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John Hope Franklin, repairing history: a conversation: whose story is it?

Just two days before my conversation with the preeminent American historian John Hope Franklin, he had just turned 90. "You caught me just in time," he says with a soft chuckle from his office at Duke University, where he is the lames B. Duke Professor Emeritus of History. "I'm going to be on the road soon with all the celebrations planned for my ninetieth birthday."

John Hope Franklin was born on January 2, 1915. Of all his 90th birthday celebrations across the country, the largest was held at Duke University. According to Dr. Franklin, he begged them not to make such a fuss, but the university threw a weeklong birthday bash in January featuring the Fisk Jubilee Singers, panels, luncheons and exhibitions at the John Hope Franklin Center.

This fall, Farrar, Straus & Giroux will release his long-anticipated autobiography, Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin.

Among his other involvements, Franklin serves on the board of the United States National Slavery Museum, being planned for Fredericksburg, Virginia.

The numerous honors and accolades he has earned and continues to receive are well deserved. There is not room in this article to list all of his many accomplishments, which include being the author of the definitive history of African Americans, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of American Negroes (Alfred A. Knopf), originally published in 1947.

Fear of History

In the not-so-distant past, the best way for a writer to clear a room full of white people was to suggest to them that problems such as crime, broken families, poor education, lack of ambition, and general antisocial behavior--that many blacks in this country are plagued with--have deep roots in American history. Why were these otherwise fine, intelligent, educated people in such denial of the obvious?

"Well," Professor Franklin answers, "Americans like to think that they have the most wonderful history in the world. They promote it and are very careful about what goes into that history, especially what's taught in the schools. They don't know much real history. They know fairy tales. So I don't see them running from history. They run to the defense of history and just want to make sure it's the right history."

For example, Dr. Franklin deals with the experiments in slave breeding in the antebellum South, foreshadowing the Nazis, but this is never mentioned in most American history books.

"If it is mentioned at all, it's mentioned as a good thing," he points out. "Again, they don't dodge the subject; they just want to make sure it's told the way they want it to be told."

The Race Commission

So what we have is an African American narrative and a European American narrative. Then, the key question is, has this narrative gotten closer, and will it in time merge into a single American narrative?

"Not as much as I would like to see," he answers. "Public policy and human relationships are based on their [Euro-Americans] notions of history. I still exist to serve them. I was standing not so long ago in a hotel lobby, and this white man walked up to me and said, 'Here's my keys, go get my car." I looked at him and said, 'I don't know where your damn car is.'"

We shared a loud laugh. Then, as we talked, his voice grew stronger, his ideas well focused. There was little hint that I was talking to man who had just turned 90. This also turned us to the subject of his recent stint as chairman of the advisory board of former President Bill Clinton's Special Presidential Commission for One America: The President's Initiative on Race. Did anything of real value come out of that?

"There were basically two general positions taken: The race problem has been solved and we don't need that kind of commission anymore. The other was there was no need to have one because we can't do anything about it anyway," he says. "The mass media concluded that the Commission was an exercise in nothing. The New York Times felt that way. The Chicago Tribune felt that way. And all the newspapers in between felt that way."

So was he disappointed at how it turned out?

"No, not really," Dr. Franklin says. "There were several hundred new community organizations founded for the purpose of getting blacks and whites together to do something about the race problem. We also published a report in which we presented new ways at looking at the problem. The press ignored our report even though I saw them present when we presented it to the President. People are still asking me if the Commission still exists, and when are we going to make a report. That's what's discouraging."

If we could ever cobble together a common history, wouldn't this go a long way in healing the divide between the races?

Dr. Franklin comments, "That's what I have been working for. But it's difficult. Let me give you an example. In 1966, the state of California opened up its bids and invited authors to submit manuscripts dealing with the history of the United States. Well, three of us got together and said we were going to write a history book for the eighth grade. We didn't have a book, so we wouldn't be revising but starting from scratch.

The Land of the Free

"The upshot is that the board adopted the book, but when you adopt a book in California it means that you are putting it in every library in the state, where the citizens can inspect it before it goes into the classroom.

