John Hope Franklin WPSU Booknotes

John Hope Franklin WPSU Booknotes


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



 When Franklin visited Penn State, in 1999 to receive an honorary doctorate,  I asked him to sign my copy of the eighth edition, but he declined because of an ongoing dispute with the publisher.  I believe part of the conflict had to do with his refusal to “modernize.”



Books by Wilson Jeremiah Moses

Golden Age of Black Nationalism, 1850-1925 (1988)  / The Wings of Ethiopia  (1990)

 Alexander Crummell: A Study of Civilization and Discontent (1992)  / Destiny & Race: Selected Writings, 1840-1898  (1992) 

 Black Messiahs and Uncle Toms: Social and Literary Manipulations of a Religious Myth (1993)

Liberian Dreams: Back-to-Africa Narratives from the 1850s  / Afrotopia: The Roots of African American Popular History (2002)

Creative Conflict in African American Thought (2004)

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John Hope Franklin WPSU Booknotes

By Wilson J. Moses

Saturday, April 04, 2009


Growing up in Detroit during the 1940s I constantly heard the name of the late American historian, John Hope Franklin.   He was born in 1915, and graduated from Tulsa, Oklahoma’s segregated Colored high school three years ahead of my mother, who always held him up to me as an example of what we used to call “a truly representative Negro.” On his first day in Harvard graduate school, one student was deliberately rude.   It didn’t matter.  The professor required all students in the seminar to have a fluent reading knowledge of Latin, which Franklin possessed and the bigot did not.  As you can imagine the legend of John Hope Franklin was pretty intimidating to African Americans who went to graduate school in the late 1960s.  But, later, when, as an instructor at the University of Iowa, I finally met Franklin, he was not intimidating at all.  He was always very kind and gracious towards me, and in every way encouraging.  He understood that the consciousness of my post-war generation, influenced by J. R. R. Tolkien, Angela Davis, Malcolm X, and Timothy Leary, was profoundly different than his own. 

All the world knows the story of how he volunteered for military service during World War II.  He simply presented himself to his naval recruiter, told them he had a Harvard University Ph. D., and offered himself as a prospect for Officer’s Candidate School. That was the first and last of his discussions concerning military service.   Too bad, Franklin was a handsome man with a lustrous mahogany complexion, and with his aristocratic manner, he would have been strikingly beautiful in a naval lieutenant’s dress whites.  But in those days, African Americans in the United States Navy, served mainly as food workers, or—as they were called—then, “mess boys.”   

Franklin was the author of several books, but the most important, in my opinion were the following three.   First, his doctoral dissertation, The Free Negro in North Carolina, 1790-1860, a classic example of scientific history.  It represents history at its most objective, although it was produced under conditions that were hardly conducive to objectivity. He had to do his research under degrading conditions, in segregated libraries.  Indeed a less heroic character might have found the research conditions unendurable.   On one occasion the librarians found it necessary and desirable to put a screen around his work table, to preserve the  technicality of a racially segregated reading room. 

In 1947 Franklin published his general history of African Americans, From Slavery to Freedom.  You should be warned that this is not light reading; it is a tough-minded, old fashioned, no-nonsense text book, with no frills, and very few pictures.  I own several editions of this textbook, which is currently in print, and contains much new material contributed by my good friend Professor Alfred Moss of the University of Maryland.  I once used it in a course at Penn State, and while my students gained much from it, they also found its flood of data overwhelming.   When Franklin visited Penn State, in 1999 to receive an honorary doctorate,  I asked him to sign my copy of the eighth edition, but he declined because of an ongoing dispute with the publisher.  I believe part of the conflict had to do with his refusal to “modernize.”

