Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Sunday, December 04, 2005

John Hope Franklin


[gary daily col. 6 March 3, 2002]

John Hope Franklin – In Appreciation

Black History Month has passed and I’m feeling AWOL. But it’s never too late to look back on history to get our bearings. Reexamining roads traveled in error and in triumph, finding moments and movements to celebrate, is always an on time effort.

This is especially true when it comes to the story of African Americans in the United States. The importance of that history is so profound that no one should think taking one month out of the year (justified as that month of special recognition is) should suffice as doing one’s duty to that complex, central and on-going story. So this column is dedicated to helping make African American history a full part of every year.

Here’s the easy part. Spend a few bucks and buy a copy of John Hope Franklin’s From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans. This classic work has been in print for fifty-five years. This specific book should be in your home to read and use as a reference source against which you can compare other works on the history of United States. Try it. It can be enlightening.

Franklin’s book jogs our memories, flushing out what many would prefer to store away and forget. In 1947, the year this foundation work first appeared, our country suffered from the stench of segregation, the “legal” arm of racism. But the forces of racism in institutional as well as personal forms have existed throughout American history. Historical works that fail to recognize this “condition of our condition” suffer from a willful amnesia. Memory is long and engaged in From Slavery to Freedom. “I have made a conscious effort to write the history of the Negro in America,” Franklin wrote in 1947, “with due regard for the forces at work which have affected his development.” Those “forces” were the forces of racism. And this is the nub of the complexity and the crime that Franklin’s work faces squarely. He utilizes the tools of scholarly research in an unflinching way—a rare occurrence in history books until the mid-1960s.

One other contribution of Franklin to the writing and understanding of our nation’s history should be mentioned here. He notes that his history will recognize the work of individuals across a wide range of endeavors along with “the strivings of nameless millions who have sought adjustment in a new and sometimes hostile world.”

Individuals holding traditional forms of power--Kings and Presidents, Captains of Industry and Generals of the military--have always had a place of prominence in the story of the past. It’s the “nameless millions” who have been diminished, been made to disappear, in the historical record. In works of African American history these “nameless millions” are given a voice, their strivings noted and, where justified, celebrated. This example has done much to change the character of historical works today. Along with African Americans, historians over the past four decades have discovered the voices of others long silenced--women, the working classes, Native Americans, Gays, Latinos, Asians, and the ethnic rainbow that is America. It seems that “nameless millions” have been striving on a number of fronts.

I have personally heard harsh criticisms along the lines of we can still see the “Slavery” but where’s the “Freedom” hurled in Franklin’s direction. This is a shallow and unfair comment on a great work. The “Freedom” in Professor Franklin’s title always implied a goal to be sought and not a destination already reached. Each of the five editions of his work that I own ends with essentially the same observation, a call to African Americans to “carry forward the struggle for freedom at home, for the sake of America’s role, and abroad, for the sake of the survival of the world.” In From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans, John Hope Franklin has made a signal contribution to “carry[ing] forward the struggle.”

Franklin's book has played a vital role in shaping how we understand our past and ourselves in that past. You should get yourself a copy and read it.

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