John Hope Franklin on the role of a historian in confronting social injustice

ProfessorJohn Hope FranklinA highly respected African-American historian, John Hope Franklin passed away in 2009. His life and work is very thought-provoking as to the debate over what roles historians should play in public life.

John Hope Franklin, Scholar and Witness‘ (New York Times, 29 March 2009)

Notable extracts (bold emphasis are mine):

Dr. Franklin was first and foremost a major historian, whose landmark book, “From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans,” first published in 1947, was a comprehensive survey that sold more than three million copies. The book also permanently altered the ways in which the American narrative was studied. “What distinguishes his history or historiography is that he, like few other historians, wrote a book that transformed the way we understand a major social phenomenon,” said David Levering Lewis, the New York University historian, who like Dr. Franklin studied under Theodore Currier at Fisk University in Nashville.

What makes good history?  What makes a good historian?  According to Rankian paradigm, a historian should approach his sources without any preconceived assumptions, or any preconceived bias.  One can delineate from that there should be a clear separation between the professional responsibilities of a historian and his/her personal politics.  Furthermore, the role of a historian should, in the words of Ranke, be to present the past as it was.  Many historians seem to delineate from that a good history then is this authoritative, well-researched book filled with facts.  Cold, dry facts.  Yet, as historians like John Hope Franklin seems to show, a great historian needs to do more.  A good historian must take the pain to communicate with the public.  And where one’s research topic (e.g slavery) has direct bearings on contemporary politics (e.g. civil rights), then a great historian must help to transform public understanding of the past to effect changes in the public.

I also find what Andrew Yarrow (New York Times Correspondent) said very illuminating.  Again, emphasis are mine.

Dr. Franklin often argued that historians had an important role in shaping policy, and no example was more personally salient than his experience with Thurgood Marshall’s team of lawyers as they worked to strike down segregation in the landmark 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education. As he recalled in a 1974 lecture, “Using the findings of the historians, the lawyers argued that the history of segregation laws reveals that their main purpose was to organize the community upon the basis of a superior white and an inferior Negro caste.”

Students of the history war debate in Australia between Henry Reynolds and Keith Windschuttle should see parallels between Franklin and Reynolds.  Both are, in their own right, excellent empiricist historian.  But both envisioned their responsibilities beyond the confines of the university lecture theatres.  Both saw important connections between past and present that need to be engaged.  This connection is echoed by E.H. Carr, who describes a neverending dialogue between the past and present.

Other notable quotes from John Hope Franklin.

On being an historian and an activist (bold emphasis are mine):

The writing of history reflects the interests, predilections, and even prejudices of a given generation. This means that at the present time there is an urgent need to re-examine our past in terms of our present outlook.” African-American Biography, Vol. 2

“One might argue the historian is the conscience of the nation, if honesty and consistency are factors that nurture the conscience.” Race and History: Selected Essays, 1938-1988

“I think knowing one’s history leads one to act in a more enlightened fashion. I can not imagine how knowing one’s history would not urge one to be an activist.” Emerge March 1994

“I want to be out there on the firing line, helping, directing or doing something to try to make this a better world, a better place to live.” Associated Press, October 2005


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Filed under Nature of History, Role of History

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