Among his many books, Franklin told me his favorite was The Militant South (1956). This work was a brilliant masterpiece combining imagination, moral commitment, and stern intellectual discipline.   A great historian is expected, not only to report what has happened, but to theorize as to why things happen.  Franklin asked the question, “What caused the Civil War,” and the answer was unpopular, for he said it was the Southern love of violence.  The South rejoiced in violence as the solution for every problem.  The culture of violence, and a belief that obscene bluster and masculine bravado could solve all problems was the cause of the Civil War.  Franklin did not deny that these attitudes were present in the North, as well, but he felt that in the South they went practically unquestioned.  Before wading into the quicksand of Afghanistan, President Obama would do well to learn something from Franklin’s theory of history.   Any region, any country, any society that believes its own war propaganda and declares itself unbeatable is likely to bring destruction on itself.  Franklin’s later opposition to the Vietnam war, which was no secret, was an extension of ideas presented in  The Militant South.

With respect to African American history, Franklin’s ideas were deeply intellectual; they are often distorted through abbreviation, thus he is often misrepresented, although he made his point repeatedly.  First in “The Dilemma of the American Negro Scholar,” (1963), later in a famous letter to the editors of The New York Review of Books, (September 26, 1991), he said, “African American scholars sought to extend themselves into various fields, they were pushed back into “Negro studies” by white so-called scholars who would not tolerate their presence in non-Negro fields. . . . The Negro scholar can hardly be held responsible for this sad turn of events. . . . seeking diligently to qualify as scholars of authority and having been rebuffed by white scholars in other fields, they retreated to the study of Negroes . . . and that is how most African American scholars went into so-called black studies, not by choice but by the force of white racism that dictated the nature of scholarship, as it did in virtually all other aspects of American life.”

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A View from Duke University

John Hope Franklin, Scholar Who Transformed African-American History, Dies at 94—He is perhaps best known to the public for his work on President Clinton’s 1997 task force on race. But his reputation as a scholar was made in 1947 with the publication of his book, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans, which is still considered the definitive account of the black experience in America.— DukeNews


“My challenge was to weave into the fabric of American history enough of the presence of blacks so that the story of the United States could be told adequately and fairly,” he said when the 50th anniversary of the book was celebrated in 1997. “That was terribly important. . . . Looking back, I can plead guilty of having provided only a sketch of the work I laid out for myself.— DukeNews

But the history of the Negro in America is essentially the story of the strivings of nameless millions who have sought adjustment in a new and sometimes hostile world. . . . I have given considerable attention to the task of tracing the interaction of the Negro to the American environment. It can hardly be denied that the course of American history has been vitally affected by his presence. At the same time it must be admitted that the effect of acculturation on the Negro in the United States has been so marked that today he is as fully American as any member of other ethnic groups that make up the American population.—

Preface From Slavery to FreedomThe Man Who Changed History

Dr. John Hope Franklin in the 3rd march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. in 1965 in a contingent of 30 historians. Photo from Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin

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From the very beginning of my own involvement in the academy, the goal I sought was to be a scholar with credentials as impeccable as I could achieve. At the same time I was determined to be as active as I could in the fight to eradicate the stain of racism that clouded American intellectual and academic life even as it poisoned other aspects of American society. Both challenges were formidable. While I set out to advance my professional career on the basis of the highest standards of scholarship, I also used that scholarship to expose the hypocrisy underlying so much of American social and race relations. It never ceased being a risky feat of tight-rope walking, but I always believed that if I could . . . improve society it was incumbent on me to make the attempt. Thus, in addition to teaching and writing, I served as an expert witness in cases designed to end segregation in education…and I marched in Montgomery to make common cause with those who sought in other ways to destroy racial hatred and bigotry.—

