Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

Paradigms, Politic, and Patriarchy in the Making of a Black History: Reflections on from Slavery to Freedom

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

Paradigms, Politic, and Patriarchy in the Making of a Black History: Reflections on from Slavery to Freedom

Article excerpt

Darlene Clark Hine [*]

"Every generation has the opportunity to write its own history, and indeed it is obliged to do so. Only in that way can it provide its contemporaries with the materials vital to understanding the present and to planning strategies for coping with the future. Only in that way can it fulfil its obligation to pass on to posterity the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of the past, which, after all, give substance and direction for the continuity of civilization." John Hope Franklin.

Across the decades of the twentieth century four African American male historians, Carter G. Woodson, W.E.B. Du Bois, Benjamin Quarles, and John Hope Franklin substantially laid the foundation for the Black past of American history. As representatives of the pioneering generations of Black historians they established the periods or dominant paradigms, identified the major personalities, significant issues, themes, and questions. As is the case in any vital area of intellectual inquiry, occasional historiographical debates have erupted and receded within the field. In the last few decades, however, my generation of Black feminist historians has posed a sustained challenge to traditional masculinist approaches to and interpretations of Black history. One of the most significant functions of history is to create legitimacy through tradition, yet paradoxically today, all progressive Black historians agree that there is an overarching need for new sytheses and even greater dissemination of Black history to genera l audiences. The new periodization would focus on the four major themes in African American history: Slavery and emancipation, migration, urbanization, and the changing status of Black women.

John Hope Franklin's From Slavery to Freedom [FSF] is arguably the bible of Black history. In its pages the author employs the power of the word to make visible the invisible and to make right the racist wrong. For fifty years this text has given legitimacy to, and served as an anchor for, the academic study of African Americans. A close reading of the first seven editions of FSF reveal interesting additions and deletions of chapers and topics in response to specific social and political forces across the decades as well as to new findings and monographs. For the most part, however, its original methodological approach, organizational structure and interpretative framework remain the same. From Slavery to Freedom is organized in accordance with the watershed political and economic events in American history. It records the story ofAfrican Americans using the Civil War--end of slavery--as the paradigmatic "before" and "after." To be sure, Franklin avoids many, but not all, of the analytic pitfalls that often accompany conceptualizing history along the grid of cataclysmic events. On the whole, the book successfully sustains nuance, ambuiguity, and appreciates the evolution of Black experiences and operations of agency. It is beautifully written, with integrity and conviction. It achieves an enviable balance between race advocacy and scholarly detachment.

From Slavery to Freedom has as its major agenda the fitting of African Americans into the mainstream currents of American history. In the preface to the first edition, Franklin argued that "It would have been impossible to trace the history of the Negro in America without remaining sensitive to the main currents in the emergence of American civilization." In departing from the Woodsonian emphasis on collecting documents and amassing mountains of facts, Franklin candidly suggested that "too frequently the Negro's survival in America has depended on this capacity to adjust-- indeed, to accommodate himself to the dominant culture...."

But Franklin refused to write a history of victims. "The history of the Negro in America is essentially a story of the striving of the nameless millions who have sought adjustment in a new and sometimes hostile world. This work is, therefore, a history of the Negro people, with a proper consideration for anonymous as well as outstanding people." In the preface to the third edition, published in 1966, Franklin added this disclaimer. "I feel constained to add that even the revolutionary developments of the last decade should not obscure the fact that this is essentially a history and not a contemporary tract." By this edition he drops the Egypt chapter, "A Cradle of Civilization." The new first chapter is entitled, "The Land of Their Fathers." By the seventh edition, published in the mid 1990s, the opening chapter becomes less androcentric and more gender neutral. It is retitled, "Land of Their Ancestors." The point to underscore here is that From Slavery to Freedom is not a static text. Franklin, and now in c ollaboration with Alfred Moss, updates its content and in so doing demonstrates effectively the incompleteness of history. This explains, in part, the remarkable resilience of this book. The book has evolved and is as much a historical document and artifact as it is a history of our civilization.

