Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin

By Marotta, Gary | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, January 2007 | Go to article overview

Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin


Marotta, Gary, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


John Hope Franklin, Mirror To America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005, xi, 401 pp. Acknowledgements, photographs, index. Cloth $25.

John Hope Franklin, the greatest living senior scholar of American history, must be wryly alert to the resonant meaning of the subtitle of his book, "The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin." Franklin was named in honor of the eminent African American educator, John Hope, and he also shares the surname of the iconic founding father, Benjamin Franklin, whose Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is addressed to "Dear Son," by which he meant the youth of America Similarly, John Hope Franklin dedicates his autobiography "To all my students." Both Franklins are concerned with the future of America, notably its youth. Both autobiographies are didactic, in the tradition of exemplar history: They are American success stories, about "making it." But Mirror to America is about more than that.

The two autobiographies stand in sharp contrast to the alienation and condescension contained in the most brilliant American autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams. The scion of U.S. presidents, Adams was a patrician elitist, estranged from the land of the patriarchs. Neither of the Franklins is estranged, both subscribe to democratic, egalitarian principles. But whereas Benjamin is self-satisfied, even congratulatory, John Hope, like Adams, is critical of the sordid history of America, but for different reasons. Unlike Benjamin Franklin or Henry Adams, just beneath the surface of John Hope Franklin's graceful scholarly prose is a controlled rage and a fiery critique. In this regard, his autobiography is a stunning addition to a powerful genre in American social thought, rooted in the great slave and neo-slave narratives and including the autobiographies of Frederick Douglas, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. DuBois, James Weldon Johnson, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Albert Murray, Malcolm X, Maya Angelou, and, as well, the fictional Miss Jane Pittman.

John Hope Franklin was born in 1915, and grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the son of college educated but struggling Methodist parents, Buck Franklin, a lawyer, and Mollie, a teacher. The Tulsa race riot of 1921 destroyed the African American community and left the Franklin family destitute economically; it did not destroy their "high moral standards." The young Franklin graduated valedictorian from Booker T. Washington High School in 1931, the same year that Daniel Boorstin, the future encyclopedic historian and head of the Library of Congress, graduated valedictorian from Central High School, also in Tulsa. Segregated schools kept them apart.

Franklin matriculated at Fisk University, where he encountered Professor Ted Currier who inspired him and prepared him well to study history. The three heroes in Franklin's life are his parents and Professor Currier, a white scholar, dedicated to Fisk; he was "my dearest friend," says Franklin. Franklin went on to excel at Harvard, completing his M.A. under Arthur Schlesinger Sr. and his Ph.D. under Paul H. Buck. He worked his way through college and graduate school. At Harvard, the racism he experienced was the anti-Semitism aimed at Oscar Handlin, a fellow student who Franklin dared to nominate for president of the Henry Adams Club. Handlin later conducted pioneering work in American immigration and social history, won a Pulitzer Prize, and became the Carl M. Loeb University Professor at Harvard University.

While in Cambridge, Franklin married his sweetheart from Fisk, Aurelia Whittington. Theirs would be a close, enduring relationship. She supported and encouraged him throughout his career, which started at historically black colleges including Fisk, St. Augustine College, North Carolina College, and Howard University, regarded, says Franklin, as the '"final"' institution for black scholars. During these years, as throughout hi's life, Franklin worked with an intense self-discipline, mastering archives, revising racist history, and repositioning African American history as integral and central to the understanding of American history. …

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