the American scholar had been drawn into policy and the practical. The black scholar must fully embrace this tradition of American intellectual life. “I now assert,” Franklin proclaimed,

that the proper choice for the American Negro scholar is to use his history and ingenuity, his resources and talents, to combat the forces that isolate him and his people and, like the true patriot that he is, to contribute to the solution of the problems that all Americans face in common.

Fundamental to the task at hand would be rewriting the history of history, revising the “hallowed” falsehoods, illustrating how the abuse and misuse of history served to legitimate systems of oppression not just in the past but in the present as well. Misrepresentations of the past, Franklin came to recognize, had given “the white South the intellectual justification for its determination not to yield on many important points, especially in its treatment of the Negro.” Post–Civil War southerners had endeavored to “win with the pen what they had failed to win with the sword.”

Franklin detailed the way the antebellum South rewrote the history of the American Revolution to justify its increasing commitment to slavery, how the popular history represented by the 1915 film Birth of a Nation worked to justify the early-twentieth-century revival of the Klan, how in a volume commissioned for a prominent series on southern history, respected historian E. Merton Coulter’s racist assumptions produced a distorted view of Reconstruction that made an implicit argument against the extension of civil rights in the years immediately following World War II.

But Franklin did not simply critique and revise; he did not just overturn existing interpretations by bringing a different lens to bear, or even by just grounding the narrative of the past in what were quite revolutionary assumptions of common human capacity and dignity. Franklin, the scholar, unearthed reams of new facts—facts no one had bothered to look for previously, facts buried in archives, newspapers, government records, facts no historian had searched for until history decided black lives mattered.

Franklin’s approach to the doing of history is perhaps most faithfully and explicitly chronicled in the introduction to his biography of the nineteenth-century African-American historian George Washington Williams. A pioneer in charting the black experience, Williams, who died in 1891, had been all but forgotten until Franklin began “stalking” him. Franklin recounts the story of how over three decades he traveled to countless offices, libraries, and archives on three continents. He pursued clues and leads with imagination and unquenchable curiosity until he was able to piece together a full portrait of the man and his work. Franklin rescued Williams from oblivion to install him in his rightful place as a pathbreaking black intellectual, a precursor to Franklin himself in creating a true history of the nation’s past and the place of African-Americans within it. . .

. . .

Even Franklin, who had personally felt the brunt of segregation, who had understood the terrors of racial violence and oppression, was sobered by what he found. WritingFrom Slavery to Freedom, piecing together a comprehensive account of five hundred years of black history, brought tales of horror before his eyes:

I had seen one slave ship after another…pile black human cargo into its bowels…. I had seen them dump my ancestors at New World ports as they would a load of cattle and wait smugly for their pay…. I had seen them beat black men…and rape black women until their ecstasy was spent leaving their brutish savagery exposed. I had heard them shout, “Give us liberty or give us death,” and not mean one word of it…. I had seen them lynch black men and distribute their ears, fingers, and other parts as souvenirs…. I had seen it all, and in the seeing I had become bewildered and yet in the process lost my own innocence.

The past and present of racial oppression in America angered Franklin. His own treatment in graduate school, in the profession, in humiliating incidents that occurred till the very last years of his life provoked him to express his outrage—in autobiographical writings and in what he called “literary efforts” that he refrained from publishing. He was scrupulous and insistent that such emotions and any of what he called “polemics” or “diatribes” should not “pollute” his scholarly work. Yet he acknowledged that “the task of remaining calm and objective is indeed a formidable one.” . . .

The entire essay is well worth reading and thought provoking: How should US history be taught in our schools? What should citizens of the US know of the history of their own country and culture? Is it important to mislead citizens about what actually happened? If so, who decides which false picture to present?

Consider this latter passage in the essay:

. . . In April 1992, while Franklin was in the air en route to the University of Missouri to deliver a series of endowed lectures, a Simi Valley, California, jury announced the acquittal of the Los Angeles police officers who had beaten Rodney King. By the time he reached the St. Louis airport, Los Angeles had erupted in riots that ultimately killed fifty-three people before the California National Guard was summoned to quell the violence. For Franklin, these events seemed a tragic affirmation of the argument at the core of his already-prepared Missouri lectures: racism, “the most tragic and persistent social problem in the nation’s history,” had not been eliminated—even with the notable progress of the civil rights movement. As W.E.B. Du Bois had proclaimed the problem of the twentieth century to be “the problem of the color line—the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea,” so now Franklin cast his eyes forward to declare it the fundamental challenge for the twenty-first. “I venture to state categorically,” he proclaimed, “that the problem of the twenty-first century will be the problem of the color line.”

And again (or still) he worried about willful distortions of history—this time including more recent emerging histories—that threatened to undermine the nation’s capacity to confront and eliminate racial injustice. The myth of a colorblind society, often erected upon a cynical celebration of the achievements of civil rights legislation and the Voting Rights Act, was being developed in the 1980s and 1990s, Franklin believed, to end the struggle for racial equality by proclaiming it already achieved. “A color-blind society does not exist in the United States,” Franklin stated emphatically to his Missouri audience, “and never has existed.” But to advance the myth, Franklin asserted, was not simply a delusion; it was a far more pernicious act of bad faith. “Those who insist we should conduct ourselves as if such a utopian state already existed have no interest in achieving it and, indeed, would be horrified if we even approached it.”

Brown v. Board of Education had, in Franklin’s words, been “no magic wand.” “Litigation, legislation, and executive implementation, however effective some of it was, did not wipe away three centuries of slavery, degradation, segregation, and discrimination.” Color remained “a major consideration in virtually everything Americans thought, said, or did.” Rodney King’s beating was clear testimony to the persisting force of race. Today, more than twenty years later, Franklin could deliver the same message. We are neither colorblind nor post-racial. Franklin would have been deeply saddened, but I doubt he would have been surprised, by the events in Ferguson, Staten Island, Charleston, Cleveland, Baltimore. He would have been equally saddened and, one guesses, angered by the recent evisceration of the Voting Rights Act and by the threat to student body diversity in higher education implied by the Supreme Court’s decision to reconsider Fisher v.University of Texas. . .

And in this context I will again point out Kevin Drum’s excellent post on how the Democrats lost the white South. It’s relevant because it provides a clear example of how history, even if not acknowledged, shapes the present.

Written by Leisureguy

26 November 2015 at 1:05 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life, Education

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