Commentary: Reading Franklin's book would honor his memory

The Miami HeraldMarch 31, 2009 

Dr. John Hope Franklin died of congestive heart failure on Wednesday at the age of 94.

BET marked his passing with a criminally brief obituary on its website, bet.com. There followed a posting on the message board from someone called "fefe" who asked: "Was this guy related to Areatha Franklin?"

For the record, no. "This guy" was not known to be related to Aretha Franklin. Nor, for that matter, to Melvin Franklin, Bonnie Franklin, Benjamin Franklin or Franklin Delano Roosevelt. John Hope Franklin, born in 1915 when Woodrow Wilson was president and America was still two years from entering World War I, was one of the deans of American history and the preeminent chronicler of the African-American story. Indeed, his 1947 book, From Slavery to Freedom, now in its eighth edition, is regarded as the seminal text in African-American studies.

The angel of patience and caution that perches on my right shoulder tells me I should not make too much of the callow question "fefe" poses. For all I know, this person is 12 years old or not from this country. And even if he or she is 47 and born in Dallas, it's not as if even a celebrated historian will ever be a household name. Besides, it's unfair to extrapolate from one individual's ignorance some sweeping comment upon the nation as a whole.

To which the devil of fed-up-to-here that perches on my left shoulder responds: well, that's just too darn bad.

And I'm sorry, but this time, I'm listening to the devil.

Because "fefe's" question suggests to me not simply ignorance of a historian, but ignorance of history, evidence of the blithe dismissiveness with which a profoundly unserious nation treats its story in general and the African-American component of that story in particular. But see, history is context. You cannot understand the world as it is unless you understand the world as it was.

Take it from me. I have too often had the sobering experience, while debating some aspect of modern African-American life, of using basic history to provide context, to explain how this happened, which led to that, which impacted the other thing – only to realize the person had not the faintest clue what I was talking about. At which point, of course, the conversation becomes pointless, like trying to discuss anti-Semitism with someone who cannot define Kristallnacht.

It is always frustrating when you encounter that ignorance of African America's story, but never more so than when you find it among African American people, as on a website for a company whose first name is "Black."

I was debating what I should say today to honor Dr. Franklin. I was going to talk about his chairmanship of President Bill Clinton's commission on race, his winning the presidential medal of freedom, the time I got to interview him, years ago. It occurs to me, though, that perhaps the most fitting thing I can do to honor Dr. Franklin is implore you to read and understand the story to which he dedicated his life.

You should read From Slavery to Freedom, of course. And his 2005 autobiography, Mirror to America. But don't stop there. Read Lerone Bennett's lyrical, elegiac Before The Mayflower, the other greatest book on African-American history. Read Douglas Blackmon's revelatory Slavery by Another Name and Jervis Anderson's gossipy recounting of the renaissance years, This Was Harlem. Read Leon F. Litwack's Been in the Storm So Long and his heart-breaking Trouble in Mind.

Read this story. Or else, sit back and watch the story die, then scratch your head and have not a blessed clue how the world got this way.

A story needs two things to live: mouths to tell it and ears to hear.

For longer than most of us have been alive, John Hope Franklin kept his part of that bargain. The best way to honor him would be if we, at last, kept ours.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.

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