Epilogue to Mirror to AmericaThe Man Who Changed History

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Mirror to America

The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin

By John Hope Franklin

Franklin strove to evade the draft in WWII after being treated shamefully by the draft board when he tried to enlist, and did research for Thurgood Marshall in Brown v. Board of Education. Every aspect of Franklin’s life has been influenced by the institutionalized racism he’s experienced since he was six, when he was forced off a train for sitting in a car reserved for whites. Yet Franklin relates this all in dry, flat prose steeped in minutiae. The larger aspects of his life are glossed over; missing entirely is the emotional response to the ubiquitous racism. Nor does Franklin contextualize his experiences (e.g., in 1945, he refused to move to the back of the bus, but he fails to juxtapose this event with the Rosa Parks incident 10 years later). This disappointing autobiography fails to depict Franklin as the trailblazing iconoclast he was and is.—Publishers Weekly

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Speak My Name

Black Men on Masculinity and the American Dream

Edited by Don Belton

It is rare in America for African-American men to have the opportunity to express who they are, what they think, or how they feel. As the nemesis in the American psyche, they have been silenced by an image that is at once celebrated and maligned. In this first anthology of contemporary African-American men’s writing, black men share their experiences as the revered and reviled of America. Through the voices of some of today’s most prominent African-American writers, including August Wilson, John Edgar Wideman, Derrick Bell, and Walter Mosley, Speak My Name explores the intimate territory behind the myths about black masculinity. These intensely personal essays and stories reveal contemporary black men from the vantage point of their own lives – as men with proper names, distinctive faces, and strong family ties.

Writing about everything from “How it Feels to Be a Problem” to relationships between fathers and sons, these men reveal to us both great courage and in an amazing love for each other and themselves. In a stunning tribute to a centuries-old brotherhood of heroes, black men come together to challenge America finally to see them as individuals, to hear their long-silenced voices—to speak their names.

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This diverse anthology, mainly of original essays, serves as an excellent counterpoint to media stereotypes of black men. Topics include black male images, relations with women, family life and heroism. Some favorites: soft-voiced scholar Robin D.G. Kelley recounts how his newly shaved head scared people; novelist Randall Kenan recalls a mysterious, kind and loving mentor; Quinn Eli faces the tendency of black men to accuse black women of not being supportive; filmmaker Isaac Julien and poet Essex Hemphill debate whether black unity can include gay men; novelist Walter Mosley muses about why his PI protagonist, Easy Rawlins, needs the backup of the remorseless killer Mouse to survive in an oppressive world. Belton, a former reporter for Newsweek who teaches at Macalester College, contributes his own touching effort, which treats the gap between himself and the ghetto-trapped nephew he loves.—Publishers Weekly

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Black masculinity has built and shaped America. It is an old story which our fathers taught us; it is measured by their quiet dignity as well as their fears. What is heroic about Speak My Name is the fact that the contributors are men who decided to become writers. They all made the decision to use words instead of fists. They are writers shaped by the 1960s, like Arthur Flowers, who writes:

And, understand, the 60s were more than street battles or sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, the 60s were about commitment. We cared. We tried. It was important (and do-able) for us to make a better world. It was important to save the race. And it still is.

While our society still attempts to come to grips with the lyrics of tappers, Don Belton’s book is a gift which offers insight into how a few Black men think and feel. For sisters who are still waiting to exhale, it serves as testimony that there are good men in the world and we only have to speak their names.

Belton’s purpose for editing the volume was to “experience a richer sense of community and communion among other Black male writers.” This is evident in the interview conducted by Lewis Edwards of Albert Murray. Here, a young writer sits at the feet of an elder with an acknowledgment of inheritance and a respect for tradition. When Murray (author of The Omni-Americans and Train Whistle Guitar) talks about his friendship with Ralph Ellison during their days at Tuskegee, he conveys to Edwards how two Black men enjoyed reading and developing their intellect.

