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Challenging the color line and how history is taught

Mirror to America
By John Hope Franklin
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 401 pp., $25

One of America's most prominent, and revered, living historians, John Hope Franklin, at the age of 90, has drawn aside the veil of a rich and extraordinary life that spans much of the twentieth century, from his birth in the all-black town of Rentiesville, Okla., in 1915 through the strenuous challenge of presiding over President Clinton's advisory board to the President's Initiative on Race when he was in his early 80s.

The author of the groundbreaking and best-selling history of African-Americans in 1947, ''From Slavery to Freedom," Franklin could have easily rested upon his academic laurels, but he was a public intellectual long before the term became fashionable. ''Mirror to America" charts his long march, his burning ambition ''to be so dedicated a scholar and teacher that the entire profession, indeed the wider world, would take notice." This is not an intimate, tell-all autobiography; rather, it is constructed around carefully selected, sharply etched moments -- designed, in part, to record the ways he experienced and did battle with a ''racial climate that was stifling to my senses and damaging to my emotional health and social well-being."

Commanding, dignified, and somewhat reserved in his public appearances, Franklin reveals other aspects of his personality in ''Mirror to America": steel-willed, combative, even mischievous in his responses to racist assaults upon his personality. Early chapters recount his childhood in Rentiesville, a community sharply divided by religious and political factionalism, and the relocation of his parents and older brother and sister to Tulsa four years after the infamous race riot of 1921 that left countless African-Americans dead and destroyed more than 1,400 African-American homes and businesses. He vividly recalls an incident from those years. As a 12-year-old, newly minted Boy Scout, eager to perform his duties, he noticed an elderly, visually impaired white woman trying to cross a busy street and rushed to offer his assistance. Halfway across the street she asked him about his racial origins: ''When I replied that I was Negro, she shook my arm loose, commanding me to take my filthy hands off her." Franklin's response? ''I left her stranded in the middle of traffic. I cannot say that I was deeply hurt by the experience." He recalls another moment during his senior year in high school, when he and several friends were watching a parade in downtown Tulsa: ''A white woman asked me to move so that she and her party could have our spots. When we declined, she told us that she was from Texas, where they did not tolerate such insubordination from blacks. She expressed the hope that someday we would visit Texas. There, she assured us, she would have had the pleasure of teaching us our proper place. We had no desire to visit Texas." This wry and acerbic commentary underscores the mental toughness and spiritual resilience that Franklin carried with him as he ventured into Depression-era America.

As an undergraduate student leader at Fisk University, Franklin was deeply and passionately involved in the aftermath of the 1933 lynching of black teenager Cordie Cheek. Falsely accused of rape and arrested, Cheek was then freed on the basis of the flimsy evidence against him, seized by a mob, and brutally murdered in Maury County, Tenn. Along with other Fisk students, Franklin planned to confront President Franklin D. Roosevelt during a visit to Nashville and petition him to confront the barbaric practice of lynching. Outmaneuvered by the president of Fisk, Franklin did not succeed in his mission, but the experience marked the beginning of his lifetime commitment to the struggle for civil rights. At the same time, his encounter with white Fisk University history professor Theodore Currier had a decisive impact upon his decision to become a historian and apply to Harvard for graduate studies -- from which he received his doctorate in 1941. From that point on, virtually every step he took in his career opened up new terrain for African-Americans.

During World War II, Franklin aligned himself with the ''Double V" campaign in the black community -- victory over Nazism abroad and racism at home -- and challenged the racial practices of his draft board. While teaching at North Carolina College for Negroes (later renamed North Carolina Central University) in 1947, he refused to move from the seats reserved for whites on a segregated city bus, standing his ground to the shouted support of the black passengers at the rear -- years before the zeitgeist appeared in the form of Rosa Parks. In the early 1950s he worked with Thurgood Marshall and others to lay the groundwork for Brown v. Board of Education and was the principal speaker at the 90th birthday of the venerable scholar and activist W.E.B. DuBois at a time when the anticommunist crusade of McCarthyite America had made DuBois a virtual pariah. During the same decade, Franklin broke another glass ceiling when he joined the faculty of Brooklyn College as chair of the history department -- the first African-American in the country to be given such a position. And so it went: honor after honor, national and international appointments and commissions, increasingly prestigious faculty positions -- even an orchid named after him, Phalaenopsis John Hope Franklin. Franklin conveys these experiences with characteristic modesty and good humor, interspersing public events with glimpses of his private life with his wife, Aurelia; his son, Whit; and family and friends.

It would be easy enough to cast a life of such extraordinary achievements into the triumphant narrative of upward ascent that has been one of the impulses of African-American autobiography. Franklin, however, has other intentions. On the one hand, ''Mirror to America" is about the mastery of a discipline -- not just the field of history, but the discipline required of African-Americans in the 20th century -- and, undoubtedly, the 21st, too. African-American life, another famous Oklahoman, the celebrated novelist Ralph Ellison, observed in his essay ''The World and the Jug," is itself a discipline deeply rooted in ''an American Negro tradition which teaches one to deflect racial provocation and to master and contain pain: Being a Negro American involves a willed . . . affirmation of self against all outside pressures."

At the same time, Franklin is not inclined to rest upon his considerable laurels. In ''Mirror to America" he reflects upon his life's journey as a way of recounting not only how far he has traveled, but also how far America has transformed itself as it continues to grapple with the problem of the color line -- and how much further it still has to go.

James A. Miller is a professor of English and American studies and director of Africana studies at the George Washington University.

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