Franklin: Contemporary discussions of race should be rooted in history

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

For a man who has dedicated his life to researching, writing and teaching about race in America, John Hope Franklin says he seldom stops to note a person’s skin color.

“I myself, I go for a long time without even thinking about race,” said the celebrated historian, chair of President Bill Clinton’s Presidential Initiative on Race and winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. “I will forget that you’re not what I am or that I’m not what you are. I’ve never even thought about it. It doesn’t even bother me.”

In an interview with The Herald prior to his lecture last night, Franklin, sharp and spry for a man turning 90 this January, discarded conventional wisdom about both iconic American historical figures and contemporary cultural identities.

“We would be betraying the study of history if we didn’t try to look at it from all sides and try to weigh and determine what’s reasonable and what’s not,” he said.

Franklin situated the work of Brown’s Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice within the context of his own lifelong efforts to spark dialogue about race. Among these efforts was his service as chair of Clinton’s initiative, a project Slavery and Justice Committee Chair Professor James Campbell has called a model for Brown’s own institutional examination of its past. Formed in June 1997, the initiative presented Clinton with a report in September 1998.

Clinton immediately set to work implementing the report’s suggestions by inviting influential groups such as state attorneys general, businesspeople and religious leaders to the White House to discuss race and discrimination in contemporary America, Franklin told The Herald.

“(Clinton) wanted us to start a dialogue on race in which people could reasonably talk about it and try to reach some understanding on what was going on and what had gone on,” Franklin said.

And just like the Slavery and Justice Committee, the initiative garnered media attention from the start. Franklin said the project attracted “severe criticism” from a general public and national media confused about the initiative’s purpose and skeptical about dwelling on issues of race.

“That was dismaying and discouraging,” Franklin recalled, adding that the experience taught him a powerful lesson about the way the media shapes public opinion.

“When you’re dealing with an uninformed public, but a public that has its own mind about things, that has its mind made up, I really am not certain what we can do except to gather information and share it,” Franklin said. “But sharing becomes a problem because you don’t have the means of distributing your findings.”

Franklin said he was confident Brown’s Slavery and Justice Committee would encounter less hostility than the National Initiative on Race. “You have the advantage of being at an institution that is committed to open discussion whatever the findings are,” he said. “I’m not sure that the nation is that way. I’m not sure if the country as a whole is as fortunate as a university in being able to express itself and let its constituency know where it stands. … You’ve only got Brown graduates to worry about, whereas we had the general public to worry about. I wouldn’t wish that on you.”

For Franklin, historical inquiry adds necessary depth to contemporary discussions on race and discrimination by informing the general public about the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.

“It’s amazing what people don’t know about our history and the whole question of race,” Franklin said. “So we have to bring them just plain information, to say nothing of perspective and a view or some position which we would think would be admirable or feasible or desirable.”

Franklin has often been called a revisionist historian. His first book, “The Free Negro in North Carolina, 1790-1860,” originally published in 1943, was based on groundbreaking research on free blacks living in the pre-Civil War South, a group that had previously been ignored. And Franklin has been attacked for complicating the legacies of American heroes such as Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln by candidly quoting their writings about the superiority of the white race.

“We need to go back and look at these people,” Franklin argued. “Because if the great icons are exempt from examination, and they’ve been the great influences, we are sort of left hanging there in the wind.”

Another piece of accepted history Franklin questions is the notion that there are uniquely white and black “cultures” within the United States, as opposed to uniquely white and black experiences. Because Franklin maintains that Americans of different races have more in common than they realize, he is skeptical of attempts to tackle the issue of race in homogenous settings.

“I don’t believe you can get anywhere doing it separately – you’ve got to have communication,” he said.

Franklin continued, “I have a feeling that this difference in cultures is overdrawn, overblown sometimes. How different is my culture from yours? Well, there’s food. Black food is Southern food. … Or dress? What is dress? Most people wear clothes like I wear, like you wear, like we all wear. And when they’re not wearing that, they’re wearing a costume. An African dashiki is a costume in this country. Religion. What’s religion? Blacks didn’t have any Christianity – they got it from whites.”

More controversially, Franklin argued that American blacks might be willing to give up some of their group cultural identity in exchange for complete tolerance. “Blacks have been lonely and have tried to create a culture,” he said. “Kwanzaa – that was just created whole cloth. It’s so contrived. … There’s more of a culture in common that blacks and whites have. Unless there’s a deliberate effort to create a separate culture.”