Speak My Name , according to Belton, is structured in “jazz music’s compositional model of theme and variation, giving my contributors a series of extended solos that develop toward visions of masculinity as a struggle for hope.” Belton divides his book into five sections, although these categories are unnecessary. One can enjoy the entire volume the way one appreciates the old Ornette Coleman “Free Jazz” album; just open the door to the studio and let the brothers play. The music will find its own center.—

Black Issues in Higher Education, March 7, 1996 by E. Ethelbert Miller—FindArticles 

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Race Men

By Hazel V. Carby

Race men is a term of endearment used by blacks to signify those high-achieving African American men who “represent the race,” disproving bigoted notions of black inferiority. In this engaging study, Yale African American Studies Professor Hazel V. Carby seeks to ask “questions about various black masculinities at different historical moments and in different media: literature, photography, film, music, and song.” She does so by discussing the lives and works of myriad types of race men. Frederick Douglass’s uncompromising fight against slavery, W. E. B. Du Bois’s masterful The Souls of Black Folk, Martin Luther King‘s nonviolent struggles, and Malcolm X’s fiery rhetoric articulate the intellectual-political prisms of black activism, for example, while actor Danny Glover represents the dilemma of the black/white sidekick and the fight for a more multidimensional Afro-American image.

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Carby compares Toussaint L’Ouverture, the ex-slave who liberated Haiti from the French in the 19th century, to Trinidadian writer C.L.R. James, whose Marxist interpretation of the Haitian Revolution, the Black Jacobins, unveiled the complexities of colonialism, class, and the sexist aspects of radical black leadership. She discusses jazz icon Miles Davis‘s quest for freedom and his misogynistic persona articulated in his autobiography, then praises science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany’s Motion of Light in Water as “an effective counterpoint to Miles … a magnificent attempt to reject the socially created obstacles separating desire from its material achievement, and in the process demolishing and transcending the limitations of heterosexual norms.”

Indeed, for Carby the major flaw of race men is that their upholding of “the race” does not prominently address the concerns of African American women as well.—Eugene Holley Jr.

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In a discussion of “The Body and Soul of Modernism” Carby reads Nicolas Murray’s nude photographs of Paul Robeson, as well as black male nudes by other European and American artists, and argues that for these modernists the black male body represented “essentialized masculinity.” However, because the black subject was unable to “gaze back at the viewer,” these photographic texts reproduced “the unequal relation of power and subjection of their historical moment” in the early twentieth century. Carby also discusses Robeson’s roles in Eugene O’Neill’s Emperor Jones and All God’s Chillun Got Wings, concluding that, in contrast to the character Robeson portrays in Oscar Micheaux‘s film Body and Soul, O’Neill utilized a “strategy of inwardness” to present racialized emotional conflicts for Robeson’s character, rather than outward resistance and rebellion. Carby’s notes that, with his expanding political consciousness and increased commitment to the advancement of the working classes worldwide in the 1930s, Robeson rejected these types of roles. Unfortunately, how these ideological changes were reflected in Robeson’s racial consciousness (was Robeson a “race man”?) are left unexplored.

Carby describes the authentic and inauthentic nature of the relationship between ex-convict and folk singer Huddie (Leadbelly) Ledbetter and folklorist John Lomax and his son Alan. She believes that this unusual partnership demonstrated an attempt to use “the aesthetics of the folk” to create a “fictive ethnicity of blackness” that allowed the incorporation of potentially threatening black males into the national community. For C. L. R. James the cricket field in England’s colonial territories not only was the space where “ideologies of masculinity” were put to the test, but also was “the battleground out of which nationhood . . . [had to] be forged.” Carby argues that in James’s Beyond the Boundary (1963) and the novel Minty Alley (1936), “intellectual practice, racial politics, and cricket were . . . unquestioningly imagined within a discourse of autonomous, patriarchal masculinity.” In Black Jacobins(1938) James posits the existence of a “revolutionary black manhood that, both individually and collectively, gives birth to an independent black nation state.”—

African American Review, Fall, 2000 by V.P. Franklin, FindArticles

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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posted 10 April 2009




Home  Wilson Jeremiah Moses Table  Education & History

Related files: John Hope Franklin  On the Passing of Asa Hilliard  Benjamin Quarles Bio   Historiography and African Americans: Benjamin Quarles

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