In the more recent editions of From Slavery to Freedom Franklin and Moss pay increased attention to the historical roles and contributions of African American women. They have added many more photographs of Black women and have included boxes that contain documents written by Black women such as the last will and testament of Mary McLeod Bethune. Still there is much more to be done before the book achieves a sophisticated gendered analysis. It is well to highlight some of the work of the present generation of Black women historians that will serve as the basis for a new synthesis of the field. But first I begin with a quote of historian Mary Frances Berry who in 1982 declared, "... practically no attention has been given to the distinct experiences of Black women in the education provided in our colleges and university ... Black historians and others who focus on Afro-American history are little better than other scholars on this issue." (p. xv) Some of Us Are Brave. She added, "... perhaps Black women's studies will help Black women and men understand more about the way in which the Black community is oppressed. (p. xvii)

A great deal of the history of black women has been uncovered by historians including Deborah Gray White's research into Black women in the plantation South, Wilma King's look at the lives of enslaved children, by Brenda Stevenson's inquiries into enslaved families and Elizabeth Clark-Lewis's study of domestic workers in Washington, D.C. Elsa Barkley Brown has shed new light on the political activities of Black women during Reconstruction and Rosalyn Terborg-Penn has reshaped our thinking about the suffrage movement. Stephanie Shaw has investigated Black professional women at the end of the nineteenth century, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham has written about Black women and religion, and Tera Hunter has written about southern Black women's lives and labors. Already Jacqueline Rouse and Nell Irvin Painter have written, and Barbara Ransby and Paula Giddings will soon publish, important new biographies of Black women leaders.

In an address at the 1983 state-of-the-art of Black History conference, Franklin took the long view in defending the scholarship of his generation. Their works departed from an emphasis on achievements and instead concentrated on, as he explained "the interactions of blacks with whites, and more to the frequent antagonisms than to the rare moment of genuine cooperation." He asserted that they "tended to see Afro-American history in larger context, insisting that any event that affected the status of Afro-Americans was a part of Afro-American history even if no Afro-Americans were directly involved."

Perhaps, smarting from the criticism of the more militant members of the generation of the 1960s and 1970s who disapproved the preoccupation of his generation of scholars with "mainstream history," Franklin declared that the historians of his generation "were compelled by circumstances to fight for the integration of Afro-American history into the mainstream of the nation's history. Their fight to integrate Afro-American history into the mainstream was a part of the fight by Afro-American students to break into the graduate departments of history in every predominantly white university in the southern states and in very many such institutions outside of the South." He added that they also did so in order to support their argument that Afro-American history should be recognized as a centerpiece of the history of the United States.

Beginning in the 1980s historians of Black women entered the fray. Just as Franklin's generation struggled to make a space for Black history, Black women historians have had to do the same, making demands that history departments actively provide graduate fellowships and training opportunities to Black men and women, offer courses in Black women's history, and employ black women historians. The battles still rage to make the larger profession, and its institutions--journals and annual conventions and prizes--acknowledge and recognize the new scholarship on Black women. This high quality work is too often uncited by more traditional or mainstream historians, and even some white women historians and black men in the profession ignore or dismiss it. Black women's history is the newest sub-field within African American history. In spite of two decades of impressive gains it is still struggling for a secure foothold in the profession and a place in the university curriculum. Some of us believe that Black women's history should be recognized as a centerpiece of the history of African America.

Without belaboring the point, suffice it to say that to fit Black women into From Slavery to Freedom would require a major overhaul of the authors' method, organizadon, and interpretation. It would require the marriage of race and gender, and the resuscitation of class as analytical categories. Then we would be able to re-construct, re-examine, and to rewrite all of American history and render a more accurate portrait of our civilization. This would be a gigantic task of monumental complexity. Thus, I am not suggesting that John Hope Franklin take on all of this revisioning. It is work befitting the next generation of Black historians.

Having said this, I welcome the opportunity to acknowledge that From Slavery to Freedom, published fifty years ago as a trade book, continues to serve as a textbook in countless college classrooms, a reference work for millions of specialists and non-specialists, and provides a life raft of lectures for over burdened African American history professors everywhere.

The book and John Hope Franklin justifiably deserve iconic status in the world of Black words. Franklin once observed, "If one believes in the power of his own words and in the words of others, one must also hope and believe that the world will be a better place by our having spoken or written those words." Our world is indeed a better place because fifty years ago John Hope Franklin wrote From Slavery to Freedom. Thank you, John Hope.

(*.) Darlene Clark Hine is John A. Hannah Professor of History at Michigan State University.

Author Advanced search


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.