"So people soon started to grumble. The title of the book was The Land of the Free. We talked about slavery and the way it was, among other things. That caused a firestorm in the state of California. They organized Land of the Free clubs all over the state with the purpose of destroying that book, and keeping it from being used in classrooms. There were parents who wouldn't let their kids into the same room with the book. They ultimately won the day, and got the book out of the school system."

So where do we stand as a people? One group sees a proud, noble history populated by wise, God-fearing leaders. The other group sees a bunch of brutal, murderous thugs posing as aristocrats who used the three-legged stool of slavery, genocide and exploitation of immigrant labor to build this country. So what are the settlers suppose to do, hate George Washington, Woodrow Wilson and Thomas Jefferson?

"It's not a question of hating anybody," says Dr. Franklin. "It's just a matter of recognizing what they were. But just keep in mind, the system wants to stay the way it is. It does not want to be attacked or molested in any way. So a few of us are being let in, but that doesn't mean that much has changed."

So that means that the narrative will remain European American and the alternative African American narrative will be, by and large, kept away from the public because it is a subversive, unusable history?

"That right. Because it speaks about the system, it addresses the system itself."

Books by John Hope Franklin

African Americans and the Living Constitution, with Genna Rae McNeil Smithsonian Books, April 1995 $17.95, ISBN 1-560-98471-6

The Color Line: Legacy for the Twenty-First Century, University of Missouri Press, February 1993, $14.95, ISBN 0-826-20894-0

The Emancipation Proclamation (reprint) Harlan Davidson, January 1995 $13.95, ISBN 0-882-95907-7

The Free Negro in North Carolina, 1790-1860, University of North Carolina Press, (reprint), $18.95, ISBN 0-807-84546-9

From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans, Alfred A. Knopf (8th ed.) April 2000, $49.95, ISBN 0-375-40671-9

George Washington Williams: A Biography Duke University Press (reprint) September 1998, $22.95 ISBN 0-822-32164-5

An Illustrated History of Black Americans. with the editors of Time-Life Little, Brown and Company, June 1970 ISBN 0-316-84596-5

In Search of The Promised Land: A Slave Family in the Old South, with Loren Schweninger, Oxford University Press September 2005, $20, ISBN 0-195-16087-8

The Militant South, 1800-1861, University of Illinois Press (reprint), April 2002 $18.95, ISBN 0-252-07069-0

Race and History: Selected Essays, 1938-1988, Louisiana State University Press (reprint), February 1992 $20.95, ISBN 0-807-11764-1

Reconstruction After the Civil War, University of Chicago Press (2nd ed.), March 1995, $16, ISBN 0-226-26079-8

Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation, with Loren Schweninger Oxford University Press, July 2000 $17.95, ISBN 0-195-08449-7

A Southern Odyssey: Travelers in the Antebellum North, Louisiana State University Press, December 1979 $24.95, ISBN 0-807-10351-9

Black Issues Award

Black Issues in Higher Education, our sister publication, presented its second annual John Hope Franklin Awards for Excellence in Higher Education on May 21 .This year's recipients were Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole. president of Bennett College, and Dr. Clifton R. Wharton Jr., former CEO of TIAFF-CREF.

The ceremony was part of BIHE's Second Annual Benchmarks & Barriers for People of Color in Higher Education Conference at the Marriott Crystal Gateway in Arlington, Virginia.

The award pays tribute to the man who "researched and laid the historical foundation, context and strategy for the Brown v. Topeka decision" and honors contributions to higher education consistent with the standards of excellence established by Dr. Franklin. Last year's award winners included historian Dr. David Levering Lewis; the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; and Dr, Sybil Mobley, Dean Emeritus of Florida A & M University's School of Business and Industry.

Fred Beauford has taught Media History at the University of California at Berkeley; State University of New York/Old Westbury; and California State Northridge.
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Title Annotation:contemporary legend
Author:Beauford, Fred
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2005
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