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. …

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