Friday, March 27, 2009

john hope franklin 1915-2009

I don't usually note the death of academics, but John Hope Franklin was no ordinary scholar. A leader in African-American studies before the term even existed, Franklin more than any other single individual made Black history "mainstream," a regular part of American education rather than a sideshow. That he did so with grace and erudition rather than anger or vitriol makes it all the more impressive.

Like many of my generation, I did not study African-American history comprehensively as a college student. Instead I read Franklin's masterpiece, "From Slavery to Freedom," as part of my preparation to run in a largely Black district last year. What struck me most was the contrast between the horrific events described and the elegant, almost detached tone in which the book itself was written. Thus Franklin describes the slave patrols/militias that patrolled southern roads in the slavery era, demanding identification from passing Blacks and--especially in periods of slave rebellions--often meeting out harsh and brutal justice to those with unsatisfactory answers (the parallel to Jews in Europe is notable here as elsewhere.) At other points, he describes the sexual abuse of Black women and the riots that met demands for racial justice after the First World War. Obviously he was not neutral with respect to any of this. But he never slips into polemics or bombast, preferring to let the facts speak for themselves, and never losing sight of the fact that Black history is not a separate area but an integral part of the American story.

One theme that frequently shows up in Black (and Jewish) history is its circular nature: the fear, receding at times but never quite disappearing, that what has been won can be lost again, that eternal vigilance is,in a very real and immediate sense the price of freedom. I suspect this is one of the reasons Blacks and Whites have reacted so differently to the Obama Presidency. Scholars often refer to the post-Civil War era as the First Reconstruction and the era following Brown v. Board of Education--or perhaps the 1965 Civil Rights Act--as the Second. A common if unstated fear has long been that the Second Reconstruction, like the first, would end in reaction and defeat. Now, at least symbolically, the model has been shattered: whatever else happened in the 1890s, there was not a Black President forty years after the Civil War, and certainly not one who carried several southern states. None of this means that the struggle, however defined, is over. But no one can deny that things have changed, or that the work of John Hope Franklin and his followers was worth the time and effort expended.


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